Rock and Roll Book Club: Questlove's 'Creative Quest'

Questlove's book 'Creative Quest.'
Questlove's book 'Creative Quest.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Can a book really inspire you to be more creative? Even Questlove is skeptical about self-help books, and he's just written one. "I buy them and read them and then think about whether or not they contribute to my overall sense of things: specifically, how ideas move from my brain out into the world," he writes in the introduction to Creative Quest. "More often than not, they don't."

Creative Quest may or may not spark your creative juices, but it's an enjoyable read from a guy who, in addition to being creative himself, gets to hang around some of the world's most creative people every day. "I feel like my life is complete," he writes, "because I'm only a text away from a lot of the artists in my childhood record collection."

The book, in fact, opens with the drummer texting Jimmy Jam "about an obscure B-side from 1987." Throughout Creative Quest, the Roots drummer describes all sorts of encounters he's had with fellow creatives. Even if you don't put the book down and go write your own hit single, you'll enjoy the peek into Questlove's life and brain.

The book is organized into chapters that touch on different themes regarding creativity. Among them: "Mentors and Apprentice," "The Network," "Curation as Cure," and "The Market." I found the latter chapter most interesting, because it engages the question of how a popular entertainer balances originality and mass appeal.

Questlove, he explains, sees the movie Purple Rain as an allegory about creativity. In the beginning, we know the Kid is brilliant, but he's not connecting with the crowd as successfully as the Time. By the end of the film, Prince's character has realized "that he has to incorporate the needs of the audience into his formula. And what happens? He beats the Time at the band's own game. He connects emotionally (with 'Purple Rain') and also delivers a pair of smoking funk anthems (with 'I Would Die 4 U' and 'Baby I'm a Star.')"

The book is also about taking criticism. As a critic myself, I appreciated Questlove's injunction to "be aware that when you are dealing with works of criticism, you are dealing with creative products." Of course, that awareness didn't make it any easier to stomach a 5.4 rating from Pitchfork for the Roots' The Tipping Point. Still, Questlove argues, failure can be liberating: he advises artists to just keep working. "Even when you don't feel like a Sex Machine, you get on up."

One reason Creative Quest is hard to use as a practical guide is that some of the author's advice is contradictory. On the one hand, "Get Out of Your Comfort Zone." On the other hand, don't be afraid to repeat yourself. ("Remember to copy the best, because you are the best.") Distraction is the enemy of creativity, but it's also its friend.

A consistent theme is that collaboration is key, especially if you're collaborating with people who are very different from yourself. Questlove remembers playing with JAY-Z, who the Roots backed on his MTV Unplugged performance. The drummer thought the collaboration wouldn't work because the rapper is a "classic Type A" achiever whereas the Roots are "hardcore Type B" creatives — but in the end, the session went beautifully.

Although he writes a bit about the Roots' recordings (he singles out "The Seed 2.0," a successful collaboration with Cody ChesnuTT), Questlove is more interested in the bricolage of DJing and hip-hop beatmaking. "DJing may be the purest form of curation," he writes. "It affords you the opportunity to build a collage of the world's sounds." He reveres the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy's production team, who invented whole new ways to build sonic worlds.

For Questlove, the Bomb Squad represent one form of creativity: the deliberate, highly strategic kind. (Without the benefit of Pro Tools, the producers had to adopt an incredibly methodical work process.) On the other hand, creativity means embracing spontaneity and freedom. Questlove argues that it was a pivotal moment in hip-hop history when Stevie Wonder appeared on The Cosby Show and spontaneously sampled Theo's voice. A generation of future hip-hop artists, Questlove writes, suddenly realized that they were dealing with a whole new rulebook.

Creative Quest is at its most enjoyable when the author gets creative with his own writing. To explain the difference between a cover song and a parody, for example, he takes a simile from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. "Willie Wonka was trying to make gum that was dinner," he writes about the candy that inflated Violet Beauregarde into a purple balloon. "He was trying for a kind of cover version. But what he ended up with was gum that reminded people of parts of dinner with exaggeration that was funny and a little grotesque. What he ended up with was parody."

Parody can be funny, and freeing, argues Questlove — that's why he likes playing hit songs with superstars on toy instruments. It makes them accessible, and liberates listeners to think about how they might create their own new art. Free your mind, as En Vogue sang, and the rest will follow.

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