- Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm—Dan Charnas
- Music Is History—Questlove
- Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories—Joan Silber
- The Kite Runner—Khaled Hosseini
- Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska—Warren Zanes
- Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future—James Shapiro
- Small Mercies—Dennis Lehane
- Pied Piper—Nevil Shute
I have occasionally vowed not to pick up any more books about music or musicians, on the grounds that I already know too much about both. For example, I know a lot more about Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records and the man who discovered Elvis, than I do about Proust (novels read: zero); I have read Peter Guralnick’s eight-hundred-page biography of Phillips, and his magisterial two-volume Elvis biography. And I know a lot more about the Australian indie-rock band the Go-Betweens than I do about Matisse, or the reign of George IV, or most things, really. On my shelves there are two books that deal with the relationship between Robert Forster and Lindy Morrison of the Go-Betweens. To be fair, I own a book about Matisse, too, but I haven’t actually picked it up in the eighteen years since it came out. The Forster-Morrison books were devoured almost immediately after purchase, and purchased almost immediately upon publication.
Then again, isn’t this what I do and who I am? I read mostly fiction, memoirs, essays, social histories, and books about the arts, and the arts I am most drawn to are literature, film, and music. In the years remaining for me on the planet, how much of an expert on the kings and queens of Britain am I going to become? But maybe expertise isn’t the point. Maybe a smattering of knowledge about everything is the way to go. But to what purpose? So that I can become a better-rounded person? I think I am doomed to being misshapen, and I should make my peace with that.
In any case, the two music books I have read recently have led me to conclude that I don’t know nearly as much about music as I’d thought. Questlove’s terrific new book about music and history, called—just in case you were doubting my three-word summary—Music Is History, is stimulating, engaged, wise. But in passing it introduced me to probably one hundred songs I didn’t know before, and I now have a playlist that finds room for both Herb Alpert and Living Colour. Right now, this second, I am listening to Faze-O, a mid-’70s funk band from Dayton, Ohio; if any Believer reader owns a Faze-O record, they can have a free subscription to the magazine for life, on me, but you have to have kept the receipt. Dan Charnas’s Dilla Time provided more than one playlist, and taught me more about the creation of music over the last forty years than I have ever learned from a single volume. Questlove and Charnas have both convinced me it would be stupid to switch my attention elsewhere. In the end, what we want from any book is a new way of thinking about the world, through any prism the writer has at their disposal. And if this comes through a contemplation of music, which I love, rather than, say, a study of the brussels sprout, which, like every right-thinking person, I loathe, then why not stick to your home territory? My aim is to learn, to think differently, to become smarter, and those outcomes are just as likely through further contemplation of music—more likely, even, given that I am likely to read books about music with rapt attention.
J Dilla—Jay Dee, James Dewitt Yancey, born and raised in Detroit—made beats from samples, but his beats were unlike anyone else’s beats. They were so different that Dan Charnas (whose name, incidentally, does not appear on the front cover of his book) advances the idea that “Dilla time” is a new way to describe rhythm, alongside “straight time” and “swing time.” In Dilla time, component parts of the rhythm—the snare, the cymbals, the hi-hat—are manipulated so they don’t land quite where they are supposed to. “It was almost as if the hi-hat was saying, ‘We’re going to go fifty-five miles per hour’ and the snare came through right after and said, ‘No, seventy miles per hour…’ The effect was disorienting in a way that listening to something simply straight or solely swung wasn’t. It was elastic—like the feeling of going faster, then slower, then faster, then slower, but never actually varying one’s speed.”
Why bother? Well, why bother with bebop, or cubism? Before cubism, there were all sorts of ways of depicting the world with paint. Why did we need a new one? I am hoping you regard these questions as rhetorical, by the way. That’s what they are meant to be. If you’re looking for answers, you have come to the wrong place. (Critical writing, it occurs to me, is full of rhetorical questions posed by critics who are terrified of being asked to provide answers.) And unlike so many artistic innovations, Dilla time hasn’t led us up a blind alley. Everything started to sound like Dilla. Other producers ripped him off. Other musicians set themselves the task of learning to play Dilla time. Questlove—a drummer, we must remind ourselves, as well as an Oscar-winning filmmaker and writer—“had to counteract a lifetime of physical reflexes, to retrain his body to do things and feel time differently.” The results can be heard best, perhaps, on D’Angelo’s still-startling Voodoo, recorded at the turn of the century, with its loping, peg-legged, treacle-thick feel. I want to say it sounds timeless, but timing is all, and in any case, for all I know, it might sound like a Glenn Miller record to young people.
Charnas’s ambition in Dilla Time is admirable. There is the potted history of rhythm, complete with clap-along grids and charts. There is an equally concise and comprehensible history of the drum machine. There is a narrative that runs parallel to Yancey’s story, about the glories and perils of collaboration: the Soulquarians were the loose group of musicians responsible for Voodoo, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, and Common’s Like Water for Chocolate; the Ummah was a production collective consisting of Dilla, A Tribe Called Quest, and others, a team that left its lopsided fingerprints on songs by Janet and Michael Jackson, the Brand New Heavies, and scores of other tracks. Who did what and who owned what caused tension and mistrust. And then there’s the story of James Yancey himself, a genius, whose messy habits and personal life broke hearts, and who died, at the age of thirty-two, of a rare blood disease. I couldn’t have been more stimulated by Dilla Time. I don’t know a huge amount about hip-hop, but it’s just music, right? (Another risky rhetorical question.) And the music was made by someone teeming with ideas, and with a breathtaking, painstaking commitment to his art, and this is as good a book about creativity as you will come across.
Questlove’s book consists of chapters about every year in history from 1971 until 2001, with a chapter at the end covering the twenty-first century. The year 1976, for example, takes as its starting point “Sir Duke,” Stevie Wonder’s euphoric song about Duke Ellington, a single released from Songs in the Key of Life, his seventh album of the decade. From there it’s an easy jump to some musings about Sir Duke himself and his complicated Republicanism; and to Nixon, a great Ellington admirer; and to the Bicentennial. You don’t want to read about that? Why not? I don’t want to know, in case you were thinking of telling me. That would mean you’re not the person I thought you were. Music is the prism, but Questlove finds room for an awfully big chunk of the world. The year 1975 is Al Jarreau and the Weather Underground. The year 1983 is Reagan, the threat of nuclear warfare, the history of songs about the threat of nuclear warfare—songs by Prince, Mingus, Sun Ra—and the forgotten story of ten-year-old Samantha Smith from Maine, who wrote a letter about her fears to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, had her letter printed in the Soviet newspaper Pravda, went to Moscow with her family for two weeks, appeared on the Johnny Carson show, and died in a plane crash shortly afterward. The year 1998 is the Outkast song “Rosa Parks” and the civil rights icon’s rather disappointing attempts to sue the band, which she was allowed to do despite First Amendment restrictions on the grounds that the song wasn’t about her at all. All human life is here, and an awfully big chunk of Black American history. I’m not going to get any of that in “From Brussels with Love! What an Unpleasant Green Vegetable Teaches Us About Ourselves.” (There is no such book… yet. If you want to write it, help yourself.)
There is very little about music in Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, first published in 2004 but only just seeing the light of day in the UK, hopefully because more and more people in my home country are discovering the writer’s unique brilliance. The Italian poet Gaspara Stampa, the central and titular character in the third story here, plays the lute and sings, and there is a young gay man who sings Stampa’s poems in the second story, “The High Road.” But mostly these stories are about unhappy people and their angular connections to God and faith.
What Silber does do, however, if I can force the musical theme—and what else is this column, apart from themes forced upon unsuspecting and dissimilar books?—is write mixtapes. She takes a big theme—religion here; commitment to an idea in Fools—and writes short stories that kind of bleed into one another. That’s what we used to do with cassette tapes in the days before Spotify: recording in real time allowed us to form ideas for the next song. I don’t really miss those days, because I can now make a playlist in a few minutes, as opposed to a compilation tape in a couple of hours. But I do know my playlists aren’t as good, or at least as thoughtful, as the old mixes were. Silber’s stories are always surprising in the jumps they make. We are whisked from the twentieth to the fifteenth century, from China to France. I wonder whether Silber does listen to her own stories, allowing one to lead to the next, as if she were making a tape, or whether, when she has finished, she shuffles the order, like a band making an album.
The stories are always piercing and surprising. In fact, two of them end, unexpectedly, with the onrushing deaths of first-person narrators, which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t be allowed in a writing class. And they are both large-hearted and extraordinarily detailed, and the themes pull you through as if you were reading a more conventional narrative. I know we’re not really supposed to talk about how easy a book is to finish, but actually it’s important to all of us, and I whipped through Ideas of Heaven as if it were a beach-read thriller.
The other fiction I read recently was Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, first published in 2003, and not a novel in need of championing, seeing as several million people have bought it. But it is a novel that needs defending, and at the request of the book’s publishers, I am helping them defend it, in a small way. Over the last twenty years it has frequently featured on a list of the books most banned by school districts and libraries in the United States, mostly because it contains a description of homosexual rape. There are also fears, according to Carnegie Mellon University’s Banned Books Project, that it might inspire terrorism and “promote Islam.” The rape scene is not gratuitous, needless to say. It haunts the characters in the novel for years, and it is the event on which the entire narrative turns. It’s so crucial to the novel that it’s hard to think of anything else that would have served the same purpose—in fact, it’s hard to imagine how the novel could even exist without it. But it goes on being challenged, by parents and by school boards. Who are these parents that get upset about the books their kids are reading? If I had spotted one of my sons with his head buried in, say, The Joy of Bestiality or How to Smoke Crack, I would have been too amazed and delighted by their engagement with the written word to intervene. Needless to say, The Kite Runner is a book that every teenager should read. If nothing else, they would learn, paradoxically, the utter misery of living in a country where freedoms have been eroded by religious persecution. “I had thought America was against totalitarianisms,” said Margaret Atwood on hearing that one of her books had been banned in Texas. “If so, surely it is important for young people to be able to recognize the signs of them. One of those signs is book-banning. Need I say more?”
There is music in The Kite Runner. But when the narrator returns to his home city of Kabul, now in the grips of the Taliban, it’s all gone. Listen to it and read about it as much as you can, before Florida and Texas decide it’s too much fun.