I was looking forward to reading Questlove’s “Mo’ Meta Blues” memoir since I first heard about it. I have been a huge Roots fan ever since I first caught them doing a joint-headliner show with Goodie Mob in the late ’90s. I think I’ve seen them nine times or something like that. Up until about 20 months ago I worked for Powell’s Books. I worked there for over 18 years. During that entire time I never needed to use the library, because Powell’s allows their employees to check out books, so either I would buy a book outright with the employee discount, or I would simply check out a title if I didn’t feel as committed. When “Mo Meta’ Blues” dropped I didn’t necessarily want to buy it, and since I no longer had the option of checking the book out through Powell’s, I realized it was time to once again become a library member. The last time I had used the Multnomah County library system was around 20 years ago, and even that visit was an isolated one. I had to be issued a new card at that visit, because it had been so long since I had been to the library before then. A whole new library card system had emerged in the meantime. No doubt a result of going to college out of town, and not using the library during my time off from school when I was in Portland.
Back when I used the library, there were CDs (And they still had vinyl. In fact, I was at the historic sale where they sold off 90% of their vinyl collection.), but not DVDs, and certainly no internet or e-readers. The library is an entirely different beast these days than it was in the eighties, when I was last a frequent user. I got my new library card and promptly put in my hold for a copy of “Mo’ Meta Blues.” I then learned the hard way that putting a popular new title on hold in the library can be a process that requires a great deal of patience, as I did not receive notice from the library that the book was available for me until five months later. It had been decades since I had been under a library deadline, so I really felt pressure to make sure I made reading the book a priority in the twenty-one days I had available to me. I didn’t have any problem getting into it, and since I have been sick, it has been fine to sit and spend hours making my way through the book, which I have done in just a few days.
I have admired Questlove as a musician, producer, writer and music aficionado for a long time. I would like to add “DJ,” to that list, but that is more in theory, as I have only seen him DJ twice, and neither time was inspirational. The first time was at the now-closed Adidas original store in Portland where he was tag-teaming with Maseo from De La Soul all night. I was waiting in line outside the store when their SUV pulled up. It was like a rap music video; the doors of the SUV opened and billows of marijuana smoke poured out onto the street as the two hiphop legends emerged. Such was the force and volume of the smoke that I felt it wash over me, and lift me up with it, even dozens of feet away. Contact high for real. During their performance the DJs seemed pretty checked out, switching off frequently to take turns chain-smoking marijuana in the broom closet behind the DJ booth, which was pretty obvious to anyone in the area. They really seemed to be playing it safe with the (pretty lame) crowd that had come to see them at Adidas Originals, starting with a bunch of predictable hiphop classics, and then ’80s hits. I actually left before it was over since the selections were so predictable and unaffecting. The second time I saw him DJ Questlove was playing soul and funk on serato at a Portland bar, but the sound system was so crappy; it sounded like tinny ear shred with no bass or life, so I had to leave before too long. Anjali was with me both times, and I actually dragged her to see the Roots live once, but she was so bored (Anjali claims she was not bored at all, but merely tired, but I know around that time she begged us to leave a Common performance early.) she managed to fall asleep at the back of the Roseland Theater even while I was jumping around and loving the show near the front.
The sad thing is that I have missed the Roots the last couple opportunities I have had. That never used to happen. One of those times I realized that I wanted to go to the show after it was sold out. I thought about trying to find a ticket on the sidewalk, but didn’t have it in me. I later found out that a friend had a free extra ticket but never thought of me as someone that would be interested, so the ticket went unused. Sigh.
I think of Questlove as a man who is super thorough, but his memoir feels less than thorough. I feel like many things could have been talked about at much greater length and depth. A lot seems skimmed over, barely touched on, or half mentioned in hindsight. Even considering the standards set by the book, as the Roots career goes on, it seems like we are getting less and less of a look in. I feel like several of their later albums are barely mentioned in passing, with no time spent detailing their creation. For a band that toured so much, I barely get a sense of their life on the road, or even any particular shows. Questlove mentions at one point towards the end of the book that he has been a DJ since he was 11-years-old, but it is like a last minute aside, not something that is explored in the book as he narrates his life. Who knows how much was cut out, as I feel like the story of Questlove and the Roots could have used at least a couple hundred more pages. I feel like I have watched or read different interviews with Questlove where I have gotten more of a sense of him than after reading a 274 page book.
He talks some about the music he grew up with and what inspired him, but given that I am a DJ and music nerd, I could have used a lot more of it.
He doesn’t go into his recording or production techniques at all, so you will be very disappointed if you are looking for that sort of information.
One thing that is central to Questlove’s concept of the book is that it is not just a straightforward memoir, which is where the “Meta” comes in. Richard Nichols, the Root’s comanager weighs in throughout the narrative, to undermine (or sometimes support) Questlove’s memories of particular periods in the band’s history. I thought the narrative benefited from that, but more towards the end when “Rich” writes footnotes, and not in the beginning where there are confusing long passages in different fonts representing Questlove’s and Rich going back and forth. Then there are the pages that are allegedly messages between cowriter Ben Greenman and editor Ben Greenberg discussing the unique form that the memoir is taking. I can see that it is really important to Questlove for the book to be something more than “just” a memoir, but I find that the “Meta” doesn’t really do anything for me, and actually detracts from the work over all. I guess a book about the Roots that is pretentious, and reaches, and is somewhat less than successful, is appropriate.
I think I got a lot more out of this epic interview that Nardwuar did with Questlove.
Because of how much I like the Roots, and because of how much a sense of Questlove I have from his interviews and his writings, I was able to follow the narrative with interest, but if you didn’t already have a love and appreciation for Questlove I’m not sure how much you would get out of this book. I’m glad I read it, but I wish it was much more substantial and thorough than it is.