Meta is all up in the news these days. That’s pretty deep for a concept that I didn’t think about until Ron Artest became Meta World Peace. Then the NSA phone hacking scandal broke and the government tried to calm fears that Big Brother was listening in on our phone calls and perusing our e-mails by saying that were looking at the meta analysis.
Meta analysis is a statistical term referring to the combining and contrasting of results from different studies to identify patterns and sources of disagreement among those results or other interesting relationships that come to light in the context of multiple studies. It’s that last phrase that has the NSA slumming through our phone calls.
Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson, the drummer for the hip-hop group The Roots, performs a form of meta analysis on the evolution of hip hop in his memoir that has the convenient title “Mo Meta Blues.” The title is an obvious play on the film “Mo’ Better Blues,” the 1990 Spike Lee movie about jazz musicians struggling to balance art, commerce and love.
Thompson refers to the movie in several instances – usually in reference to this discussion on art, commerce and race between band leader Bleek (Denzel Washington) and saxophonist Shadow (Wesley Snipes).
In many ways, Bleek and Shadow’s debate becomes the defining issue for The Roots and for every other performer in the hip-hop genre. (and I would add R&B performers as well). Bleek holds the jazz purists view that listeners – particularly black listeners who came from the communities that produced jazz – rejected the music. Shadow rejects that argument by saying that purist drove black fans away by refusing to play the music that those fans like. Ken Burns addressed that view in his documentary “Jazz” when he interviewed a couple that danced at ballrooms such as the Savoy in the pre-war years. That couple noted that the be-bop music that rose in the post war years reside in was not dance friendly. One photo in the documentary showed a “no dancing” sign posted in a club.
The art versus commerce debate reasserted itself with full force at that time that hip-hop supplanted R&B as the soundtrack of urban music in the 1990s and went on to become a cultural and marketing force. This is where “Mo’ Meta Blues” dives into meta analysis and ?uestlove is at his most insightful.
The book received mostly positive reviews although some noted that ?uestlove largely refused to engage in the pop music memoir convention of engaging in backstage dish. Point taken. I’m moving through the book at a good (for me) pace. I have given up hope that I will learn more about ?uestlove’s adventures in prom land with Amel Larriuex, I wonder if a conversation with Alicia Keys might lead to something. Will it? I guess I’ll have to keep reading.
For me, the backstage dish is not the most interesting stuff in this book. I’m fascinated by the clear eyed analysis ?uestlove and group manager Richard Nichols give on hip-hop’s commercial and artistic evolution. In chapter 14 both men hit on something that has bothered me for years.
The industry’s bias is toward commercial music. However, artists toiling in the black genres of R&B and hip-hop often operate under the additional burden of operating in two genres where corporate interests seem to stifle artistic diversity. Nichols addresses it directly in the following quote in this uniquely organized book.
“it’s a question of how arty you’re allowed to be when you’re black,” Nichols writes. “Take Dirty Projectors. I like that record. It’s not like everybody in the world is talking about it,m but they respect it and it sells 37,000 copies. I can’t really think of black artists who sell so little and maintain a level of respect.”
?uestlove writes that The Roots worried that Geffen might drop the group for soft sales of Illidelph Halflife – an album that sold 300,000 units. This is a book that needs to be read and discussed by music fans.