When Questlove says hip-hop is 'history,' he means it in more ways than one

Questlove, the accomplished musician, filmmaker and author, most recently of “Hip-Hop Is History,” is no doubt aware that his title cuts more than one way. It indicates both that hip-hop is a significant musical genre and that some of its significance is located in the past.

I read Questlove’s 2013 memoir, “Mo’ Meta Blues, as I was starting the doctoral program that I would finish by submitting a hip-hop album as my dissertation. Part of the history he writes about in his latest book carved out space for my current career.

I’ve written that “hip-hop is dope” as a way of saying the United States is addicted to, abusive of and deeply invested in the exploitation and sanctioning of Blackness and Black cultural products, including but not limited to hip-hop and rap. So I appreciate the way Questlove anchors each section of “Hip-Hop Is History” to specific drugs, beginning in “the bright light of disco’s cocaine years”; proceeding through “the forty-ounce era (1982-1987),” “crack (1987-1992),” “weed (1992-1997),” “ecstasy (1997-2002),” “sizzurp (2002-2007),” “molly (2007-2012),” “pain pills (2012-2017)” and “opioids (2017-2022)”; and ending with what he calls “the tragic fentanyl present.” He could have accurately subtitled the book: “What I’ve watched the world get high on for the past 50 years.”

It’s a trip worth taking. Questlove’s embedded narration of the infamous 1995 Source Awards, which inflamed tensions between regional factions of the genre, shows the author at his storytelling best, detailing the historical stakes without pretending he isn’t personally interested in the outcome. Questlove is documenting a Great War within what he views as an established Hip-Hop Nation, and the mightier weapon — the pen that records hip-hop history — ultimately prevails. Wielding it, Questlove ascends to the sort of lofty perch where one should be warned to, as the Wu-Tang Clan put it, “Protect Ya Neck.”

Last month, amid back-and-forth diss records from Drake and Kendrick Lamar, Questlove wrote on Instagram that “Hip Hop Is Truly Dead.” Because Questlove, the six-time-Grammy-winning, Oscar-winning co-founder of the Roots, is so many things to hip-hop, what he says matters to people. It matters to people who identify with the culture and the genre, and it matters to people who don’t know much about hip-hop and look to experts for guidance. His death declaration created waves because to some people, this Hip-Hop Nation is a real place, and that place is worth defending.

If you listen to certain folks tell it, it’s a nation in desperate need of governance, regime change or a return to a past when things were much simpler and better. Even if hip-hop’s coordinates lie beyond any map, figures such as Questlove become cartographers, tour guides, ambassadors and, well, historians.

To me, it’s a difficult metaphor to maintain if all the nation’s presidents face impeachment and all its kings have to worry about their necks. The maintenance of such a nation would necessitate a pen mightier than any sword to do the work of structuring and saving that might be necessary for the nation’s future. A pen that powerful could easily write its way into revisionist, right-wing hip-hop discourse.

An authoritative pen with less sinister intentions could just as easily slip into a solipsistic curation of the past. This might happen when the historian is writing a history that he is very close to and in which he plays a significant part. This may account for Questlove’s occasional informal shifts from objective and omniscient narration of “important events” that sound like traditional history to incredibly personal and subjective opinions.

The first half of the book describes and takes place in what might be considered typical hip-hop-historical settings — Philadelphia, New York City and California-but-really-Compton. If this Hip-Hop Nation worked like the sidewalks in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video — its squares lighting up only when Questlove steps on them — most of the U.S. would remain dark through the first 150 pages.

Later, he admits that he couldn’t comprehend the importance of Southern rap until it made its way to him through his hometown of Philadelphia. DJ Drama’s “Gangsta Grillz” mixtapes were popular enough that they were famously the target of a 2007 police raid in Atlanta. Questlove’s Roots bandmate Black Thought informed him that “DJ Drama is Tyree [Simmons] from Philadelphia.” This was almost two decades after the release of Southern rap pioneers 8Ball & MJG’s debut album, but the significance of the group and their confederates registered with Questlove only because of this incidental connection.

There are other dissonances in Questlove’s history. He describes the inspiration for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” as the woman to whom the “pretty apple-shaped derriere belonged.” He calls singer-songwriter Solange Knowles a “young jawn,” or “thing,” and wonders whether she “really knew her stuff.” Then he unironically criticizes the “questionable treatment of women” in Dirty South rap.

Questlove makes his musical likes and dislikes known with little reservation throughout, dismissive of anything that isn’t directly related to the nation as he knows it. He saw the nation as it was coming into being, erected around him in his formative years, and through his development as an artist and emergence as an elder statesman and historian. By the end of the book, he’s writing from a future somehow-still-United States and a future somehow-still-extant Hip-Hop Nation.

As I arrived at the future he envisions as a reader, it was a wonder to me that imagination hasn’t pushed us past the fictions we know all nations to be. It’s not only the arbitrariness of borders but also the map’s inability ever to truly represent all we know the world to encompass. Histories can claim to be definitive, but they will always raise questions about what was left out and why.

I hope Questlove’s “Hip-Hop Is History” is not an invitation to repeat history by recording the genre in U.S. history’s prescribed molds. Instead, it should be a challenge to seize opportunities to make history more hip-hop. In this regard, the indices containing Questlove’s playlists are perhaps the book’s most instructive and representative parts.

We haven’t yet reached the point where archives of songs are seen as full texts that do all the telling we need to call them history. The hip-hop that made a career like mine possible makes way for new horizons, though, so perhaps we are on our way.

A.D. Carson is an associate professor of hip-hop and the Global South and a Shannon Center fellow for advanced research at the University of Virginia.

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