April 24, 2018
Questlove's new book on the creative process, and living a connected, creative life, is one of the most honest, open, amusing, and best I've ever read.
One of the things that has always intrigued me most about creativity is the nature of creative movements and cultural connections. Cubism and the Renaissance, Impressionism, Dadaism, and Surrealism were all collective movements of individual artists working in a similar style that had immense influence not only on the art that was produced at the time, but on the culture that we've all inherited. And that is just the visual art of what we call the Western World. Whether it's the Beat Generation, The Harlem Renaissance, the Bloomsbury Group, or New Wave Cinema, Magical Realism, Free Jazz, or even Yacht Rock, what we're exposed to, what we see and hear and read as we grow, shapes who we grow up to be, shapes who we become.
I was born in 1980, which means I was lucky enough to come up at a time when hip-hop was a cultural juggernaut reaching every corner of the Earth. I think I first encountered it through the movie Beat Street, which found my three older brothers on a small farm in southeastern Wisconsin, and which we watched over and over again growing up. I had a lot of influences growing up, but—like many young people—those that most occupied my mind as I came of age in the '90s came through my speakers and headphones. I listened to all types of music, but the creative movements that stood out were collectives (or crews) that went by names like Native Tongues, Hieroglyphics, Solesides, and Project Blowed—the list of crews and collaborations could continue into tomorrow.
One of the most fruitful collectives of that era came out of the home of Questlove, cofounder of The Roots, situated on St. Albans in South Philadelphia. Erykah Badu, Common, D'Angelo, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and many more passed through. Questlove tells that story, and so much more, in his new book Creative Quest. He wrote this book to resolve, or at least explore, a creative tension that may be inherent in the creative process itself. He wrote it, in part, because—as he says in the opening lines of the book—he's still not sure if he is truly creative. That's right, the man at the center of a musical movement whose artistic output rivals any you can mention, whose commercial success is much more than substantial, who was one of the producers of the musical Hamilton, and who leads his band on nationally broadcast television every night of the work week, wonders if he is personally creative. Creative Quest, by the way, is his fourth book. And, in it, he answers his own concern in many ways:
I don't see the point in arguing that some people are more creative in some essential way. What I would say definitively is that creativity is unevenly distributed within one individual. It operates differently in different disciplines. It operates differently in different times. We all have blind spots and creative areas where we wilt, but we also have bright spots and creative areas where we flourish.
As a result, all people—who are all creative people, at least in some respect, though maybe not in traditional ways—still have to learn to locate their ideas, how to execute them, how to feel about them once they're released into the world, and how to cope with the reactions of others.
The book also aims to bridge the gap between two different types of book about creativity: the how-to guide, and the therapeutic.
I wanted to write a book that does both at the same time. I have worked as a creative professional since I was in my teens, and I feel compelled by each of these capacities: "creative" and "professional." Art doesn't have to be something you do only behind closed doors, for personal spiritual gain. But it also isn't simply a product-based process that's at the mercy of the market. I live and work at the intersection of art and commerce.
So, Questlove writes about the usefulness of meditation—the practice of micro-meditations in his case—the importance of mentors in his life, and the lives of other creative people he knows. He explores how ideas are influenced, and why "pure originality is at least partially a myth." He tells us how hearing a Pharcyde song produced by J Dilla taught him the importance of preserving the humanity in his music at a time when he wanted his drumming to be as indistinguishable from a drum machine as possible. He also tells us he put in a little fill on "Things Fall Apart" to fend off internet trolls who might claim it was looped, which he admits is "a little strange and defensive." He talks about aging as an artist, and how one's creative identity changes over time, and his conversation with D'Angelo about becoming an "oldies" act after hearing Childish Gambino's Awaken, My Love! is both insightful and slightly terrifying. He uses examples from cooking and cartooning, comedy and filmmaking to explore how to begin, find, and test your creative ideas.
He writes about the creative pros and cons of the internet, and how in the "online world, the brain is more a hunter-gatherer and less a farmer"—referencing a favorite author of ours, Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, using Greg Satell (Mapping Innovation), as counterpoint. He gives us permission to be distracted, and license to parody. (I never knew Nick Lowe named his album Bowi in response to David Bowie's album Low, which he jokingly took as an affront to his name being spelled wrong.) He explains "Questlove's corollary to Gladwell's Ten Thousand Hours" and why he thinks it's important to do something creative other than your primary creative pursuit, why "for every hour you spend doing something," you should "spend at least a few minutes doing something else."
Perhaps more important than anything, including trying out other creative pursuits, it's imperative to try on other ideas and viewpoints:
That's one thing about being creative. Don't be too set in your own ways. Be suggestible from time to time. Allow unexpected influences … to shift your ideas. You can always come back to your own convictions if they're real. But be a tourist in other perspectives.
His writing is funny without trying too hard to be funny. His humor isn't wry, so much as it occupies the pages in the ways a father sprinkles smart-ass comments throughout a family outing, replete with pop culture references and quirky asides. Discussing why it is helpful to imagine the critical reaction to your work as you're making it, to think backwards, he writes:
I will go on to mention other kinds of backward thinking over the course of this book, although if you're reading the book backward, you have already seen them.
"The creative process doesn't happen in a vacuum," he tells us, "unless you're James Dyson. (That was a joke about the vacuum magnate.)" There is a Simpsons quote on page 152.
Questlove's intelligence is immense, but he doesn't diminish or intimidate the reader with it. The dry humor helps, but it is also more of a conversation than compulsory instruction.
He addresses social and political issues, including that there is a very real "racial component to the issue of success," in a personal, easy, open, and honest way.
He uses his own life, and the lives of other notable creative people he knows, to explain why it's useful to pay attention and homage to your influences, to revisit of your own earlier work with a clear eye, and to let you know that "failure is not fatal."
Questlove opens the book with a question, and a creative tension, and leaves both deliberately unresolved. In the process, the question forms connections. And one of the things that has always intrigued me most about creativity is the nature of creative movements and their interconnections. Whether it's discovering the relationship between economist John Maynard Keynes and the Bloomsbury Group, between Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, or simply seeing Biz Markie on Yo Gabba Gabba for the first time with a sleep deprived toddler going through sleep regression, I've always loved that rich interconnection and lived serendipity of influences and artistic ramifications. It's as simple as discovering the loop on Common's "Resurrection" comes from Ahmad Jamal's piano line on "Dolphin Dance"—which I would have never known if it weren't for a stack of records gathering dust at a flea market in Richmond, Illinois. It's as profound as Max Roach writing We Insist: Freedom Now Suite (in my top five favorite albums of all time) in response to the lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides of 1961, and taking it on the road to raise money for civil rights organizations—and the chills it gave me to learn that it was once performed at the University of Southern Illinois with dancers and a 70-voice choir. It's the Roots first album in 1993, a monumental year for hip-hop in which Dr. Dre dropped The Chronic, and also brought the Digable Planets' first release out of Brooklyn, Souls of Mischief's first out of Oakland, and Buck 65's first mix tape in Canada. To me, it felt like the whole world had changed back then. For me, it did. What you see and hear and read as you grow, shapes who we grow up to be, shapes who we become. With two young kids at home and a job that requires my nose to be perpetually in a book (I'm not complaining) I don't follow music as closely as I once did, but I keep up when I can. Hearing Milo, coming out of Milwaukee, featured on a recently released track from Busdriver (who I've listened to since I was a teenager) or vice versa, feels like two worlds colliding, and the world being made whole at the same time. I recently discovered Tobe Nwigwe—who I now cannot stop listening to—after Shea Serrano, author of The Rap Year Book and Basketball (and Other Things), wrote about him over at The Ringer. And I still get to make creative connections through the books I read and review each week. Thankfully, in Creative Quest, I have now found Questlove leading the way there as well.
We have 20 copies available.