Questlove Looks at 50 Years of Modern Music — and Modern History

By Questlove with Ben Greenman

Listening to music is one of life’s simple pleasures. And sadly, as with life, there are many ways to ruin it. An artist could play out of tune, for example. Or they might write a book that does its best to make listening to music sound like a chore. “Music Is History,” by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, is one of those books.

Questlove is a talented artist with a deep passion for his work. He came 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 the house band for “The Tonight Show.” He made his directorial debut in July with “Summer of Soul,” an award-winning documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. He is also a D.J. and has done a bit of writing, contributing to New York magazine and other outlets.

“Music Is History,” his latest book, was written with the novelist and journalist Ben Greenman. Its main preoccupation is to examine how history is made, or why some works of art and events become a part of the historical record while others fade from view. In trying to unlock those mysteries, however, Questlove often ends up asking meandering questions such as this: “When you order Mexican food, do you ever think about what that really means, how you’re conflating various regions and time periods, how you’re distilling centuries of cultural thought about food and dining, how you’re overlooking a million questions about the agriculture and technology and economy and medicine?”

When I order Mexican food, I am usually thinking one of two things, “I’m hungry” or “I may regret this,” depending on the restaurant.

The title may suggest this is a book about music — or the history of music — but it is really more akin to a diary in which Questlove tries to explain how music has shaped his worldview. The chapters are organized chronologically, starting in 1971, the year he was born. It ends in 2002 and beyond. Any artist who has ever entered Questlove’s mind seems to make an appearance in the book, from the Austrian composer Alban Berg, who is mentioned in passing, to Prince, who is a recurring figure. Bill Withers, his “first true idol,” refuses to collaborate with him.

One of the book’s strengths is the way in which Questlove tucks in subtle details about the lives of important artists, encouraging us to think more deeply about the songs we love and the people who made them. The rapper KRS-One was once a guest on “The Alex Jones Show.” Duke Ellington was friendly with Richard Nixon. Rosa Parks sued the Southern hip-hop duo Outkast for using her name as the title of a song that had nothing to do with her. The book is a master class in music trivia, and the prickly nature of music obsessives.

He flexes an enviable knowledge of movie soundtracks. “There’s nothing that gets under my skin more than when people create soundtracks and get tripped up by anachronism,” he writes before pointing out several flaws in the soundtrack for “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” the Tina Turner biopic. Discovering some live albums were altered in the studio to sound better made him “cynical,” he admits.

But in his effort to find out how we know what we know, Questlove often becomes distracted, introducing countless asides and failing to distinguish serious thoughts from the casual musings of the wandering mind. (“The Iraq war was no small potatoes.”) And then there are moments in which he writes about women in ways that may make some feel uncomfortable. I found myself puzzled by his need to explain that he no longer dates young women because he says they don’t get his music and pop culture references. I also didn’t know what to make of his description of Jill Scott, another fantastic Philly artist, as a woman who scared him when they first met, possibly because she had threatened to castrate an unfaithful boyfriend.

Later, the reader gets a better idea of why Questlove is so concerned with the matter of music and history. It turns out, he has a bone to pick with Barack Obama.

In the last chapter, we learn that he was invited to D.J. the final party at the Obama White House, in January 2017. He created a playlist for the occasion that he thought was a work of genius. Every song had been selected as part of a narrative to tell a story about life and about history. The guests at the party, particularly the young ones, were not amused. They came to dance, not to receive a history lesson from a D.J. According to Questlove, Obama gently asked him to switch things up to get the crowd on the dance floor, which he found humiliating.

“My set, brilliant as it was, wasn’t going to last out the night,” he writes. “He wanted me to switch away from the set I had built, with its meticulous historical construction, its intricacies and interrelations, and to play party music.” Party music at a party may not seem like a radical idea to some D.J.s, but for Questlove, it’s “just pandering.”

“I had come in ready to make history by remaking History, but I had run into an event,” he laments.

The “failed D.J. gig at the White House” tortured him for years. It wasn’t until 2020, after being hired to D.J. 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 depart from the set list he had created for the night, no matter the cost. And the night was a triumph. History was made. “This is art,” Questlove writes of what he heard from the crowd. And “I think I’m going to cry.”

I think I might cry, too.