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

The Roots drummer and “Summer of Soul” director and the New Yorker writer each have new books that take in a half century of pop music from a fresh perspective.

Questlove's new book is 'Music Is History.'
Questlove's new book is 'Music Is History.'Read moreDaniel Dorsa

The album by the band Chicago that Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has been most drawn to, the Roots drummer explains at the start of his new book Music Is History, is Chicago III.

That’s not because it had the biggest hits — “25 or 6 to 4″ and “Saturday in the Park” are found on other albums. It’s because he gravitated toward the environmental anthem “Mother,” and the “Tattered Flag” album cover that spoke to a historical moment as the Vietnam War divided America.

But there’s another reason reason Questlove was so keen on Chicago III: the timing of its 1971 birth. 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 its creator’s origin as a logical starting point.

It aims to offer a perspective on the history of the U.S. — and the history of Questlove — by using one song from each year of the author’s life to reflect on the times that shaped the music, and music that shaped the times.

It’s a promising concept, and one that chronologically overlaps with another prominent new music book that’s even more ambitious: Kelefa Sanneh’s Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres.

Sanneh is a former New York Times music critic and current New Yorker staff writer with a breadth of knowledge to rival Questlove’s who presents his musical history within the same time frame as Music Is History.

No decade in pop music is obsessed over more than the 1960s — witness the anticipation for the Thanksgiving week Disney+ premier of Peter Jackson’s Get Back movie about the Beatles’ Let It Be.

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

“Usually this involves the Beatles, and youth culture, and something about the Vietnam War. But the Beatles broke up at the end of the 1960s, and this is a book about what happened afterwards.”

Both the Sanneh and Questlove books are welcomed because they represent fresh points of view on a history usually told by white male rock critics. In Questlove’s case, we get the perspective of a Black musician with a Philly origin story who’s become an ultimate insider. He knows everybody, and has stories to tell.

Sanneh’s critic credentials are common in one sense: He took violin lessons as a kid, played guitar in bands, and worked in record stores. But he’s also the son of academics who emigrated to the U.S. — his late father, was Black and from Gambia, and his mother, who’s white, is from South Africa.

Particularly in its Pop section, Major Labels is an expansion of ideas Sanneh laid out in a 2004 NYT essay that took “rockist” criticism to task for lionizing “straight white men” and suggested that “critics ought to pay more attention to genres, like disco and R&B, that were more closely associated with Black people, women and gay people.”

Questlove has also been thinking about genres, and how they connect and relate to one another. The son of Philadelphia doo-wop singer Lee Andrews Thompson puts it like this: “As long as I can remember, I have been listening to music, and that means I have also been collecting it, categorizing it, building bridges between songs I loved from one era and songs I Ioved from another era, songs from one genre and songs from another. In other words, I was practicing a kind of history.”

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

The eclecticism the Roots display on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is in step with a move toward a genre-less pop music over the last two decades, hastened by technological developments from the iPod shuffle button to the all-music all-the-time access streaming services provide.

But Sanneh’s book bucks that trend and argues in defense of genre. Major Labels’ title refers not to record companies, but genre categories, like sections in a record store: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance, and pop.

Sanneh embraces those labels. “I am always a bit puzzled when a musician is praised for transcending genre,” he writes. “What’s so great about that?” He’s interested in tribalism, and how people use musical taste as argument starters and “a means of self-identification ... a way to show that they’re not like everyone else.”

Major Labels is full of clear, concise writing about Boy George and George Strait, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, Kacey Musgraves and Casey Kasem. Sanneh doesn’t aim to be exhaustive, but covers an incredible amount of ground of mostly American and British music history.

If you need a clear explanation of how Detroit techno and Chicago house helped give birth to British rave culture, it’s here, as are pithy insights on familiar superstars. “Where Prince’s music radiated joy,” he writes, “[Michael] Jackson’s was fueled by sentiment and paranoia.”

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

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

While Major Labels is a formidable feat of cogent analysis, Music Is History is a discursive book chock full of Questlove’s stories about his music-filled life. (It’s written with Ben Greenman, who also has an “edited by” credit on another worthy new music memoir: Unrequited Infatuations, by E Street Band guitarist Stevie Van Zandt.)

» READ MORE: Questlove on Black joy and bringing erased history back to life with ‘Summer of Soul’

Music Is History builds on the Questlove brand as a trusted historian. Summer of Soul, his terrific documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, swept the Critics Choice documentary awards this month, and I’m predicting here it will win a best doc Oscar in March.

He also directed a salute to Jay-Z at the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gala currently airing on HBO, and has another historical project in the works in The League, a baseball doc about the Negro Leagues he’ll executive produce.

Some of Music Is History’s stories are familiar. He already told the one about the 1995 awards show for hip-hop magazine The Source and its role in the Notorious B.I.G.-Tupac Shakur feud in Mo’ Meta Blues.

But mostly the tales are lively and entertaining, like the 1979 chapter that violates chronology 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 1994 chapter that concerns connections between Michael Jackson and British synth-pop star Thomas Dolby’s hit “Hyperactive!” The latter has added poignancy because it’s also about Richard Nichols, the Roots manager who died in 2014, who looms large in the book.

The online version of this story is accompanied by two lengthy playlists I made, compiled from 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 History and Major Labels have in common.

Those shared attributes includes a boundless curiosity about, affection for and compulsion to make sense of the smorgasbord of pop music styles of the past half century. And in so doing, to hope to better understand how the music we listen to makes us who we are.