In Questlove’s recent autobiography Mo Meta Blues, he describes the formation of the Soulquarians, a collective which coalesced during recording sessions for his Roots’ Things Fall Apart, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. Its core members were James Poyser, D’Angelo, J Dilla and himself, all who had the astrological sign of Aquarius. It quickly evolved into shorthand for a period which saw the peak of neo-soul as an artistic movement.
Its genesis began during a series of house jams the Roots threw in Philadelphia, which attracted fledging local singers like Bilal, Musiq Soulchild and Jill Scott; ambitious rappers like Eve and Beanie Sigel (both of whom appear on Things Fall Apart); and young vocalists like India.Arie and Jazmine Sullivan, the latter still in her early teens at the time. (Those informal jams were succeeded by Black Lily, a club event hosted by Roots’ backing vocalists the Jazzyfatnastees.) The Soulquarians orbit expanded to DJ Jazzy Jeff (who produced Scott’s debut), Vikter Duplaix (who worked with Poyser on his album), Raphael Saadiq, Mos Def and Q-Tip; as well as frequent Roots collaborators Dice Raw, Scratch, Jaguar Wright, Rahzel and Ursula Rucker. There was even talk of creating a Soulquarians Big Band similar to Duke Ellington’s orchestra – a dream collaboration that was difficult to take seriously given the platinum-certified egos involved, but was fun to fantasize about anyway.
The Soulquarians’ era was brief. By the time D’Angelo’s worldwide Voodoo tour concluded in 2001, “Everyone was neo-souled out,” writes Questlove in his book. He adds that Common’s 2002 album Electric Circus, which tried to shift from a groove-oriented sound that was coagulating into boring Urban Adult Contemporary – a term that persists to this day – into a more vibrant kind of funk-rock, “was the twilight of the Soulquarians, the last gasp of the Utopian feeling that had started in 1997.” The mixed reception given to Electric Circus, a “kitchen sink album” with a cover that depicts the Soulquarians universe in a massive photo-collage, belies this art colony’s importance in hip-hop and modern soul music.
(Rhapsody – April 16, 2014)
In this post-Internet age of cross-platform synergy as condo down-payment survival, the Roots have flourished. There is the band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, an incredible sight for anyone who remembers how the Fugees swacked them back in 1995. There is the annual Roots picnic; the Starbucks-friendly Wise Up Ghost And Other Songs with Elvis Costello; the festival appearances with guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas shredding up “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” And yes, there is Questlove, the genial Paul Shaffer to Jimmy Fallon’s twee Letterman, and one of the new millennium’s great bon vivants, tweeting and posting selfies on Instagram about his celebrity friends (lots of Prince shout-outs) and his epicurean adventures with impressive gregariousness. His best-selling book, Mo Meta Blues, displays the same kind of intellectual curiosity as he weaves anecdotes about meeting Kiss and making viral videos with Dirty Projectors into an entertaining autobiographical tale. If only he could extend that same generosity and love of pop in all its cheesy shamelessness and gewgaw wonder to his band’s recordings and, more importantly, to the hip-hop culture that he claims fealty to, instead of frequently taking it out to the woodshed, most recently via his damningly titled “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” lectures for Vulture.com.