When you get two legends of hip-hop and R&B in the same room, what do you talk about? Where do you even start?
On one hand, you’ve got Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer and bandleader for the Grammy-winning Philly hip-hop band The Roots, which is now Jimmy Fallon’s house band on The Tonight Show. Then there’s influential R&B revolutionary George Clinton, aka Dr. Funkenstein, mover, shaker, hit-maker and beat-breaker, and tripped-out captain of Parliament-Funkadelic’s all-encompassing Mothership.
Each artist has experienced his share of the ups, downs, highs and lows in the evolution of hip-hop, albeit in vastly different ways.
And each has now put it all down on paper, Questlove with his philosophical memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove (Grand Central, $26) and Clinton with his straight-up tell-all, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You? (Atria, $27).
Both men will take part in a panel discussion Sunday at Miami Book Fair International with bestselling author and music journalist Ben Greenman, who guided Questlove and Clinton through the writing process.
For Questlove, the panel is a chance at journalistic redemption. He interviewed Clinton, one of his musical idols, years ago but got a bit star-struck, and it didn’t go quite as planned.
“The first time I did it — you ever see [the late Saturday Night Live star] Chris Farley do that bit with Paul McCartney?” said Questlove with a laugh. “You know: ‘You remember that time when you were with The Beatles...?’ That’s how I was with George Clinton: ‘You remember that time when you walked out of that spaceship? That was cool.’ So I’m gonna be more prepared this time. I’m now wise enough that I’m gonna hit the hard points, because there are so many questions that I as a fan have about his career.”
For Clinton, whose timeless and often sampled funk hits include Flash Light and Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker), it’s a chance to expand and expound on all of his wild, unbelievable experiences and countless acquaintances in the music biz.
“Oh, man — I could do three more books like that, at least,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. The Motown era — I could talk on that for a week. And people tell me, ‘Damn, that was a lot of name-dropping!’ But s---, that wasn’t even a tenth of the people I know.”
Greenman, who grew up in Miami and graduated from Palmetto Senior High School, will lead the panel and give it structure. He’ll discuss music and pop culture in general, but he will also explore with both artists what it was like to write a memoir.
“For different reasons, they thought it was a good time to do a book,” Greenman said. “Ahmir because he was becoming known as a public intellectual and is a relatively young guy without a huge amount of debauchery or plot in his life — he had done all good work. But it wasn’t the same kind of life story as George.”
To say that Clinton’s career has been one of excess is an almost laughable understatement — few artists could come close to matching his “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” lifestyle — but his twilight years have taken a sober turn, as he’s now in an ugly, lengthy battle for the copyrights to his music.
“George has had a long, long career of having this crazy persona,” Greenman said. “But I think as he gets older and particularly as he tries to explain very clearly what happened with his music, how it was taken from him by deception and the copyrights were stolen, one of the first things he said to me was that he didn’t want to be sort of weird and experimental, because that would undermine the story. By the time he got to the part about his music, he wanted to be a reliable witness, not a court jester.”
Another issue that might arise during the panel is that Questlove and Clinton expressed concerns about their respective groups not being “black enough” because of The Roots’ fondness for bands such as the Beach Boys and P-Funk’s heavy psychedelic-rock influence.
“We as a people have actually given [rock music] away,” Clinton said. “Chuck Berry and Little Richard and all of them were part of the rock-and-roll history. We have forgotten that we separated and rock became white radio, and R&B became black radio. So a lot of black people didn’t even realize that there had been black music influencing rock. But we came along playing all of it.”
Questlove says he has “zero fear now” about expressing love for traditionally “whiter” music, because the musical zeitgeist has changed.
“It’s weird that such a sexist song perfectly encapsulates what this period is now, which is the term ‘blurred lines,’” he said. “There are no more boundaries, and everything is blending in together.”
Questlove especially embraces this attitude when performing DJ sets, for which he has become renowned.
“I will play something as angry as Kanye [West]’s Black Skinhead, but then I’ll play the theme to Sesame Street right after it, and then play [Neil Diamond’s] Sweet Caroline after that. That right there is a perfect, two-minute description of what I do in my DJ sets. I don’t spin for the sake of spinning — I actually conduct experiments. What I’m trying to do is trick people into dancing and enjoying stuff that they would otherwise not let their friends catch them enjoying. There’s no shame.”
Questlove, George Clinton and Ben Greenman appear at 5 p.m. Sunday in the Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College. Free tickets are required, but there will be a standby line; www.miamibookfair.com/events.