I can still remember exactly where I was in the summer of 1984 and I heard Prince's Purple Rain for the first time. I was riding in a car with my best friend, going through the dark streets of Baltimore, cold and warm at the same time and driving aimlessly so we could listen to the entire thing several times over. Let me hear "When Doves Cry" today, and I'm right back in that car.
Drummer, DJ, music producer, and chronicler of our musical times, Ahmir Thompson not only knows what I'm talking about, he captures it perfectly in his new memoir Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove (which is Ahmir's a.k.a.).
If you're a fan of The Roots (and you'd better be), you know that Questlove is the heart and soul of the group, and he's a man who loves to tell a story. The liner notes to any Roots album are practically novels themselves.
Questlove is an amazingly evocative storyteller, too, setting his life's events against the music and musicians of the day. He spins his tales as deftly as he DJs, weaving them together by track, album, band, ending up with a fabulous mixtape of days, events, and relationships.
The "meta" of the title is introduced by two Bens – his co-writer Greenman and the book's editor Greenberg – as well as The Roots' co-manager Richard Nichols. They pop up occasionally to give a sound check or to add a footnote, giving the reader that collaborative and collective feeling of The Roots themselves, and it feels totally natural to have others step up to the mic and into the dialog.
The rhythm of the writing is right on target, offering a bittersweet nostalgia served up like a late-night phone call with a friend you knew back in the day. Just like the best song on your playlist, Questlove also gives it everything he's got, opening up about family troubles, his idols and mentors, the highs and lows of his life, and his musical influences.
There's a twinge of regret, too, for the coming-up generations and their instant access to music that lacks the spontaneity and excitement that others of us experienced collectively through radio and album releases. He says: "I worry that it'll be harder for the present generation to process memory, because they have so many options to choose from, and most aren't shared in a physical space." Very true.
But back to Prince (because shouldn't everything lead back to Prince?)...
Like Questlove says, that summer of '84 he and I both got "Princed." As he describes it, Purple Rain "took whatever categories remained and burned them all down. That song ('I Will Die 4 U'), and that album, did more to bring together freaks and geeks and thugs than almost anything else from that decade." Amen, Ahmir.
Not to mention that Prince was completely ahead of his time with the quick-type spelling of a texter. Come on – 4U? He was a rulebreaker and a standard bearer for the future. Just like Questlove.
Recipe: Mo' Betta Blueberry CakesProbably the next best memory sparker for so many of us would be food. We all gather around meals, share snacks, and break bread together to celebrate, commiserate, or just participate with others. And, as I like to occasionally do, I found a perfect food pairing for Questlove's book. These cakes are tart yet sweet and they evoke those summer days that are all-too-quickly slipping away.
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup melted butter
1 beaten egg
1 cup blueberries
Heat oven to 350. Line 12 medium muffin cups with paper or foil baking cups. Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Stir in sour cream, butter, and egg until just moistened. Then gently fold in the blueberries. Fill baking cups 1/2 full. Bake cakes 25 to 30 minutes, or until an inserted wooden pick comes out nice and clean. Cool and then glaze with Lemon Glaze:
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 Tbs. lemon juice
1 tsp. grated lemon peel
Mix together and glaze cakes.