Seven amazing moments from the life of the hardest-working man in show business.
If you’re a music fan – whether hip-hop, pop, soul, hard rock, yacht rock, you name it – do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s new memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues. Anyone who has followed the career of the Roots’ drummer knows that his knowledge and love of music are epic, whether he’s leading his band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, producing albums for D’Angelo or Elvis Costello, backing up Jay-Z, or DJ'ing almost every night in New York. His book, which came out last week, and which is nearly impossible to put down, makes Quest seem like some sort of musical Forrest Gump or Zelig. Here are seven of the key moments that shaped his life in music.
1977 – Growing up in West Philadelphia in the '70s, Questlove’s life was immersed in music. His father, Lee Andrews, was a '50s doo-wop singer, who continued to lead his band through Quest’s childhood, often with his son joining in on the act. On the road one night in Buffalo, young Ahmir went down to the hotel lobby and came face to face with one of his favorite bands: KISS. “Just as I passed the elevator, the doors opened. Bing. Eight years old. And what I saw was my worst nightmare come to life. Ace, Paul, Gene and Peter, all in the elevator, with bodyguards. I don’t think they were in full costume and makeup, but maybe they weren’t totally cleaned up yet, either. At any rate, I knew it was KISS. Who else could it have been? I was excited and terrified and generally overloaded, so I let out the most high-pitched, bloodcurdling scream you can imagine.”
1989 – While attending the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, a teenage Ahmir Thompson befriended a tough, young kid named Tariq Trotter. Together as “Questlove” and “Black Thought” they would form the core of the Roots. But before they’d settled on that name (and they went through a few), they were just a pair of hip-hop obsessed high-schoolers trying to get the attention of girls. Trying to impress one, Quest told her they’d be performing at the school talent show, going against Tariq’s “arch-nemesis,” Wanya Morris, and his singing group. “Wanya’s singing group, by the way, enjoyed some success a few years later,” writes Thompson. “You may have heard of them: Boyz II Men.”
1995 – “Hip-hop’s funeral” as Questlove calls it, took place in May, 1995 at the Source awards in New York. As Quest describes it, the audience was split three ways: the “artistic” rappers on the right (Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, The Roots); In the center was the Death Row crew (Tupac, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Suge Knight); and on the left, New York’s Bad Boy team (Notorious B.I.G., Puff Daddy). “There was bad blood all over that room,” writes Thompson, who fled with his date before any violence could break out. “I was running out and at some point a man pressed a cassette into my hand.” It was D’Angelo’s debut record, Brown Sugar. Questlove would produce his next one, Voodoo.
1997 – In their video for “What They Do,” the Roots poked fun at the excessive consumerism celebrated in so many of the day’s hip-hop videos: the cars, the furs, the girls, the bling. Biggie, who had celebrated the Roots, felt they were poking fun specifically at him: “My feelings were hurt, man, because they were one of my favorite groups.” When the Source asked Questlove to respond to Biggie’s comments, he penned a nine-page “manifesto” deconstructing and critiquing the growing hip-hop divide. Then he called the Source to get their fax number so he could send his manifesto in. “I’m writing in to respond to the comments Biggie made about our video.”
“You didn’t hear?”
“Hear what?” I said.
Quest burned the manifesto.
2001 – That September, The Roots were in New York, working as music directors for a Levi’s music series, “curating the show and backing up a number of artists.” When they showed up at their hotel at the end of a long day, the band discovered that all 14 their rooms were “unavailable.” The hotel staff, scrambling, eventually found them rooms at the Marriott, right next to the World Trade Center. “This was about one in the morning now, on September 11, 2001. But wait: one more twist,” writes Thompson. “The computers were down.” Ultimately the band was divided up all over the city, none of them down at the Marriott.
2005 – The Roots, sixth album, The Tipping Point, had been nominated for a number of Grammys, and the night after the awards, Quest got a text from Prince’s assistant, inviting him to a roller skating party. If there’s one takeaway from Mo’ Meta Blues it’s that Questlove is an absolute Prince fanatic. Shockingly, most of Quest’s buddies declined the invite. “Only one man was brave enough – visionary enough – to see what lay before us, and that was Eddie Murphy. ‘This is historical,’ he said. ‘For starters, I need to see if Prince can roller-skate. I’m a comedian, and honestly, what’s funnier than that?’” When Prince showed up with “the strangest, most singular pair of roller skates I had ever seen,” he proved that he could indeed skate.
2009 – By this point, the Roots had been together for over two decades (a lifetime in hip-hop). They’d released eight albums, won critical acclaim, and countless awards. So when word came down the pipe that Jimmy Fallon was looking for a house band for his new late night talk show, Questlove took it, as he writes, “with a grain of salt.” But when Fallon invited the band down to the studio to check out the show and hang out, the group went along anyway. “From that first meeting Jimmy had the ability to turn us all into thirteen-year-olds….That night, at our after party Tariq came up to me and gestured over to the corner, where Jimmy was joking with some guys. ‘I think I can see this happening,’ Tariq said. And I could, too.
Mo’ Meta Blues (Grand Central Publishing) is out now.