Whenever I read a book by a musician, groupie, rock critic, producer, record mogul or roadie, on the end pages I keep a running tally of the songs I'm aching to download when the reading is done. Most times, the longer the list, the better the book.
Mo' Meta Blues is the title of a new memoir from Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, the thoughtful and charismatic drummer for the hip-hop/neo-soul band the Roots. He's also the musical director of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and an irrepressible presence on Twitter, where he has more than 2.5 million followers.
If you've seen Thompson, you probably haven't forgotten him. He describes himself in his memoir as "a peculiar-looking 6-foot-2 walking Afro," which isn't far-off. There's something intense yet beatific about him. He'd probably groan at the comparison, but visually he's hip-hop's Jerry Garcia. He presides.
Mo' Meta Blues — the title is a nod toward Spike Lee's drama Mo' Meta Blues (1990), which starred Denzel Washington as a jazz trumpeter — is a busy thicket of musical geekery. It's a proper memoir in the sense that it eventually gets his story told, all 42 years of it thus far. But it's more about the music that's pricked up his ears, the stuff that's made him the tastemaker that he is. The end pages on my copy are crammed with song titles; they resemble the back of a popular girl's senior yearbook.
I suspect I'm going to be listening to more Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, the Isley Brothers, Rufus, Public Enemy and D'Angelo than I have for a long time. Thompson grew up in Philadelphia. His father was a pioneering doo-wop singer who later toured on the oldies circuit. His mother was a singer and dancer who ran a clothing store. The whole family sometimes went on tour, like a groovier version of the Partridge Family. From a young age, he sat behind the drums.
At home he was an indoor kid, obsessed with vinyl. Other kids played dress-up or house. "I played record store," he says. He collected back issues of Rolling Stone and made wallpaper out of the Robert Risko drawings that accompanied the lead reviews.
To this day, when he is making a new Roots record, he admits, "I write the review I think the album will receive and lay out the page, just like it's a Rolling Stone page from when I was 10 or 11." This is among the reasons Thompson and his book are so likable. He thinks and sounds the way you think you'd like to think and sound if you were a rock star: funny, self-deprecating, a bit awe-struck.