Two recent books about key periods in hip-hop’s history are worth copping. One’s a kids’ book that dropped late last month, just in time for hip-hop’s 40th anniversary, and the other’s a memoir that you’ve probably heard so much about over the summer, thanks to heavy promotion from its author both on the chat show circuit and in the press (as well as on Twitter).
Even though you’re most likely not part of the juice box-sipping target audience that When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop (spelled without the hyphen) is aimed at, author Laban Carrick Hill and illustrator Theodore Taylor III’s picture book about hip-hop’s early days in the Bronx is a must-read for both the way it pays tribute to Clive Campbell (“Kool Herc’s music made everybody happy. Even street gangs wanted to dance, not fight”) and its striking artwork. You might be familiar with Taylor’s work as art director for Potholes in My Blog. I’m a fan of the monochromatic mixtape cover images Taylor has designed for that site. In When the Beat Was Born, Taylor opts for a bolder and more varied color scheme to capture the vibrancy of young Clive’s neighborhood parties and his enthusiasm for music.
Taylor’s bold yet slightly muted colors and his knack for illustrating motion—particularly the vintage breakdancing moves at Herc’s parties—make you feel like you’re gazing at animation cels that are about to come to life. The most imaginative two-page spread in When the Beat Was Born depicts couples dancing atop either oversized speakers or stacks upon stacks upon stacks of vinyl, a visual that’s reprised on the back of the book jacket.
Prose-wise, Hill does a nice job tersely introducing a musical pioneer from the ’70s to a generation that must either think hip-hop began with Nas and Jay Z or that “the only guy that speaks at any sort of depth is, in my mind, Eminem,” actual words that were spoken not by a 14-year-old but by a 42-year-old: the right-wing Sen. Marco Rubio. (Saying Eminem is a conscious rapper is like saying Frank Ocean and the late Nate Dogg are rappers. Uh, no, they’re not. I think you should try sticking to denying climate change, discriminating against gays in the workplace and keeping yourself hydrated instead of trying to be down, Senator.)
Even I learned something I wasn’t aware of about Herc’s techniques during Hill’s descriptions of the various things Herc pioneered to cold rock a party: “He plugged his sound system into the lampposts. They pulled so much power that the street lights dimmed—the perfect lighting for a street party.” With the help of Taylor’s artwork, the attention to details like Herc’s hacking of lampposts effectively transports you to a bygone era and makes When the Beat Was Born an ideal book to give to that 14-year-old or 42-year-old who needs to be better educated about hip-hop culture.
When the Beat Was Born concludes with Hill saying, “Who could have imagined that a hip hop/jazz infusion group called the Roots would become the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon?” Who could have imagined that the Roots are now about to become the house band for the much more lily-white Tonight Show? If you haven’t done so since it was released in June (which was only a couple of months after NBC announced Fallon as the next Tonight Show host), now’s a good time to grab Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, a quick and engaging read from the Roots drummer and co-author Ben Greenman, a New Yorker editor.
While the September 17 release of Wise Up Ghost, the Roots’ eagerly awaited collabo with Elvis Costello, approaches, Questlove is getting ready to make hip-hop history in 2014 as the first hip-hop musician to inherit a mantle previously occupied by the likes of Doc Severinsen and Branford Marsalis. In Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove looks back at other moments of hip-hop history he had a role in shaping (the rise of the Soulquarians collective in the early ’00s) or just simply witnessed (the East Coast/West Coast rap feud, which he recounts in a chapter about his awkward experience as an attendee accompanied by Roots frontman Black Thought and the rest of the band at the extremely heated 1995 Source Awards).
The future Tonight Show bandleader also talks at length about the records that shaped him as a musician and a person, as well as much newer music that has opened his ears to other kinds of sounds after first encountering the acts behind those sounds backstage at Fallon. Towards the end of Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove recalls when both his jaw and Roots guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas’ jaw literally dropped as they first overheard Dirty Projectors vocalists Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle harmonizing while rehearsing at 30 Rock, and Captain Kirk asked them to perform an encore that Questlove captured in a viral video. That chapter led me to watch that viral video for the first time, and while my jaw didn’t hit the floor like the Roots members’ did, I agree that it’s an astounding rehearsal by Coffman, Deradoorian and Dekle. No wonder their soothing voices are the first thing you hear on the Roots’ reflective How I Got Over album.
Questlove goes into detail about how he often falls in love with certain instrumental touches or musical flourishes that most heads don’t pay attention to. For instance, Dilla’s off-kilter percussion on the Pharcyde’s “Bullshit” (“It was almost like someone drunk was playing drums”) immediately turned Questlove into a Dilla worshiper (his thoughts on the 2006 passing of his friend and frequent collaborator are the most affecting part of the book). On page 111, he picks 1991 as the illest year in hip-hop history because of the amount of excellent albums that dropped that year, and it’s hard to argue with that choice because it’s the year when A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory. It’s also the year when—and this is a fact Questlove doesn’t mention in his book—De La Soul Is Dead, my favorite De La Soul album, and O.G. Original Gangster, Ice-T’s strongest record, both came out on the same day (May 14, 1991, to be exact, and I even remember buying the Dead and O.G. cassettes at the same time a few days later).
Two of the memoir’s most amusing sections involve the controversy over Questlove’s choice of Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as Fallon guest walkover music for inflammatory right-winger Michele Bachmann and a Valentine’s night roller-skating party that Questlove was invited to by the musician he idolizes the most, Prince. The roller-skating party reads like an outtake from Charlie Murphy’s anecdotes about His Royal Badness during Chappelle’s Show (a program that, by the way, Questlove briefly recalls with fondness in Mo’ Meta Blues because he got to compose score music for its legendary second season). The surreal Valentine’s night experience is so well-told by Questlove that you can immediately see a guylinered Chappelle-as-Prince intensely gazing at the camera as he does a lap around the rink in clear roller skates that light up and emit trails of multicolored sparks.
If Questlove’s recent guest appearances on chat shows for either TV or radio didn’t get you to pick up Mo’ Meta Blues, then “Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit,” the highly regarded Facebook post that went viral after he posted it in reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict, most definitely will. A compelling essay about racial profiling, “Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit” is like a grim postscript to Mo’ Meta Blues, but it’s told in the same candid and intelligent voice that has made his Home Grown compilation liner notes, his Twitter feed and now Mo’ Meta Blues fascinating to read—and has helped transform the Roots into a musical force to be reckoned with.
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Author: Laban Carrick Hill
Illustrator: Theodore Taylor III
Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Authors: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman