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Mo' Meta Blues

The World According to Questlove

by Ahmir Thompson and Ben Greenman

Hardcover, 288 pages, Grand Central Pub, List Price: $26 |


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Book Summary

The drummer for the Grammy Award-winning group The Roots, which also serves as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, discusses a historical range of musical artists as well as African American art, hip hop, culture and philosophy. 40,000 first printing.

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In his new memoir, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson describes his life in music — and how he mimicked beats at just 10 months old. Danny Clinch/Grand Central Publishing hide caption

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Questlove's Roots: A 'Meta' Memoir Of A Lifetime In Music

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In his new memoir, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson describes his life in music — and how he mimicked beats at just 10 months old. Danny Clinch/Grand Central Publishing hide caption

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Danny Clinch/Grand Central Publishing

Questlove's Roots: A 'Meta' Memoir Of A Lifetime In Music

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Mo' Meta Blues

Where do I start?

I was born in West Philadelphia in January 1971. My father, Lee Andrews, had been a pioneering doo-wop singer with his group, the Hearts. They had a handful of hits — "Long Lonely Nights," "Tear Drops," "Try the Impossible" – that went Top 40, or close to it. My mother, Jacqueline, had been a model and a dancer, and she and my father opened up a store called Klothes Kloset on 52nd Street. When they started their business, in the mid-sixties, Philadelphia was a colorful, peaceful place that got steadily bleaker as the turbulence of the later part of the decade intensified. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. Gangs moved into the neighborhood, and drugs came in with the gangs. My parents' store closed when their wealthy customers fled the city. At the same time, radical black political groups were taking hold. MOVE, a black liberation organization whose members all wore their hair in dreadlocks and all took "Africa" as their last name, started in Philly in 1972, and their headquarters was just a few blocks away from our house on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.

I say "our house" because by that time I'd arrived, joining my mother, my father, and my older sister, Donn. We had a comfortable life – our little two-story house, our close-knit family, and our music. Even though the doo-wop music my father had grown up with was long gone, music was central to our family in almost every way. We had more records than I knew what to do with, and either the radio or the TV was always on, playing music. It was soul and it was rock, and I guess some of it was proto-disco (from the Greek protos, meaning first, signifying the earliest or most primitive form — so it wasn't disco yet but it was getting there).

Wait, wait, stop. Let me back it up.

First there was African music. The heavy rhythmic bed. You know how Public Enemy says, in "Can't Truss It," that they came from "the base motherland, the place of the drums"? Africa, that's the place they're talking about. That was first, the world of proto-breaks, an intimate connection between rhythm and movement, between time and life. Drums, heartbeats, human clocks, dancing with your knees bent. Then those Africans were taken out of Africa, turned from people into slaves. It's a ticket you don't have to pay for, an anti-lottery. They ended up in the so‑called New World, and it had new ways of hearing and new ways of being (or not being) heard. On the plantations the slave owners would take their slaves' drums away because they didn't want them communicating with other slaves. They were afraid that the drum was some kind of magic signal system, a primal, coded language, which it was. And is. When the drums were taken away, other instruments were taken up — fifes and fiddles and the rest, and they were used for celebration and lamentation both, and a new kind of song sprung up, a work song, to document the labor in the fields, to pass the time, to pass on the content of the time, so that people would know what had happened.

Slavery was abolished eventually, but enslavement wasn't, and the music they'd made kept documenting the life that was lived. And then there was money in the songs, or the want of it, and love in the songs, or the want of it, and pain in the songs, or the want of it. There was humanity in the songs, and multivocal humanity, a call and then a response, a way for the speaker to know that his speech was being heard, that he wasn't alone in the world, not in his love or his pain or his humanity. The same happened in gospel music, too, where religion was held out either as a sop to the people or a way of temporarily finding a light at the end of a tunnel of tribulation.

Someone once said that blues and gospel were fraternal twins, close in spirit, neither one wanting to admit how similar they looked. In blues the notes were flat --

that's what blues notes are, flatter notes designed to get closer to the music made by voices in work songs — but the stories they told were round. And then there were records and records were round, too, and they went around, and jazz records came along to help people dance. There was swinging at the Savoy Ballroom and elsewhere. Shorty George Snowden brought in the Lindy Hop. Music made more music. History made more history. Voice warred with instruments, and instruments warred with voice, but it was a virtuous war, and a war with several cease-fires: jazz grew out of a peace between black music in the New World and white music in the Old World. And then there was electricity, and then there was swing time, and then there were the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots singing in four-part harmony in and around Cincinnati, refining the fifties progression, and then there was my father's group putting out singles in Philly. I think I may have missed a beat or two in there, but that more or less brings us up to the present, right?

I was about two when I started playing the drums, but people sensed that I was headed in that direction even before that. My mom and dad said that I had a natural sense of rhythm from six months or so, and by eight months if you tapped out a pattern, I could tap it right back.

One of my earliest memories of drums came a little later than that, on Christmas Eve 1973. It's probably my earliest memory in general, and it's blurry around the edges, but I remember the center of it: waking up in bed that night and going downstairs to find a toy drum kit, a xylophone, a keyboard, and a toy guitar by the tree. Nothing was wrapped yet. Donny Hathaway's second album was playing in the background, the self-titled one with the covers of "A Song For You" and "Magnificent Sanctuary Band." My parents were sitting on the couch. They didn't chastise me for getting out of bed early. They must have gestured toward the presents, and I made my way over there. Of the four instruments, I gravitated toward the drums.

That was the epiphany, the mountain coming to Mohammed — or in this case, Ahmir. Drums and I found each other just like that — BOOM! — it was like I'd been struck by lightning. If you've ever had a kid in the house or a neighbor learning drums, you know that it's not exactly a peaceful experience. But my parents never put any restrictions on my drumming — never told me that I had to stop at eight o'clock, or keep it down below a certain level. It wasn't until much later that I thought about how surprising and lenient this was; the neighbors must have heard me pounding away at all hours of the night.

Even though I went for the drums on Christmas, I was interested in all music. I have only a handful of memories from 1973, but all of them have a vivid soundtrack. I worry that it'll be harder for the present generation to process memory, because they have so many options to choose from, and most aren't shared in a physical space. I had two kinds of experiences that I mapped to memories: records that were played in the house or on the radio, and Soul Train. Every memory of mine is paired with one of those two things.

For example, my father had two ashtrays made to look like guitars. One afternoon, someone in the house was playing Bill Withers's Still Bill. It got to the last song of side 2, "Take It All In and Check It All Out," which starts with a great keyboard part but then goes to this lean guitar line, and I started playing along on the ashtray. I was strumming like I was Bill Withers or Benorce Blackmon or whoever was playing. Except that I was playing on an ashtray, and the ashtray had a jagged bit where a chip had been taken out of the glass. It cut my hand pretty bad and I cried like crazy — like a little kid, which I was.

It's the same with my first Soul Train memory, which is from earlier in 1973, sometime in the winter. I was in the bathtub and didn't want to stay there. What kid does? I came running out of the bathroom into the living room and I fell toward the radiator, which branded me. For the next sixteen years of my life, there was a train-track-like burn from the radiator right up the outside of my leg. Anyway, at that very moment, Curtis Mayfield was doing "Freddie's Dead" on the TV. And not just "Freddie's Dead," but one specific part of the song, the modulated bridge where the horns come in. Even now, when I hear it, it traumatizes me. There's nothing technically scary about it, but it's forever welded to the memory of falling into the radiator. I'm not the only one with that kind of association. D'Angelo told me that to this day, he cannot listen to Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" without feeling terror. That's strange to me, because

when I hear that song I think of yuppies singing it in The Big Chill, reliving their youthful optimism. It's a light song for me, a party song, frothy. But for him, it's a dark place, and I'm not sure he even knows why. It's related to something in his childhood, something buried deep. I even tested him during the Voodoo tour. We were backstage, with people milling around, and I put it on the radio. He immediately stiffened, turned around, and said "Take that thing off."

What's funny about that Soul Train memory — or tragic, depending on your sense of humor — is that small memories like that can permanently distort your perspective. After the "Freddie's Dead" incident, I was really afraid of Curtis Mayfield in general. Back then, I judged records based on how the logo looked rotating on the turntable, and the Curtom logo — psychedelic lettering with a sun drawn behind the middle of the word — was a little too intense for me. And when I decided to give Curtis a second chance about a year later, I picked "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go," which was the lead track from his album Curtis. It was an unfortunate choice. All those echo effects and screams: that's not a sound any three-year-old wants to hear.

I wasn't a normal kid.

My father used to say half-jokingly that there was a little concern over whether or not I was okay. Maybe it wasn't a joke at all. The concern was about my personality, which seemed too eccentric. I don't think "autistic" was a common term back then, but I later found out that they had taken me to a doctor to see if something was really wrong.

It wasn't that I was violent or temperamental. In fact, my mom said it was a blessing because I never gave her trouble. It was the opposite — they knew exactly how to sedate me, which was to sit me in front of something that held my interest and then just leave. I'd develop a deep relationship with that thing, whether it was Soul Train or a record on a turntable. But that led to a secondary worry, which was that I was falling inward into some kind of trance. Once, when I was very young, my dad installed a light with a rotating shade around a lightbulb, one of those lamps that works like a kind of carousel. He pressed the switch that caused the shade to turn and, according to him, I just disappeared inside myself. Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen, and I didn't seem any less interested in the rotating lamp. Then my parents started noticing a broader pattern of me trying to spin stuff. I would take my sister's bike and watch the wheel go around and around. I would take my father's records and twirl them on my finger. They had a moment where they thought I might be interested in cars, because I was driving the records like a steering wheel. That was my whole entertainment for a while there, but to my parents, it was almost like a bad habit that they wanted me to drop. But I haven't dropped it, not at all. To this day, my life revolves around circles. My drums are circles. Turntables are circles. My logo or autograph, which I developed over the years through doodling, is composed of six circles. My life revolves around that shape.

Even without the circles, I knew straight off the bat that I wasn't like other kids, not the ones in my neighborhood in West Philly. My parents wanted me to survive, to thrive, and so they sacrificed everything so that I could have the better things in life — private schools, music lessons. You always hear stories of parents who put themselves out so that their son didn't end up in jail in general population. I'm not sure that's where I was headed. I had a different set of issues. I never went outside and played. I rarely interacted with other kids. It wasn't until a little later, when I started staying at my grandmother's house, that I had a brother figure in my younger cousin Mark. That was how I learned about normal kid stuff: bikes, basketball, catch‑a‑girl-freak‑a‑girl. What kind of nine- year-old takes advice about how to get a girl from a five-year-old?

"You just go up and give her a note that says 'Do I have a chance?' and then three lines under it, Yes, No, and Maybe," he told me.

I was that nine-year-old.

Our house was rich with records, maybe five thousand vinyl LPs. My father took everything that interested him, from rock to soul to folk to country. If he liked it, he liked it. He was broad in his tastes in that way, although if he was left to his own devices, he went for vocals. He was a singer, and he came from the school of Nat King Cole, so his tastes veered into tasteful soft rock with clear melodies: the yacht rock of its day, decades before anyone called it that. He liked Tapestry, 10cc, Bread. He loved singing along to the radio, tuned to Magic 103, putting out that dentist's‑office music.

The rest of the family helped to complete the picture. My sister went to all-white schools, so to blend in, she listened to mainstream rock music. She brought it all home: Ziggy Stardust, Queen, The Eagles. I was a very small child at that point, but all my rock vocabulary can be traced back to her and her need to be socially accepted by her circle. Later on, in fact, when I heard records like the Beastie Boys's Paul's Boutique, it all came back to me. And then there was my mom. If anyone in my family is what you'd think of as a crate digger, it would be her. I don't mean that she went looking for specific records, more that her judgment in music was based on the way things looked at that moment, a kind of indescribable cool. If she saw a funky album cover by psychedelic artist Mati Klarwein, she'd snap it up, so that's how the house started to fill up with all those early seventies jazz-funk records like Bitches Brew and Herbie Hancock and Santana. She got drawn into the package, and if the package looked cool, that was enough for her. As it turns out, many of those records would be used as break beats in the future, so in a way it was an early education for my career in hip-hop.

Even though my father worked in the music industry through the seventies and beyond, he believed that music died as a result of two crucial punches, one in 1973 and the other in 1979. The first punch came when James Brown put out The Payback. My father felt ripped off: it was like $17.99 for eight songs, three of which were longer than 10 minutes, the longest of which, ironically, is "Time Is Running Out Fast," which is almost thirteen minutes. It wasn't running out fast enough for my father. "Where are the hits?" he wondered. "This is like one endless song." I don't mean that he wondered internally in some kind of interior monologue. I mean that he asked that question out loud, repeatedly. "Where are the hits?"

The second album that punched him in the gut was Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. It was too abstract, too spacey, too private, and not enough of anything else. All at once he just stopped buying records.

Those LPs, disappointments for him, were birthright moments for me. He just said to me, "Here. You take these." They had wounded him and he wanted to move them away from him so that he could feel right again. So I started to study them: how they did what they did, how they stretched beyond what the artists had done before. Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants became my Dark Side of the Moon, my psychedelic masterpiece. I didn't have that experience with Pink Floyd and I didn't have it with Jimi Hendrix either, but I got it with Stevie Wonder, headphones on, tranced out, moving through space in my mind.

I loved the way that music was the center of our house, though I think I knew even at the time that it wasn't normal. Something strange was happening at 5212 Osage; I was getting a Harvard-style music education in a Joe Clark, Lean On Me environment. If you take an inner city ghetto where there's crime and violence and drugs — and there was all that around us all the time — the last thing you think you're going to find is a family that's teaching its afro'd four-year-old son the difference between Carole King's original "It's Too Late" and the Isley Brothers' version, which is this ten-and‑a‑half-minute blues-rock epic that opens up side two of their 1972 album Brother, Brother, Brother.

And it wasn't just about listening to other people's music. My early adventures with the Christmas Eve drum set turned into something more substantial, and by the time I was five, I was taking drum lessons. Right away, I learned something interesting about drum lessons: they don't let you touch the drums. Instead, they make you take tap-dancing lessons, because tap is a good way to coordinate your hands and feet. I was a latter-day Sammy Davis, Jr., a real Philly hoofer. In fact, my very first TV interview — which was also the first time I garnered complaints from other kids' parents because their daughters were hidden behind my afro — was for a dance performance. I was interviewed by Jack Jones, a local television legend who was working for KYW‑TV, the local Channel 3. (Interestingly, KYW‑TV is one of the oldest TV stations in the world: it started in the thirties as W3XE, when it was an experimental station used by the Philco Corporation, which was manufacturing some of the first television sets. Anyway, maybe that interview is in their archive, along with other significant moments in Philadelphia's cultural history: Ahmir Thompson, five-year-old tap dancer.

I say I grew up in West Philly, but the truth is that I grew up on the road. Doo-wop had gone away at some point, like many forms of music. The market dried up, popular tastes moved on. Motown and Stax came on, and then psychedelic soul, then funk and disco. But once doo-wop was good and gone, it started to come back a little bit, and my dad had the idea to rejuvenate his music career by taking advantage of this nostalgia cycle, which was going full-blast in the mid-seventies with bands like Sha Na Na, movies like Grease and American Graffiti, and television shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. The fifties were a going concern in the seventies, and on the back of that renewed interest, my dad had a good run bringing back his group, Lee Andrews and the Hearts, along with my mom and my aunt Karen. All of them sang; all of them entertained. They were the act. In that oldies revival circuit, each group did a twenty-minute set with its five hits and other songs from that period, and then either Dick Clark or Wolfman Jack or the like comes out and announces the next group, whether it's Reparata and the Delrons or Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Even during those package-tour revivals, my dad knew it would be a limited thing. They were big in Connecticut and in the Catskills but it wasn't penetrating the rest of the country, and he wanted to prolong it. So after three years or so, he jumped off the revival tour and decided to become a nightclub act. These days, it's all DJing: I can go do a four-hour DJ gig at Brooklyn Bowl or somewhere, and there are similar clubs in every city in the country. Back then, there was a oment in history where everyone had a band, and every singer was working karaoke machine. My father milked that circuit. It was a pretty predictable program that required him and his band to do a number of different sets over the course of the night. First was the dinner set, which went from cocktail hour until seven thirty, and that was softer music, the kind of thing you would hear on soap operas or in the movie theater before the Coming Attractions started: George Benson's "This Masquerade" or "The Girl from Ipanema" by Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz. Then came set two, which was the Lee Andrews and the Hearts revue. My dad would sing his four songs, but my mom was the real the star of the show. She had a look and an entertainment background, and she knew how to connect with audiences. So she would do Peggy Lee's "Fever," Shirley and Company's "Shame, Shame, Shame" on If You Can't Dance Too, or Kiki Dee's "I've Got the Music in Me," always with a little bit of audience participation or a little bit of comedy. It's the kind of thing that June Carter

did for Johnny Cash: a beautiful woman to keep the crowd happy. That lasted an hour and then the band went back to a dance set where they played whatever was in the Top 40 at the time, from "Love Rollercoaster" to "Play That Funky Music."

Finally, for the late show, my dad would do a completely different set, maybe some old soul covers, maybe some contemporary ballads. That final show was when he played the ace in the hole, which was to point at my mom. "By the way," he would say, "this beautiful woman is my wife." Then he'd point at my sister and say, "Give it up for Donn, my lovely daughter." This was a huge hit with audiences. My mother and my sister defied time. They looked like sisters. Other groups with bigger hits, like the Coasters, used to get angry because we had this added dimension. There was a period when my sister and I stayed in Philadelphia to attend school, and my parents went back out on the road to support us. Then a little later on, the family was reunited on the road, and there was another wrinkle in my father's last-set speech: "Give it up for my son, Ahmir, on the drums."

The result of all of this was that I ended up with what you might call a distorted worldview. I thought that living in a Howard Johnson's was normal. I thought everyone had ice machines in the hall and a swimming pool in the middle of a courtyard. One afternoon back in Philadelphia, I was out in the street with some kids, talking about first-class airplane meals or room service or something. And one of the kids on the block looked at me like I was an alien.

"What the hell are you talking about?" he said.

I started to explain: you know, when you get on the plane, and you see the tray of food, and you know that it's for coach instead of first class because it has the paper salt and pepper instead of the little glass shakers. At that moment, my mom appeared and told me to go in the house. Seven-year-old me wasn't registering that she was trying to protect me from a beatdown or trying to limit my involvement with kids who were headed down more dangerous paths. I didn't know, at the time, that she was trying to prevent it from turning into a game of catch-the-snob. Later on, she explained to me that I had been given access to certain experiences that granted me a different perspective than other kids in Philly had.

"Most people never leave this neighborhood," she said. "You're lucky you get to be out there seeing the whole country. But you can't talk about Muncie, Indiana, or Jacksonville, Florida, like they're neighborhoods right next to West Philly. They're not."

These days, when celebrities travel, they stay at the Four Seasons or some other high-end hotel. Back then, we stayed at airport Sheratons, and not just for a night. We camped out there while my father entertained. During our stay, we would see other acts come through, and not just musical acts — football teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Kansas City Chiefs. Boston, the arena-rock band, was there, and of course, KISS.

Have I mentioned that I was a KISS fanatic? My obsession with the band was damn near legendary. Any trip to Sears or K-Mart started with me making a beeline for the KISS records. I was both obsessed and frightened at the same time. I never heard a note of theirs for years, but I compulsively studied all the record covers. They had such a weird set of records early in their career, so many in such a short time span. In 1977 I remember seeing Dressed to Kill and Destroyer and Love Gun in record-store bins, all at more or less the same time. I learned everything I could, all the nuances and details: what Gene's makeup looked like, what kind of shoes Peter was wearing. For a while there I had "Christine Sixteen" on heavy rotation. That became my favorite song.

One night in the hotel in Buffalo, I was watching live music performances on TV as usual. There was a guy named Dan Hartman who had written "Free Ride" for Edgar Winter; later on he had a big solo hit called "I Can Dream About You." In the late seventies he recorded a disco song called "Instant Replay." He followed that up with a single called "This Is It." I remember being freaked out by that video specifically. It was the last song on Midnight Special that night, and something about it kept me up. It was one in the morning and I was thirsty, so I said to my sister, "I can't sleep. I'm thirsty."

She said, "Get the money off the dresser and go get yourself a drink."

I went into the hallway, which was a circular corridor that ran all the way around the hotel. I got a soda and walked back to the room. Just as I passed the elevator, the doors opened. Bing. Eight years old. And what I saw there was my worst nightmare come to life. It was Ace, Paul, Gene, and Peter, all in the elevator, with bodyguards. I don't think they were in full costume and makeup, but maybe they weren't totally cleaned up yet, either. At any rate, I knew it was KISS. Who else could it have been? I was excited and terrified and generally overloaded, so I let out the most high-pitched, bloodcurdling scream you can imagine. I dropped the soda and ran so fast that I went past the elevator three times. The neighbors woke up. I was the little boy who cried KISS. I got to my room breathless.

My dad took me down. It was one forty-five in the morning. Much of my life has been like that: go to sleep strictly at nine, but wake back up at midnight. I put my clothes on and went down to this lair, a kind of green room. The ratio of women to men was like eight to one. The room had two pool tables and a sit-down pinball machine that Paul Stanley was playing. It was a "Mean" Joe Greene moment.

My dad said, "Excuse me, I'm Lee Andrews." He pointed at the poster. I couldn't stop staring, and I'm betting my mouth was wide open.

Peter Criss looked at me and said, "Oh, yeah. Little screamer guy."

The whole band gave me autographs. They couldn't have been nicer. No one could believe it when I got back to school. KISS was at the apex of their power, and I was at the apex of mine because of them.

When time for elementary school came, I was terrified. Up to this point I had lived most of my life out on the road, with my family, and the idea of staying in Philadelphia seemed almost like a punishment. In reality, it was about the softest landing I could have hoped for: a private school for the performing arts. It was a large campus in City Center that contained all of the grades, not just elementary school, but also a junior high, a high school, and even a college. I was interacting with older kids and adults from the very start. Even though they weren't about to let me play first chair in chamber — during orchestra time, I think I got the triangle — I got to see it all up close. That first year, I was the only male in my grade: the rest of them were Hungarian or Russian girls whose parents had them marked for ballerina fame or violin fame or piano fame. They weren't so big on acting or contemporary music.

From the beginning, I did well at the music part of school. I was technically mature. Socially, though, it was a different story. The only people I had interacted with at that point were my parents, my sister, and my father's band. To go from that world, the only world I knew, into this dark brown building was like entering some kind of house of horrors. Not to mention that the first person I ever met was a girl named Jill, who is still a great friend of mine today. She has a neurological condition, and I had never met or seen anyone like that in my life. My first words to her were "Do you bite?" She spoke to answer me, probably to try to kindly correct me, but I heard her voice and freaked out. It was all every kind of overload. I went running for cover and ended up in the art teacher's basement, which was filled with all these Bill Plympton–inspired drawings of distorted faces and frightening gnomes.

It was a horrible, surreal experience, and as soon as I got home I told my parents that I was never going back. I cried, I protested. But they knew the way to my heart. They promised me that if I went back they would take me record shopping.

Ah, records. I was there when they premiered the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" on WDAS, 105.3 on your FM dial. I was at home with my sister, and the two of us stared at the radio the whole time it was happening; it was our equivalent of the old radio drama War of the Worlds. All the black kids in Philadelphia who were listening to the radio that day have the same story. It stopped us in our tracks. I was paralyzed. It was like we had all been struck by lightning. I remember thinking about whether I had time to go downstairs to get the tape recorder, or should I just let the song run? I ran calculations in my head. It sounded like it might go on for another five or six minutes. I went for the tape. I got it into the machine just as Wonder Mike starts his story about his dinner: "Have you ever went over to a friend's house to eat and the food just ain't no good? / I mean the macaroni's soggy, the peas are mushed, and the chicken tastes like wood." I must have listened to that tape thirty times that night. The next day in school I was a hero. I could do the whole thing. Three kids had heard the song, and they couldn't believe what I was doing. Within a week everyone had heard "Rapper's Delight," and the world was different forever.

It's hard to overstate what a change it was. The day before the song premiered on the radio, our hero was Michael Jackson. The single "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" had come out in July, and then the Off the Wall album in August, and that had hit us in a very big way. Everyone knew Michael's vocals and Michael's lyrics and Michael's dance moves. Then one day in November, we turn on the radio and there's this new thing. It was like magic. Years later, I talked to Jimmy Fallon about this and he said that he remembers doing the same thing with comedy albums — replaying them at home until he had them committed to memory, and then the next day go and performing them at school. If it was a new birth for music, it was also a new birth for me. I found my identity through hip-hop. It made me popular, and immediately I started buying it.

The first order of business was to get my hands on the "Rapper's Delight" LP, and I had a foolproof strategy. I knowingly used Steven Savitz's obsession with my sister. Steven was a handsome guy, maybe a jock, maybe an actor, a twelfth-grader with an immense crush on Donn. American society was decades away from The Game, but Steven Savitz had an idea of how he was going to get close to her, and it involved being cool with me. My first manipulative move was to ask him to buy me the record. He agreed immediately so we walked to Listening Booth on Chestnut Street after school, where he purchased my very first twelve-inch. It cost only $2.99 plus tax, $3.17 total. It was the first pressing, and amazingly, I still have it. All that was left was to figure out how to keep that gravy train going, but the Steven Savitz Method of Record Purchasing dried up pretty quickly. Every Monday there was a new rap single, so my goal was to mo' meta blues find thirty-two dimes within a seven-day period so I could buy the next twelve-inch. If I saw a dime on the floor, it went into my pocket, and I was one tick closer. If my mother asked me if I had put the dimes in the collection plate at church, I said "Yes, ma'am," but they were in fact going to another higher power: a fund to help me buy records. And just like that, my record-buying obsession began.

From Mo' Meta Blues by Ahmir Thompson. Copyright 2013 by Ahmir Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.