Ever wondered what a history book would be like if a famous hip-hop artist wrote it? Well, with his recent memoir Mo’ Beta Blues, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer and bandleader of hip-hop’s everlasting Roots crew, answers that question via a collection of stories that serves as a music guide as well as an autobiography. By following the chronology of music—mainly Black music—through time, Quest attaches his life experiences to songs in such a way that it seems like he went to a record store and started digging through the bins, and whatever memory he attached to the records he pulled is the memory he decided to tell.
The book’s setup—its style, cover design and general approach—is very jazzy, with multiple breaks within chapters, several dialogues going on at once and even footnotes from the Roots’ longtime manager, Rich Nichols, sprinkled throughout. In short, the tone is casual and comical, almost improvisational.
With famed close relationships with some of the biggest names in music, Thompson gives insight into how masterpieces like D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Common’s Electric Circus were put together, making this fascinating work a must-have for any music fan. He even lets us in on Erykah Badu’s magic, of which he says, “Raphael Saadiq and I had an affectionate joke about her: never look her in the eye for more than five seconds, because her brain will be your brain.”
What makes Questo’s perspective so unique is that he captures interior stories from the inside. By building material off of interactions within his working relationships with fellow musicians, Questo lays out an oral history of funk, soul, hip-hop and especially neo-soul. But his reminiscing doesn’t read like a mere recounting of events. Rather, he explains evolution and the reasons why these genres changed the way they did.
His friendship with renowned producer J Dilla is another highlight of the book. Thompson painfully recounts his discovery of Dilla’s imminent death and takes the reader through his grieving stages. Thompson also illuminates Scott Storch’s (former keyboard player for The Roots) musical talents. Storch’s legacy having been tainted by “non-music related circumstances,” Questlove importantly remembers the contributions Storch made to hip-hop, as well as his role in saving The Roots’ career under Jimmy Iovine.
Quest’s analysis of Kanye West’s emergence and rise is also intriguing, as Thompson expresses what seems like envy in saying, “When I heard “All Falls Down”…. ‘Damn,’ I thought to myself. ‘I should have made that song.’” He then goes into how the group dealt with the changing tide in hip-hop around in the mid-2000s, writing, “As hip-hop changed, it changed around us, around The Roots, without really changing The Roots.”
As a band existing within hip-hop’s confines, The Roots have always occupied a unique sphere, and with time it’s only gotten more dichotomous. While hip-hop heads respect them for MC Black Thought’s lyrical virtuosity, pop culture has embraced them for their role as Jimmy Fallon’s house band. Either way, while most of us know of The Roots, Questlove’s Mo’ Beta Blues, which comes from the mind of a man who sees time as one ongoing orchestra, allows us to really know them.—Abrea Armstrong (@abreaknowsbest)