Questlove takes a look at 50 years of modern music – and modern history
MUSIC IS HISTORY
By Questlove with Ben Greenman
Listening to music is one of the simple pleasures in life. And unfortunately, as with life, there are plenty of ways to mess it up. An artist could play out of tune, for example. Or they could write a book that does its best to make listening to music sound like a chore. “Music is a Story,” by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, is one such book.
Questlove is a talented artist with a deep passion for his work. He rose to fame as a founding member of The Roots, the respected Philadelphia hip-hop group that peaked in the 1990s and is now led by him as a house group for “The Tonight Show”. He made his directorial debut in July with “Summer of Soul,” an award-winning documentary on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. He is also a DJ and has written a bit, contributing to New York magazine and other media.
“Music is a Story”, his latest book, was written with novelist and journalist Ben Greenman. His main concern is to examine how history is made, or why certain works of art and events become part of the historical record while others disappear from view. However, in trying to unravel these mysteries, Questlove often ends up asking winding questions like this: “When you order Mexican food, do you already think about what it really means, how you are confusing different? regions and periods, how do you distill yourself from centuries of cultural reflection on food and gastronomy, how do you ignore a million questions on agriculture, technology, economy and medicine? “
When I order Mexican food, I usually think of one of two things: “I’m hungry” or “I might regret it,” depending on the restaurant.
The title may suggest that this is a book about music – or the history of music – but it is more akin to a journal in which Questlove tries to explain how music shaped his view of the world. The chapters are organized chronologically, starting in 1971, the year of his birth. It ends in 2002 and beyond. Any artist who has ever entered Questlove’s mind seems to make an appearance in the book, from Austrian composer Alban Berg, who is mentioned in passing, to Prince, who is a recurring figure. Bill Withers, his “first real idol”, refuses to collaborate with him.
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One of the strengths of the book is the way Questlove incorporates subtle details about the lives of important artists, encouraging us to think more deeply about the songs we love and the people who composed them. Rapper KRS-One was once a guest on “The Alex Jones Show”. Duke Ellington was friends with Richard Nixon. Rosa Parks sued southern hip-hop duo Outkast for using her name as the title of a song that had nothing to do with it. The book is a master class on musical trivia and the thorny nature of music obsessives.
He demonstrates an enviable knowledge of film soundtracks. “There’s nothing that touches me more than when people create soundtracks and get tripped up by anachronism,” he wrote before pointing out several flaws in the soundtrack of “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” “, the biopic of Tina Turner. Finding out that some live albums were edited in the studio to sound better made him “cynical,” he admits.
But in his efforts to find out how we know what we know, Questlove is often distracted, introducing countless asides and failing to distinguish serious thoughts from the occasional wandering mind’s reflections. (“The Iraq war was no small potato.”) And then there are times he writes about women in a way that may make some people uncomfortable. I found myself intrigued by his need to explain that he no longer dates young women because he says they don’t understand his references to music and pop culture. I also didn’t know what to make of her description of Jill Scott, another fantastic artist from Philly, as a woman who scared her when they first met, possibly because she threatened to castrate a boyfriend. unfaithful.
Later, the reader understands better why Questlove is so concerned with the question of music and history. Turns out he has a bone to choose from with Barack Obama.
In the last chapter, we learn that he was invited to DJ the final evening at the Obama White House in January 2017. He created for the occasion a playlist that he considered to be a work of genius. Each song was selected as part of a narrative to tell a story about life and history. The party guests, especially the younger ones, were not amused. They came to dance, not to get a history lesson from a DJ According to Questlove, Obama kindly asked him to turn things around to bring the crowd to the dance floor, which he found humiliating.
“My set, brilliant as it was, wasn’t going to last all night,” he wrote. “He wanted me to get away from the ensemble I had built, with its meticulous historical construction, its intricacies and interrelationships, and play some festive music. Party music at a party may not seem like a radical idea to some DJs, but for Questlove, it’s “just flattering.”
“I had come ready to make history by remaking history, but I had come across an event,” he laments.
The “failed White House DJ gig” tortured him for years. It wasn’t until 2020, after being hired to host an annual post-Oscars celebration hosted by Jay-Z and Beyoncé, that he was able to redeem himself. This time, he promised himself not to deviate from the set list he had created for the night, no matter what. And the night was a triumph. History has been made. “It’s art,” Questlove writes of what he heard from the crowd. And “I think I’m going to cry.”
I think I could cry too.