Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
I actually picked this up after I read his Soul Train coffee table book. Good read. Like with the Soul Train book, you’re going to want to keep Rdio or Spotify handy, so you can make a playlist of all the tracks you’ve never heard.
Here’s Dwight Garner (damn, he’s a great reviewer):
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… The end pages on my copy [of Mo’ Meta Blues] 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.
The title of the book is a nod to the Spike Lee movie Mo’ Better Blues, and this scene in particular, which The Roots used for the opening of Things Fall Apart, a debate between Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes on staying true to your artistic vision and giving the audience what they want:
"If we had to depend upon black people to eat, we would starve to death," says Bleek. "I mean, you’ve been out there, you’re on the bandstand, you look out into the audience, what do you see? You see Japanese, you see, you see West Germans, you see, you know, Slabobic, anything except our people—it makes no sense. It incenses me that our own people don’t realize our own heritage, our own culture, this is our music, man." Shadow disagrees. "That’s bullshit…the people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they like, then people would come, simple as that." Deciding who is right is part of what makes for a compelling intro.
As Questlove explains:
That problem—how to stay true to our idea of our music and also be appropriately inviting to audiences, how to court audiences without compromising the music we were making—was something that had plagued us since the beginning.”
He talks about finding a “Stupid Human Trick,” or a gimmick, to hook folks:
a band needs something to elevate it above other the fray. The secret weapon was often something we called a Stupid Human Trick, borrowing the idea from David Letterman… what was the wildcard for the rest of the people, the ones who were afflicted with cultural ADD? The Stupid Human Trick was something that would draw them in, an indisputably entertaining novelty.
And at one point Questlove talks about putting out a new record and says, “I wasn’t worried about our audience. They would follow us or they wouldn’t—I was used to losing about half our audience each time and picking up new fans.” That sort of knocked me out, the idea you’d lose 1/2 your fans with each album. “It’s a cliché, maybe, but one that turns out to be true: when you start making stuff for other people, that’s when you lose yourself.”
And finally, comes to some kind of synthesis:
Acrobats love to talk about working without a net like it’s the bravest thing in the world. But the thing about working without a net is that if you fall, you die. It’s better to work with a net, and to know that you can attempt the tricky maneuver without permanent consequences. It’s an answer to the dialogue between Bleek and Shadow in Mo’ Better Blues, or maybe just a third voice in the conversation.
I cut and pasted some more favorite sections below.
Sometimes I only remember things through records. They’re a trigger for me, they’re Pavlov’s bell. Without thinking about the music, I can’t remember the experience. But if I think long enough about a specific album, something else always bubbles up…. I had two kinds of experiences that I mapped to memories: records that were played in the house or on the radio, and Soul Train. Every memory of mine is paired with one of those two things.
I write the reviews for my own records. Almost no one knows this, but when I am making a Roots record, 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 ten or eleven. I draw the cover image in miniature and chicken-scratch in a fake byline. It’s the only way I really know how to imagine what I think the record is. And as it turns out, most of the time the record ends up pretty close to what I say it is in the review.
On sampling and Roland Barthes:
I had a friend who tried to explain Roland Barthes to me; not all of it, of course, but that one little principle about how a text is not a unified thing, but a fragmentary or divisible thing, and that the reader is the one who divides it up, arbitrarily. Reading is the act that creates the pieces. I wasn’t totally sure I understood it—I’m still not sure—but it sounded like what was happening with the SK-1. You, as the listener, pick a piece of sound, a snippet of speech, or a drumbeat, and you separate that from everything around it. That’s now a brick that you have in your hand, and you use it to build a new wall.
On what happened to hip-hop:
Something changed when commerce arrived. Good and bad stopped mattering; only effective and ineffective mattered. Whether a record worked on an audience became the standard, rather than whether or not it was any good… [There was] a new era of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous charisma. In “Bad Boy for Life,” P. Diddy rapped, “Don’t worry if I write rhymes / I write checks,” and that became more than just a clever aside, it was his style of hip-hop. Virtuosity disappeared and this other kind of skill—a ringmaster skill, something closer to what you’d find in a corporate manager—emerged.
On having a day job:
The Fallon show is a day job in the best sense. We’re in by noon and gone by seven, and in between we make a show. It’s highly structured, and as a result, the opportunities we have for creativity are really distilled: not reduced at all, but disciplined, forced into existing forms and packages.
And some good lines:
- I write things because I want to get to the point where I have written things. (Ben Greenman)
- What a shitty way to go through life, hiding your love for music so that people don’t think the wrong things about you.
- Switching off perfection switched on the human quality.
- I feel like my cultural value comes from my role as a bridge. My job is to connect brilliant have-nots to the land of haves.
- How do you plan a rebirth? I’m not sure you do. You just stand in the darkness until you can’t endure it any longer, and then you move forward until you’re standing in the light.
- It’s a funny word, persistence. It means not giving up, but it also means just passing on through time.
- When you live your life through records, the records are a record of your life.™ (Is this really trademarked?)
- I was an indoor kid with a tendency to fall inward.