Hip-Hop Is History by Questlove,
with Ben Greenman

In Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s learned, discursive new book, we’re given a personal tour of rap-music history from an insider who can’t shake his outsider status. His sixth collaboration with co-writer Ben Greenman spans the life of the obsessive fan from insatiable “weird-shaped kid” to successful musician, as co-founder of the Roots, to producer, D.J., incorrigible record collector, and, now, elder statesman, covering breakbeat bootlegs, mixtape culture, and our current streaming world.

The book’s title, Hip-Hop Is History, which Questlove explains at length in the introduction, can be taken a number of ways, the most compelling being “Hip-Hop Is (My) History”—it’s a history of the genre, or perhaps a declaration that its best days are over, a sentiment Questlove underscored in an Instagram post last month responding to the recent Kendrick Lamar versus Drake battles, in which he wrote, “Hip Hop Is Truly Dead.”

At least he didn’t say, “I am the walrus.”

Part of the pleasure of reading provocative critical minds such as David Thomson or Armond White, or a pugnacious work like Nik Cohn’s 1970 tour de force, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, is disagreeing with the author. Their intellect and elan are what holds us. But it’s Questlove’s style, more than his opinions, that wears you down while belying deeper insecurities—he lords his cool-kid credentials, like when he stops “near LAX for some sushi at a supersecret place I know.”

Questlove is writing in a hyper-sensitive social-media age and deserves credit for not shying away from strong opinions, like when he suggests that Jay-Z is best served by complementary, not bravura, production, or that he didn’t initially love 1993’s seminal albums, The Chronic, by Dr. Dre (released in December 1992), and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), by the Wu-Tang Clan. He’s a rigorous thinker, and his nuanced reconsideration of both records is thoughtful, reflective, and illuminating. Questlove notes that much of the book could be subtitled “Old Man Learns Slowly.”

The son of Lee Andrews, a doo-wop-era singer and later producer of no small significance, Questlove, 53, writes that as an eight-year-old, “I was musically thirty-two or so.” But when the student becomes the teacher—Questlove has been an adjunct professor at N.Y.U. since 2012—his rhetoric grows breathless.

From left, Questlove, Kamal Gray, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, Rozell Manely “Rahzel” Brown, and Leonard Nelson “Hub” Hubbard, of the Roots, in Chicago, 1998.

He’s a thinker who adores theories (“I have a theory about hip-hop, which is that you have to keep coming up with new theories”) and principles (“One principle that will come up again and again is the impermeability of virtuosity”). He’s in love with ironic equivocations such as “It’s hard to say, but it’s easy to say why it’s hard to say,” “It promised to be not promising,” and “I vowed to myself that I would never be one of those people who didn’t know the difference. But I didn’t want to be one of the people who knew all the differences, either.”

As a producer, Questlove is known for a considered and meticulous sound. As a writer, perhaps he’s been dulled by years of kibitzing on his podcast. Or maybe he’s seen too many students dozing in his class, as he insists on reminding the reader what he’s already said: “Remember?… You should. It’s only a few pages ago”; “Remember—it was just a chapter ago.”

All of this is a drag because there are more than a few truffles to be had. Questlove’s admiration for Public Enemy and their game-changing production team, the Bomb Squad, is heightened by a poignant moment where his father, no rap convert, brightens to a line in the group’s 1989 anthem, “Fight the Power.”

Questlove shows an appealing vulnerability when depicting the difficulty of Black men crying in front of each other during the memorial for his dear colleague J Dilla, or his yearning to keep apprised of new sounds and trends as his own career crests and suddenly he is part of history. He’s generous, too. It’s lovely to see him praise Erick Sermon, the producer and rapping co-founder of EPMD; the mid-90s indie rapper J-Live; and Clipse’s invigorating 2006 album, Hell Hath No Fury.

And the idiosyncratic playlist he offers at the end of the book is fun and encourages us to go on our own deep dives.

Questlove reserves perhaps his greatest veneration for Rich Nichols, the Roots manager, who died of leukemia in 2014, and his partner, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, the rapper and co-founder of the band. Both men challenge Questlove to think harder and broaden his horizons. Their presence would be welcome here, to temper Questlove’s professorial tone, cut through a self-awareness that verges on self-pity, and focus his lively, engaging mind.

Alex Belth is the editor of Esquire Classic and the curator of the Stacks Reader. He has worked in film editing for Ken Burns, Woody Allen, and the Coen brothers