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Quest for Fire

The unlikely rise to stardom of Questlove and the Roots

The title of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Mo’ Meta Blues is a sign that points in more than one direction. We’re clearly meant to think of the Spike Lee movie, most easily recalled by Roots fans as the source of the epigrammatic dialogue snippet1 that precedes the first song on 1999’s Things Fall Apart. But the “meta” also refers to the structure of the book itself. It begins in fits and starts, doubling back on itself, second- and third-guessing issues of intent and execution. Voices overlap: The Roots’ longtime manager Richard Nichols annotates and bloviates in footnotes, supplying historical and academic context as well as vital deal-point detail, and scoffing at more than a few of Thompson’s assertions. He’s 13 years older than Thompson, and does for him in this book what the floating head of Professor Stein did for Firestorm, if Professor Stein had been a recovering jazz snob prone to throwing around gnomic wisdom like “Note to y’all: the Zeitgeist ain’t a fuckin’ bicycle built for two” and “We were pastime patriarchs caught in a backsliding bildungsroman.”

You may feel you could have done without the chapters that reproduce zingy progress-report e-mails sent by Thompson’s coauthor, novelist and New Yorker editor Ben Greenman, to the book’s editor, Ben Greenberg at Grand Central Publishing2 — but this wouldn’t be an Ahmir Thompson jawn if it didn’t feel a little process-obsessed, a little like a director-commentary cart leading a feature-presentation horse. Thompson has never made an artistic gesture he could resist annotating in a novella-length liner note (in eyeball-herniatingly tiny sans serif CD-booklet type, back in the day) or blog post or Q&A blockquote. He’s a non-singer/non-rapper with a front man’s compulsion to communicate, and throughout the Roots’ career he’s done it with prose as much as music. Sometimes it’s like he makes the music in order to explain why he made it. He is probably the only major hip-hop figure whose dream is to win a liner-notes Grammy, which is the Grammy that guys like Peter Guralnick win.

Plus, those first few Charlie Kaufmanish pages accustom us to Thompson’s wry brain-voice, so that by the time the book begins rolling forward on more traditional music-memoir rails — charting our narrator’s earliest encounters with a drum kit, with a Bill Withers song, etc. — the anecdotes read less like straight biography and more like the origin story of Thompson’s sensibility and aesthetic, a fine but important distinction given the degree to which drumming for the Roots is now just one of the things Thompson does.3

Thompson is born in West Philadelphia in 1971. His father is Lee Andrews, who’d led a moderately successful doo-wop outfit called Lee Andrews & the Hearts. During the ’70s, Andrews works the road with a version of that band whose lineup features Thompson’s mother and his sister Donn. Thompson’s parents give him a drum kit for Christmas in 1973; within a few years he’s become his father’s bandleader. He spends just enough time on the road with a nightclub act at a formative-enough age that he starts to become a weird kid. “I thought that living in a Howard Johnson’s was normal,” he writes. “I thought everyone had ice machines in the hall and a swimming pool in the middle of a courtyard.” One night, staying up late in an airport Sheraton watching Dan Hartman on Midnight Special, he dips down to the lobby for a soda and runs into all four members of Kiss getting off the elevator. He’s 8, and he freaks out like Troy from Community meeting LeVar Burton. Normal stuff.

Eventually he fifth-columns back into normal preadolescence, but bounces around different Philadelphia educational institutions (public, private, parochial) without really fitting in anywhere. Finally he winds up at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where he finds himself waiting outside the principal’s office during the course of a routine good-kid errand involving transit vouchers. School security dumps a “thugged out to within an inch of his life” kid with “DMC glasses and a crazy box haircut” on the bench next to him and they get to talking. The kid’s just been caught in a compromising position with a ballet student in the girls’ bathroom. His name is Tariq Trotter, and before long he and Thompson will start a band together. There’s a funny, CB4-ish passage at the beginning of Chapter 9 where Thompson describes the identities they discarded during their formative years: “For our very first gig, at the high-school talent show, we were Radio Activity … After that, we went into seclusion briefly and reemerged as Black to the Future. Then directly back into seclusion, and then back into the light as Square Roots … It sounded nerdy, which (let’s be honest) was clearly what we were at the time.”

Their first public performances take place on South Street in Philadelphia; Thompson has to smuggle his drums out of the house. “My father wouldn’t have understood. He thought hip-hop was one big nothing, a bunch of nonmusical nut-grabbing … He was getting me the best education that he could so that I could go on to become Bernard Purdie, not so I could stand on stage while my punk friend said, ‘Bitch, suck my dick.'” Some time later, when the Roots sign to DGC and Thompson gets his first record-company advance, his father comes to him and asks for a cut. By that point, he has already emerged as the book’s most complicated and mercurial figure4 — a showbiz also-ran with “talent and drive and Denzellian matinee-idol good looks” and a “stage-father pathology,” Thompson’s first hero and the first critic Thompson ever tried to please and persuade.

A lot of the stories Thompson tells about the records that shaped him as an artist are really stories about his dad. Andrews listens to boundary-pushing black pop records like James Brown’s The Payback and Stevie Wonder’s oddball proto–New Age funk odyssey Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, finds them unforgivably indulgent and hitless, and dumps them on his son: “Those LPs, disappointments for him, were birthright moments for me. He just said to me, ‘Here, you take these.’ They had wounded him and he wanted to move them away from him so that he could feel right again. So I started to study them: how they did what they did, how they stretched beyond what the artists had done before.”

Later on, in the ’80s, for reasons that are never fully explicated, Andrews and Thompson’s mother become “the black Ned and Maude Flanders” and ban all non-Christian music from the Thompson home. Thompson has to keep rebuying Prince’s 1999 because his mom and dad keep taking it away from him. (The fourth time he’s caught with it, Andrews breaks the record in front of him — but only the second disk, Thompson says: “He must have been so angry that he forgot it was a double album.”) And when Thompson steals $25 from his father, intending to spend it on tapes of The Jacksons Live!, Hall & Oates’s Voices, and a Rick Springfield record (“There was a girl I knew who liked him”), Andrews finds out and gives his son a “Kunta Kinte/Django Unchained–like whipping” that Thompson says “set the course for our relationship and how it remains today. My father and I are not particularly close. It’s strained at best. And that defining moment came in the name of records.”5

In 1993, at the record-release party for the Roots’ major-label debut, Do You Want More?!!!??!, Thompson’s mother tells him she’s leaving Andrews. Thompson traces his OCD approach to record production to that difficult period; facing the collapse of his family, he hid out in the studio. The fact that Thompson worships Michael Jackson and Brian Wilson, sons of violent stage parents who escaped into the hermetic utopia of the recording studio, is probably not a coincidence. And while Thompson never makes this point, if you’re so inclined, you can read an adult-child-of-divorce subtext into the way he has conducted his career. From the Roots to his late-’90s stint as de facto ringleader of a Native Tongues 2.0-ish collective called the Soulquarians — a more fractious crew than it seemed at the time — he has consistently sought out surrogate families and struggled to hold them together, as if to prove it could be done.

Which is not to say that every story in the first part of the book is about pain, any more than the working-musician stories that rule the second half of the book are entirely about failure and disappointment. There are some funny, lovely evocations of black middle-class nerddom in the ’70s and ’80s here, too, in which pop culture and sense memory are deftly cross-faded. We’re watching one of hip-hop’s most entertainingly self-conscious figures develop a self. “Seasons,” from Secret Life of Plants, reminds him of walking with his sister from Broad Street in Philadelphia to their grandmother’s house:

There is snow on the ground, maybe even in the air, and posters for the Steve Martin film The Jerk, which is coming out at Christmas. And it’s late, too, on into evening: at the performing-arts school I go to, the bell rings for the end of the school day but that’s just a signal to hang out with my friends, to go to the band room and watch the older kids practicing their ensemble version of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” ad nauseam, to see the dancers out in the hall tightening up their choreography. I wait for Donn, and then we go out into the winter.

The Roots Depending on where you start and stop the clock, the Roots were either the last great group of rap’s cheerfully radical Native Tongues moment6 or the first Native Tongues revivalists; they were either late to the party or early for a party that never actually happened. Given this and dozens of other factors — all detailed in the book, from imploding labels to a track record of spotty reception with mainstream black audiences to visual motley-ness — the band’s longevity is fairly astounding. But what’s impressive about the book is how readily Thompson admits that mere longevity was less than he’d hoped for.

“It took me a few years to come to terms with the notion that we were always going to be bridesmaids,” he writes. You get the sense from the rest of the book that this coming-to-terms is very much an ongoing, possibly lifelong process, but Thompson’s also unfailingly clear-eyed about the reasons things shook out the way they did. He talks about watching “with a mix of confusion, frustration and amazement as groups sped past us on the charts [and] acts that were playing the junior circuit to our senior circuit picked up steam and found themselves out in front.”

At one point, Thompson throws a bone to RuffHouse Records, who had once employed him as an intern, and agrees to let one of their acts, an acoustic-soul trio from New Jersey, play the Do You Want More?!!!??! record-release party. They go on to become the Fugees. “[A]s much as we may have felt a kinship with them,” Thompson writes, “we weren’t them. At some point I realized why. It was something I wasn’t doing, something that maybe I couldn’t do. I don’t know how to put it diplomatically, but I didn’t really know what pop songs were.” When the Roots finally did land on a hit — the foreboding-yet-catchy (and eventually Grammy-winning) Erykah Badu feature “You Got Me” — Thompson admits he squandered the resulting momentum by signing on for an eight-month hitch as D’Angelo’s bandleader on the Voodoo tour.

The second half of the book should be a bummer: The Roots iceberg-hop from MCA to Interscope to Def Jam. They try to think about the radio. They make The Tipping Point, an album whose target audience is effectively just Interscope president Jimmy Iovine, who isn’t impressed.7 Thompson goes to Virginia to work with Pharrell on a track, hoping to coax something as hard as N.O.R.E.’s “Nothin'” out of him; after much struggle, they hit on a groove and jam for 20 minutes straight. “And now I could walk back to the van, triumphant, and tell the rest of the band that we had a top-drawer Neptunes track for our album,” Thompson thinks — until he says as much to Pharrell, who tells him the track they were jamming on was a song the Neptunes had already promised to Snoop Dogg. (Cue Curb Your Enthusiasm theme music.) Thompson watches Kanye West doing “Jesus Walks” at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party concert, understands instantly that Kanye’s going to chop right through all the binaries that have stymied the Roots for years — reflective/ignorant, arty/commercial, nerdy/street — and feels like he’s dying, or already dead.

“Rich and I have this idea about the Bentley Moment,” Thompson writes early in the book, “which is that beyond-your-wildest-dreams Hype-Williams-video-type experience, the ticker tape parade, the money raining down from the sky. Without that, have you made it as an artist? What is success?” Those questions have always been open in the Roots’ music, always nagging at the edges of whatever they do. But what if that moment isn’t coming? What if the work you put in has to be its own reward? What if the grand prize awaiting you is a measure of job security and a great story to tell about the early years of bitter struggle? That’s more or less what the Roots got. They took the Jimmy Fallon gig in 2009; next fall, when Fallon moves to 11:30, they’ll become the Tonight Show band. After all that, network television to the rescue. Ensconced in the steadiest gig they’d ever stumbled into, the band made their best late-period record, 2010’s How I Got Over. It’s not exactly indie rock, even with the Monsters of Folk and Joanna Newsom hooks re-sung by Newsom and MoF’s Jim James, but like a lot of indie rock it glorifies the struggle to come to terms with your earning potential. It’s an unassuming, humane masterpiece; so is this book.

This article has been updated to correct the year Things Fall Apart was released.

Filed Under: Celebrities, College Sports, Magazines, Music, Questlove, Star, The Roots, The U

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.