Read A Book: Exclusive Excerpt of Questlove's New Memoir - Mo' Meta Blues
Questlove‘s new memoir Mo’ Meta Blues hits bookshelves–virtual and otherwise–next Tuesday, June 18th and even though we already read the whole thing we could not be more amped about it. Mo Meta Blues is, in fact the ultimate candidate for Okayplayer’s literary column Read A Book; a philosophically sophisticated romp through the history of hip-hop that has everything you could want in an Okayplayer read: lists of great records, the origin story and behind the scenes history of one of hip-hop’s all time greatest bands (The Roots, dummy), and an extreme insider’s perspective on the glory days of the music industry and the brave new post-iTunes world it has lead us into–all wrapped up in a thoughtful memoir: a music biography to stand with best, yet with plenty of philosophically erudite interrogation of the very idea of what a music biography should be. The narrator and protagonist is, of course, our own Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson–who tells the story with some help from well-regarded novelist Ben Greenman and the always brilliant, usually caustic asides of Roots manager Rich Nichols.
Mo Meta Blues is such the perfect Read A Book read, in fact, that it would be ridiculous from jump to attempt to review it, or publish the usual bookjacket interview with the author–it’s already gotten glowing write ups from NPR, The Village Voice, The Huffington Post and Kirkus reviews–to name a few. So we went one better and acquired the rights to share an exclusive excerpt of the memoir with you, the Okayplayer reader. This is Questlove we are talking about here, so the main problem is there were too many amazing stories to choose from: the story of Ahmir and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter met in the principle’s office and forme The Roots almost by accident: the time Questlove & D’Angelo first crossed paths at The Source Awards; the behind the scenes perspective of playing Jay-Z‘s MTV Unplugged special or the time Questo heard Cody ChesnuTT‘s “The Seed” in dream hampton’s car in Detroit. But ultimately, we chose the chapter where Questo relates the untold story of the label war between Mercury and Geffen that lead to The Roots signing. True story:
The Native Tongues bands were the first wave of hip-hop, at least from our perspective: albums like De La Soul’s 3 Feet High & Rising, Tribe’s The Low End Theory, and the Jungle Brothers’ Done By The Forces of Nature set a standard for what we wanted to do, and how it could be done. The second wave started in 1992, with Arrested Development and the release of the “Tennessee” single. I had a strange reaction to the song. I wondered if it was really rap. There were samples,but the cadence of the vocals was more like singing than like MCing. I decided, at the time, that they may or may not have been a rap group, but that they were definitely the hippest R&B group around. In fact, I looked at Arrested Development, I’m afraid, the way that people now sometimes look at us, like they were the gay cousin at a Bible Belt family reunion— kinda like “deal with you at arm’s length” conditional love back then. The hip-hop journalist Harry Allen later wrote something about us that feeds right back into that question: “Are they simply R&B’s hardest group or hip-hop’s softest?” Arrested Development was followed closely on their heels by Digable Planets, who put out “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” in 1993; I got a test pressing of it the day we recorded “Pass the Popcorn.” In my mind, and possibly in hip-hop history, we were the third group of that second wave.
Well, we were about to be. We weren’t signed yet, but Rich’s plan was starting to happen. During high school, whenever I invented band names, record titles, album art, I always put my group on Def Jam Recordings, because they had a mystique about them. They had signed only six acts, including Slick Rick, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy, and they stood pat on that original set. Breaking in at Def Jam was like climbing the mountain.
And just like that, they were the first label to come calling. Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen, who ran the label, paid for a Roots showcase in New York City. It was across the street from their old offices on Varick Street, and we went to New York in style: Flintstones style. With the “profits” from Organix, Rich bought a station wagon for three hundred bucks. It was great—except for the fact that the backseat had no floor. You had to lift your legs up so they didn’t hit the pavement rushing by beneath. He put a rug down for cosmetics and safety. Even with the rug, I couldn’t sit there. I was too big. But we all packed in, three people in front, four of the skinniest in the center, and the rest of us Middle Passaging it in the back, lying across the top of our equipment.
I wish I could be there for every band’s label audition. I wish I could serve as a kind of fairy godperson. What I’d tell them is that all those tricks you’re thinking about using, all the razzle-dazzle—set it aside. Leave your innovations at the door. All a label wants are songs they can sell. Our calling card at the time was a kind of freestyle exercise where Tariq would scat to different topics, and that was a showstopper. And Def Jam loved our musicianship and our vision and our energy. Still, they passed. As much as they loved the idea of us, they said, they didn’t know how they were going to market that idea… (cont. on next page)