Questlove (born Ahmir Thompson) is the ultimate multihyphenate. A founding member of the acclaimed hip-hop group the Roots (now the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon), he is also a world-renowned DJ and producer, music journalist, actor, and veritable encyclopedia of music history; his books include Mo’ Meta Blues, Creative Quest, Music Is History, and Somethingtofoodabout. In a starred review, Kirkus calls his latest book, Hip-Hop Is History (AUWA Books/MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 11), co-authored by Ben Greenman, “a memorable, masterful history of the first 50 years of an indelible American art form.” The closing line of the review perfectly encapsulates what makes this book significant, the ideal literary companion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the genre: “Questlove’s instincts as a superfan and artist take this history beyond the hype to something very special.” I spoke to the author via Zoom; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The official beginning of hip-hop was the famous 1973 party with DJ Kool Herc and others, but you note that the origin story is up for debate. Could you pinpoint another possible starting point?

I don’t want to leave out the crops or the vegetation that fed hip-hop. If you look at what happened in 1967, it was such a crucial year. I guess I’ll dub it the “psychedelic soul period.” Then, if you look five years before that, the most rebellious, dangerous moment in soul music was Ray Charles having the idea of taking gospel music and secularizing it. People thought he was disgracing the church with this secular music, this devil music. If I had the final word on the timeline, I would actually argue that hip-hop started in ’62. That’s because I don’t look at hip-hop as just rapping; it’s also the music, the rhythms, the rebellion, that sort of thing.

Your theory about shifts in the genre’s landscape is fascinating. Talk more about that.

I spoke to [Public Enemy co-founder] Chuck D about this idea. Sometimes a revolution will start, and you resist it. I was honest about being the one hip-hop head that was not really a fan of The Chronic [Dr. Dre’s landmark 1992 album], but Chronic changed everything. When you’re lucky, you actually know that you’re witnessing history, like how I got to experience firsthand the work of the Bomb Squad and Public Enemy. As I talk about this project, I’m being very transparent; I don’t want the perception that I came out the womb listening to, you know, [jazz multi-instrumentalist] Yusef Lateef. I was like any other kid that just wanted to hear the popular stuff.

But your parents were working musicians.

Music was all around, but I lived in a don’t touch my stereo household. Because I’m not allowed to control the stereo, I was basically forced for the first nine years of my life to listen to what they wanted. So I was kind of amazed that in one fell swoop, the Public Enemy sound was able to make sense to me. I could hear the samples and think, Oh, my God, that’s what Dad always listens to. If Public Enemy likes it, is it cool? Years later, Chuck D told me that he wanted the group to sound like music’s worst nightmare. We want you to experience the trauma of the crack era, he said. Then in 1992, I realized that Dr. Dre slowed it down. The Public Enemy chaos sound had given way to this smoother sound.

You write that the genre has run its course in some important ways. Where do we go from here, and are there standouts that are going to lead the music into the future?

Any music will always be alive as long as somebody’s offended by it. If I hear something and think, This is the worst, I also remind myself about kids half my age, like the children of my bandmates. They’re just going crazy over somebody, and I’m thinking, How the hell do you see art in this? That brings me back to my arguments over De La Soul with my dad, who claimed that their work wasn’t music. But it is art, and things always change. Right now, people my age are asking, Do we still call it hip-hop, or something else? I do think it’s kind of weird that hip-hop has just eaten up all Black culture, like Black culture can’t survive unless it’s draped under this genre.

I think the most important rule is: We can’t make an assessment of something until 20 years have passed. The temptation today is to plant your flag and make an immediate, definitive statement. When the new Beyoncé record came out, I posted and said, People, the body’s not even cold yet. We need to let some time go by before saying this is a masterpiece. During the process of making the upcoming Sly [and the Family Stone] documentary, I thought about the perception of Sly and the universal idea that [his 1971 album] There’s a Riot Goin’ On was a masterpiece. There’s no way in hell that someone heard this the first day and was like, This is going to define music for the next 50 years. Sure enough, I went back to all those reviews, and Sly scared the shit out of everybody with this record. It wasn’t until 10 or 20 years went by that people were able to really examine it.

This instant-assessment trend must drive you insane as a working musician.

When I’m making music, I kind of know the taste of Pitchfork, or Vibe, or Rolling Stone, and early on I wanted to impress from that critical angle. With filmmaking or writing, I wasn’t taking things to that obsessive level. With my first book [Mo’ Meta Blues], I didn’t know what Kirkus was, you know what I mean? When the criticism is not your focus, then I think that’s where your true creativity comes out. But everything’s so scrutinized now, so it’s really hard to take yourself out of that place.

Since we are in the book business, I have to ask you about your collaboration with Ben Greenman.

My manager, Richard Nichols, who passed away, was heavily involved in Mo’ Meta Blues. When he first suggested I write a book, I was throwing every obstacle at him: Who writes a memoir in their 30s? Aren’t you supposed to be like 60 or 70 before you write your life story? Once I reluctantly agreed, I told him I want to make this like I make records: I never work alone on any project. So Richard asked me to make a list of writers I liked, and I decided to get out of my comfort zone of choosing someone I knew. I really wanted someone to smack my hand. At the time, I was obsessively reading magazines, including the New Yorker. Ben had some write-ups in there, and I saw our music views were the same, including our obsession with Sly Stone. I just always need an adult in the room to look for things that I might miss, you know, because I’m the king of repeating a story over again. 

Eric Liebetrau is a writer and editor in South Carolina.