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LOS ANGELES — Ahmir Thompson is best known as Questlove, but beyond that it’s hard to describe the guy simply. He’s the drummer in the long-running hip-hop group the Roots, who also serve as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He’s a producer who’s overseen records by Al Green and D’Angelo; he DJs regularly at parties in New York and elsewhere; he helped bring Fela! to Broadway.
And now he’s written a book, Mo’ Meta Blues (Grand Central Publishing: 282 pp., $26) with the novelist and New Yorker editor Ben Greenman. In it Questlove recounts his musical journey — starting with the years he put in as a kid with his father’s touring doo-wop outfit — but digresses regularly with deep (and deeply funny) analyses of the artists and records that shaped him.
“What do you do when just listening to the music you love isn’t enough?” he asks. You think as hard about it as Questlove does here.
Q. Virtually every review of your book mentions what we’ll call the Prince Incident: you, Eddie Murphy, and the Purple One roller-skating in an empty rink outside Philadelphia.
A. You could say the book had its beginnings in a post started by (the rapper) Rhymefest and I on my Web site, okayplayer.com. This was something you don’t see every day between two people in hip-hop: We were trying to see who had the biggest Curb Your Enthusiasm story — something other than the normal celebrity encounter. And by the time it got up to 450 posts (about our unlikely meetings with famous people), someone took all my responses and made a separate site of those. I wasn’t writing with the intention that blogs and periodicals and book companies would come around. But eventually that’s what happened.
Q. You had demonstrated that you can write — and that you’ve got stories to write about. And out of that came this book that feels like both a memoir and a collection of riffs on pop culture.
A. I didn’t know whose shoes to fit in (as an author). I guess it’s assumed that I (would) take the position of an artist, but half the time I feel more like a critic. And not to mention that everything I’ve ever done is the No. 2 position: I was D’Angelo’s co-pilot for “Voodoo.” I created the Roots with (the rapper) Tariq (Trotter, also known as Black Thought). I’m the Paul Shaffer to Fallon’s (David) Letterman. When you’re the second banana it gets harder, because how do you tell your story in first person, but without the revisionist thing of omitting someone else’s voice?
Q. In fact, you didn’t omit him — Mo’ Meta Blues features lengthy asides from your manager, Rich Nichols.
A. Once I got to the fourth chapter, I was like, “I need Rich.” He’s always the angel-devil voice on my shoulders.
Q. It’s a book as much about other people’s music — and other people’s lives — as about your own. You’ll talk about your complex relationship with your dad, then swerve into a long thing on Diana Ross.
A. This could’ve been the world’s darkest story or it could’ve been the world’s cheeriest story. And if anything I think the book shows how much music was a refuge for me.
Q. Refuge or shield?
A. Right. I should send an apology note to all the engineers I’ve abused doing marathon recording sessions. The reason I had 19 hours to work on a freaking drum fill was that regular life was just too painful to deal with. But I had music, you know? This is my dream, but there’s a price to pay for it. I’m the only member of the Roots without wife or children, because you can’t be this devoted to music and have a regular domestic life.
This book is maybe me coming to terms with the fact that within the next three years I’m going to have to say goodbye to some aspect of this obsession. I can’t keep watching Soul Train six hours a day.