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Questlove Has a Few More Thoughts on Modern Hip-Hop

The Roots drummer’s latest work of criticism, ‘Hip-Hop Is History’, looks back at his decades-long relationship with the genre


Christian Germoso Photography*

When a publisher suggested that Questlove write a book about the history of hip-hop, he was reticent at first. Not because of any fear of writing — the Roots drummer is an accomplished author, with a back catalog that includes an acclaimed 2013 memoir, along with volumes like 2021’s Music Is History. The problem? He was unsure of where he fits into the landscape of hip-hop in his mid-fifties.

“This was once my girlfriend,” he says of the genre he grew up loving. “I guess we’re still married, but I don’t know how I feel about her right now. I was a little worried to see if I had any real substantial opinions about hip-hop post-2015.”

After wrestling with those doubts, he ended up writing Hip-Hop Is History, out this summer via his own imprint, AUWA Books. The book is divided into chapters representing five-year increments of hip-hop’s development on the sevens and twos (1982, 1987, 1992, 1997 …). Each chapter references era-defining lyrics from artists such as Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, and Lil Yachty. He also chose to augment the chapters with his perception of the drugs that defined any given five-year period: crack from 1987 to 1992, “sizzurp” from 2002 to 2007, and opioids from 2017 to 2022. (Questlove predicts fentanyl to be the drug of note from 2022 to 2027.)

“I believe that the sound of Black music is based on what we are self-soothing our pain with,” he says. “I got that from Chuck D. He told me, ‘We wanted the world to know how crack was affecting us.’ Once he put it that way, I started doing a CSI chart at my crib.”

He began that music investigative work in upstate New York at the start of Covid lockdown, a time that, Questlove recalls, started with a couple of weeks of “panicking in the fetal position.” Later, he used his Sunday routine of listening to new music for three to five hours as a way of getting acclimated with modern hip-hop. In time, he was ready to start crafting the book with longtime writing collaborator Ben Greenman, an author and former New Yorker editor whom Questlove jokingly calls “the adult in the room” for this process.

“If done on my own, this probably would’ve wound up just being a memoir, and it wasn’t that,” he says. Even so, he adds, “I always let the reader know: ‘This is a subjective opinion.’ I let you know where my life was and how my relationship was with it.”

The average author might have written about Kanye West’s pre-College Dropout determination through quotes or lyrics; Questlove shares a hilarious story about a young West reciting his bars to Black Thought backstage while the latter is putting on his pants before a show. Elsewhere, there’s a poignant story about the shocking way in which the Roots heard that the Notorious B.I.G. had been killed in 1997 (before they got a chance to tell him they weren’t intentionally dissing him in the “What They Do” video).

The book’s prologue places us squarely into the torrent of tension that Questlove experienced while coordinating the Grammys’ Hip-Hop 50 performance in 2023. He also reveals how his intense work ethic has taken a toll on his romantic life. These details add to the richness of Hip-Hop Is History; it’s not a dryly-written encyclopedia, it’s a glimpse of one hip-hop head’s lifelong journey with the genre.

When I speak with Questlove over Zoom, it’s just an hour after Kendrick Lamar’s “Euphoria” diss to Drake dropped, and he has plenty of thoughts. “I don’t know if I’m in the same game of hip-hop that Drake and Kendrick are in,” he says. “Listening to their back-and-forth sparring, I feel engaged in it only because I’m of it, but I’m not in it.”

Weeks later, he’ll go on to draw the ire of hip-hop heads by declaring “nobody won” the Lamar and Drake beef and that “hip-hop is truly dead” at the hands of the spectators egging on the salacious turn the conflict took. A week after that, Questlove responds to the detractors by telling them even more bold opinions are coming in his book: “Yall really about to have a field day with that one if this morning is any indication.” Time will tell which takes from Hip-Hop Is History end up riling hip-hop fans the most.

From Rolling Stone US