New books from Questlove and Kelefa Sanneh explore 50 years of music history

Chicago Band’s Most Attractive Album of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Roots Drummer Says at Beginning of New Book Music is a story, is Chicago III.

It’s not because he had the biggest hits – “25 or 6 to 4” and “Saturday in the Park” are on other albums. That’s because he turned to the environmental anthem “Mother” and the album cover “Tattered Flag” which spoke of a historic moment as the Vietnam War divided America.

But there’s another reason Questlove was so excited Chicago III: the time of his birth in 1971. The album “was released on January 11,” he writes. “I was released on January 20.

The book – his sixth, including the 2013 memoir Mo ‘Meta Blues: The World According To Questlove – uses the origin of its creator as a logical starting point.

It aims to offer a perspective on the history of the United States – and the history of Questlove – by using a song from each year in the author’s life to reflect on the era that shaped music and music. that shaped the era.

It’s a promising concept, and one that overlaps chronologically with another important new music book that is even more ambitious: Kelefa Sanneh’s Main Tags: A history of popular music in seven genres.

Sanneh is a former New York Times music critic and current New Yorker writer with a breadth of knowledge to rival Questlove which presents its musical history in the same time frame as Music is a story.

No decade in pop music is obsessed with more than the 1960s – witness the anticipation of Disney’s Thanksgiving week + Peter Jackson’s premier To recover beatles movie So be it.

But like Questlove, Sanneh is above all interested in the music made since. “There is an idea, common and perhaps even accurate, that music changed in the 1960s,” writes Sanneh.

“Usually it involves The Beatles, youth culture and something about the Vietnam War. But The Beatles broke up in the late 1960s, and it’s a book about what happened after that. . “

The Sanneh and Questlove books are welcome as they represent new perspectives on a story typically told by white male rock critics. In the case of Questlove, we have the perspective of a black musician with a Philly origin story who has become an ultimate insider. He knows everyone and has stories to tell.

Sanneh’s critical credentials are common in a sense: he took violin lessons as a child, played guitar in bands, and worked in record stores. But he is also the son of academics who emigrated to the United States – his late father, was black and from Gambia, and his mother, who is white, is from South Africa.

Especially in its Pop section, Main labels is an extension of ideas Sanneh set forth in a 2004 NYT essay that criticized “rock” critics for touting “straight white men” and suggested that “critics should pay more attention to genres, like disco and R&B, which were more closely associated with blacks, women and gays.

Questlove also reflected on genres and how they connect and relate to each other. The son of Philadelphia doo-wop singer Lee Andrews Thompson puts it this way: “For as long as I can remember I’ve listened to music, and that means I’ve collected it too, ranked by category, built bridges between songs that I liked. from one era and songs that I loved from another era, songs from one genre and songs from another. In other words, I was practicing some kind of history.

Gender change has always been a Roots hallmark: They’re the band that can play it all, backed by Jay-Z, Betty Wright and Elvis Costello. Music is a story funk and R&B classics like “Mind Power” by James Brown and “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder, but also “King Fit The Battle of Alabam” by Duke Ellington, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” by Allman Brothers and The Bad Plus’ jazz cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

Roots eclecticism Tonight’s Show with Jimmy Fallon is in step with an evolution towards genre-less pop music over the past two decades, accelerated by technological developments from the iPod shuffle button to all-music access streaming services.

But Sanneh’s book goes against this trend and defends the genre. Main labels“The title doesn’t refer to record companies, but to genre categories, like sections of a record store: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance and pop.

Sanneh embraces these labels. “I’m always a little puzzled when a musician is praised for transcending the genre,” he writes. “What’s so great about that?” He is interested in tribalism and how people use musical taste as a starting point and “a way of self-identification … a way of showing that they are not like everyone else”.

Main labels is full of clear and concise writings on Boy George and George Strait, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, Kacey Musgraves and Casey Kasem. Sanneh is not intended to be exhaustive, but covers an incredible amount of ground in primarily American and British music history.

If you need a clear explanation of how Detroit techno and Chicago house helped spawn British rave culture, it’s here, along with concise glimpses into familiar superstars. “Where Prince’s music radiated with joy,” he wrote, “[Michael] Jackson’s was fueled by sentiment and paranoia.

Strong passages deal with what Sanneh calls “the complicated and controversial process” of falling in love with music. The most personal section is about punk, recounting how Sanneh put aside his Bob Marley and Red Hot Chili Peppers records to sign with the Sex Pistols and Philly smart alecks the Dead Milkmen. (Another Philadelphian who gets major props is drummer Earl Young, who created the “thump and hiss” rhythm of disco.)

The punk chapter also includes a cute anecdote about his mother taking young Kelefa to a Ramones show, as 14-year-olds weren’t allowed without a parent or guardian. Sanneh moves into a more ecumenical adulthood, but his years as a true punk believer give him insight into how fans of all genres use music to build their identities.

While Main labels is a formidable feat of convincing analysis, Music is a story is a discursive book filled with stories from Questlove about his musical life. (This is written with Ben Greenman, who also has an “edited by” credit on another worthy memoir: Unrequited fads, by E Street Band guitarist Stevie Van Zandt.)

READ MORE: Questlove on Black Joy and Bring Erased History to Life with ‘Summer of Soul’

Music is a story relies on the Questlove brand as a trusted historian. Summer of the soul, his terrific 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival documentary, won the Critics Choice documentary awards this month, and I’m predicting here that it will win the Oscar for Best Documentary in March.

He also paid tribute to Jay-Z at the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gala currently airing on HBO, and has another landmark project in the works in The league, a baseball doc on the black leagues that he will produce.

A part of Music is history the stories are familiar. He has previously spoken about the 1995 awards ceremony for hip-hop magazine The Source and his role in the Notorious BIG-Tupac Shakur feud in Mo ‘Meta Blues.

But for the most part, the tales are lively and entertaining, like the 1979 chapter breaking the timeline by being a master class on Sly & the Family Stone’s 1969 hit “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and its role in the evolution of funk.

Or the chapter of 1994 which concerns the links between Michael Jackson and the tube “Hyperactive!” The latter added spice because it is also Richard Nichols, the manager of Roots who died in 2014, who occupies an important place in the book.

The online version of this story comes with two long playlists I made, compiled from the songs mentioned in each book. The playlists barely touch on the full range of music cited in the text, but at least hint at what Music is a story and Main labels have in common.

These shared attributes include a limitless curiosity, affection and compulsion to make sense of the assortment of styles of pop music of the past half century. And in doing so, hope to better understand how the music we listen to makes us who we are.

About Marcia G. Hussain

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