Creative Quest
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Creative Quest


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Creative Quest


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About This Book

NAMED AMOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2018 BY Esquire • PopSugar •The Huffington Post• Buzzfeed • Publishers Weekly

A unique new guide to creativity from Questlove—inspirations, stories, and lessons on how to live your best creative life

Questlove—musician, bandleader, designer, producer, culinary entrepreneur, professor, and all-around cultural omnivore—shares his wisdom on the topics of inspiration and originality in a one-of-a-kind guide to living your best creative life.

In Creative Quest, Questlove synthesizes all the creative philosophies, lessons, and stories he's heard from the many creators and collaborators in his life, and reflects on his own experience, to advise readers and fans on how to consider creativity and where to find it. He addresses many topics—what it means to be creative, how to find a mentor and serve as an apprentice, the wisdom of maintaining a creative network, coping with critics and the foibles of success, and the specific pitfalls of contemporary culture—all in the service of guiding admirers who have followed his career and newcomers not yet acquainted with his story.

Whether discussing his own life or channeling the lessons he's learned from forefathers such as George Clinton, collaborators like D'Angelo, or like-minded artists including Ava DuVernay, David Byrne, Björk, and others, Questlove speaks with the candor and enthusiasm that fans have come to expect. Creative Quest is many things—above all, a wise and wide-ranging conversation around the eternal mystery of creativity.

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Unblock Party
Getting started on an average day can be a pain, but it’s a pain that most people can deal with, like a slight headache or a sore heel. For some creative people, though, the pain of not being able to be efficiently creative doesn’t go away. It just stays and stays, getting worse—or worse, not getting worse at all, just staying and staying, until you’re numb from it. When that happens, when you can’t feel your extremities (creatively speaking), you might be in the clutches of writer’s block—or whatever the equivalent is in your creative field. Songwriter’s block? Painter’s block? Chef’s block? Filmmaker’s block? They all sound bad, except maybe sculptor’s block, which sounds like it could be the start of something promising.
For years, I would hear people talk about writers’ block. I didn’t encounter it firsthand or even secondhand that often, so I had a kind of superstitious feeling about it: I didn’t want to know. But the more I went on in the music world, the more I saw it, and sometimes I saw it close up. When D’Angelo was young, he was in a group called Precise: they came up from Richmond, Virginia, to play at the Apollo Theatre in 1991, and that led to a publishing contract, and that led to work for Black Men United, which was a vocal choir that had almost everyone in it—Gerald Levert, Raphael Saadiq, Boyz II Men, R. Kelly, Usher. D’Angelo got launched. He recorded Brown Sugar, his debut, and when it came out in 1995 everyone knew that he was one of the most creative forces around. You could feel it in the way he arranged vocals, in the way he let songs drift but never became aimless. He had a great voice, but lots of people could sing. He had a perspective. He had force. He had ideas.
But in the wake of that album, he had something else, too, which was trouble writing new material. There was pressure on him for a follow-up, because Brown Sugar had been such a big hit, but a follow-up didn’t happen easily. It wasn’t that he couldn’t go back to the well. He went back there. But when he went back, it was dry. I’m not telling tales out of school or anything. He’s talked plenty about that period. His first album had summed up everything that he thought and felt. He had found a way to express his entire soul. That’s why they call it soul music. So how are you going to bounce right back up with a new record? There’s a phrase that people like to use to describe these situations. They say “sophomore slump.” But that’s a little bit of a misnomer. No one’s in school anymore. It’s just a slump, period. D’Angelo really suffered while he struggled to get more material together in the wake of Brown Sugar. He was completely blocked, locked up tight. For a guy who had woken up day after day for years with new songs blooming in his mind, to suddenly be looking at an empty flowerpot was a terrible feeling.
He kept on, though. What he did mostly was release cover versions of other people’s songs for soundtracks. He and Erykah Badu did a Marvin Gaye–Tammi Terrell duet, “Your Precious Love,” for High School High. He did “Heaven Must Be Like This,” the Ohio Players ballad, for Down in the Delta. He had done covers before, of course. One of the big hits from his debut was a version of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’.” But these were one-offs. They weren’t destined for the follow-up record, though people may have thought so at the time. They were just hanging there in the space between records. Some people will say that it was a business move or a branding move, a way of keeping a new star visible for a little while he got his act together, creatively. Some people did say it. But to me that’s too cynical. Or rather, it’s irrelevant.
Those covers were fully creative works, ways of making things without recording his own songs. He weaponized another aspect of his creativity and temporarily vaporized the issue of writer’s block. I think there was a kind of psychological freedom in them, too, at least a little bit. Creativity is a privilege and a blessing, but it’s also at times a burden. The pressure of coming up with your own ideas—or rather, Your Own Ideas, with all the capital-letter significance that implies—can be a problem. It’s not that the pressure crushes you. I don’t think that’s what happened to D’Angelo. It wasn’t like he read an early draft of a press release that talked about the follow-up to Brown Sugar and suddenly felt paralyzed. I think that his block was more about having emptied out the tank in a very comprehensive and exhausting way, then promoting that album around the clock for two years. It was difficult to get other things to float to the surface. So he did the next best thing, or rather another best thing, which is to make something that is already made. I recommend this to any creative person in any discipline. If you’re a painter and you can’t think of anything to paint, copy a landscape or a portrait by a painter you like. If you’re a writer and you feel like you’re not capable of writing something new, find a poem you like and type it out again. If you’re a chef and you’re drawing a blank in the kitchen, try to make a classic dish of your mentor’s. People with limited ideas of things call this cheating. It’s not. It’s inspired imitation. Making your own version of existing works keeps you on your toes. It keeps your machinery humming along.
Creativity is a privilege and a blessing, but it’s also at times a burden.
Take another one of the covers from that period: D’Angelo’s version of the Prince song “She’s Always in My Hair,” which he contributed to the Scream 2 soundtrack. I know it well. I played on it. To make his version of “She’s Always in My Hair,” D’Angelo had to find within himself a reason to make a version of “She’s Always in My Hair.” The songs he picked weren’t arbitrary. He wasn’t turning in D’Angelo-style covers of Johnny Cash songs or the Banana Splits theme (though now that I say that, I want to hear them both immediately). The songs he selected were songs that mattered to him and to the people around him (present company included). They were songs that were in him in some form already. If you x-rayed his creativity, you would see those songs in there, glowing in his bones. And by the time he was done with his versions, he had repossessed them to some degree.
And even then, it wasn’t straightforward. Even then, it wasn’t simple. Even then, all the creative choices had to be identified, addressed, wrestled with, resolved. “She’s Always in My Hair” is a perfect example. From the start, there was a question of how faithful to the original it should be. If I were making it on my own, I might have leaned in that direction. But when I’m working with D’Angelo, I’ll filter some of my own ideas and default to his creativity. I wasn’t about to drag D’Angelo to hell with me and put him in a position where he was putting out a version that competed directly with the original. We ended up taking another approach, going away from the chilliness of the original toward something super funky. That decision had its own set of problems. What if we made it so funky that it was perceived as a way of showing up the original version? (This may not have been a realistic fear, but it was an anxiety in my mind, a point of pressure.)
I have thought often about that period of D’Angelo’s career, what it meant to him, how easily it was misunderstood as merely transitional, as the dead spot between Point A (Brown Sugar) and Point B (Voodoo). So here’s my advice to anyone, in any field: when you feel you can’t make work, make work from work that is already made. Don’t duck and cover. Cover without ducking. Do it proudly. It keeps you active. A little bit after that, D’Angelo started working more diligently on the material that would become Voodoo. Those songs were a huge leap forward. They reminded people that he was a visionary, and then some. What accounts for the empty well suddenly being full again? In interviews, D’Angelo credited the birth of his son Michael, and that may have been a big factor. But he also kept himself in shape, creatively speaking, even when he wasn’t creating. Voodoo wouldn’t have happened without the period after Brown Sugar. Maybe that’s self-evident. But it wouldn’t have happened the way it did if he hadn’t used the period after Brown Sugar the way he did.
Thinking about “She’s Always in My Hair,” returning to the choices we made during that period, also gets me thinking. Deep down, I think that there are pure creatives and then there are privileged observers. In some way, I still think of myself as that the lucky observer who gets to spend time near pure creatives to see them in action. When I hang with someone at that level I’m amazed at their inability to act like a sponge or observe their surroundings. When I remember D’Angelo, that’s what I think of. Or take Prince. I think of a typical late-nineties night at Prince’s house, where there was always a jam session with a bunch of younger musicians (again, present company included). He might start with a riff to a cover song and all of a sudden we were launched into it. It happened one night with the Ohio Players’ “I Want to Be Free.” The funny part was that Prince didn’t even know the lyrics. That blew my mind. It kicked over my Jenga. How could that be? Why would he introduce such an iconic song if he didn’t know it inside and out? It occurred to me that with Prince, maybe he feared being too derivative. As I discussed earlier, I don’t really have that fear. I think that my creative identity is unquestionably made up of parts of other people’s creativity. I have lived my life being referential and reverential. But I have also seen cases where artists at an elevated altitude don’t want to work that way. They hold the idea of covers at arm’s length. I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m not saying they’re right. I’m saying that making things is about making choices.
I, Me, Mimic
Copying, or covering, is always a valuable creative exercise. It gets you going. It restarts your brain and encourages you to look for the way things are built. Go and retype those last three sentences. The first two have lots of alliteration: copying and covering, gets and going. The third one doesn’t have any at all. That’s one thing to think about.
But how does it work as an exercise? Not everyone is satisfied by replicating someone else’s work. There’s a related option, which is parody. In this day and age, parody is tricky. There are times when it seems like all of social media is just one giant parody factory. It’s like that gum that Violet Beauregarde demands in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Willy Wonka tells her that the lab is still working on it, but that the point of the gum is to taste like an entire three-course dinner. She starts chewing it against everyone’s advice, and at first it seems like it’s working. “It’s amazing,” she says. “It’s made of tomato soup, roast beef and baked potato, and blueberry pie.” It’s that last part that doesn’t work out so well. The blueberry taste is connected to some kind of blueberry deformation. She starts to swell and turn blue—actually, it’s more purple. She gets to be totally round, and then the Oompa Loompas come and take her away to the juicing room. They’re going to squeeze all the blueberry juice out of her and try to get her back to normal. When I was little, that scene terrified me. I didn’t like the idea of the juicing room. In that scene, especially, Willy Wonka seemed like a psychopath. I don’t even remember if they show her later on to assure us that Violet is okay.
But as I have gotten older, I have thought about it a little differently. Willy Wonka was trying to make gum that was dinner. He was trying for a kind of cover version. But what he ended up with was gum that reminded people of parts of dinner with exaggeration that was funny and a little grotesque. What he ended up with was parody. And as I have gotten older, I have come more and more to see how important parody is as a creative exercise.
Let’s go back to “She’s Always in My Hair” for a second. D’Angelo did a faithful version of it. But sometimes when I play Prince songs at home (on my iPod, not on a keyboard or a guitar) I start imagining fake versions of them. Sometimes it’s simple takeoffs on the lyrics, tweaks so simple that they wouldn’t even have appealed to Baby Weird Al Yankovic. (That was my favorite Saturday morning cartoon for a little while—Baby Weird Al Yankovic. It doesn’t matter to me that it never existed.) Maybe she’s always at the fair. That’s stupid, but it’s funny for a second. The whole family goes to convince her to come home, and she’s not having any of it. She likes corn in the husk and the pig races, and she’s going to stay until she gets her fill. Or maybe she’s always in the air, flying from place to place so often that she starts to be uneasy when she’s back on the ground. Or maybe the thing that I parody isn’t the lyrics. Maybe it’s Prince’s falsetto. Where he holds a note, sweet and creamy, for a full three seconds, I imagine him doing it for thirty, or sixty. It’s an impossibility, but it sounds funny in my head. Or maybe it’s a guitar solo. I don’t create these parodies, but I think about them.
When I think about them, I am thinking about more than them, obviously. I am thinking about new ideas, even though they are new ideas grown in the soil of old ones. Parody, even at this completely foolish low level, is a way of taking something I love and trying to understand it. As you take the machine apart, you want to try to notice how it works. Are Prince’s backup vocalists—who are usually Prince himself, multitracked—always echoing what he’s about to sing, or are they sometimes anticipating it? How many different guitar textures are there? Parody can be extremely analytical. But think of the nonsense lyrics, too. They are a way of making that work less intimidating. “She’s Always in My Hair” is a great song, but it’s not monumental. Other Prince songs, from “Little Red Corvette” to “Let’s Go Crazy” to a dozen more, are monumental. If you parody them with nonsense, you make them approachable again. And if they were just ideas that a human being had, then maybe you can have them, too. Mock them and liberate yourself. Note: I am not recommending releasing those parodies or making a career of them. You are not Weird Al. You are not even Baby Weird Al. But you can play around with someone else’s creative work and free yourself up that way.
There’s an excellent if strange example from the world of food. When I was working on somethingtofoodabout, I visited Nathan Myhrvold in Seattle, at his Modernist Cuisine facility. I say “facility” because it’s not just a kitchen. It’s a warehouse and a laboratory and also possibly the future seat of world power. There are strange things there that I can’t describe, or won’t, for my own safety, but one thing I can mention is this dinosaur’s tail that Nathan built to prove a pet theory of his that dinosaurs flicked their tails like bullwhips.
Copying, or covering, is always a valuable creative exercise. It gets you going.
Anyway, we ate there. And one of the things I noticed is that Nathan loves the idea of masquerade. At least three of the dishes pretended to be one thing but were in fact something else. There was a pasta that turned out to be geoduck. There was a stick of binchotan, a hard charcoal, which he tapped on to show us how hard it was, and then he served it to us—but it wasn’t that at all! It was pâté. And then there was a quail egg that turned out be mango and passion fruit. These were like magic tricks. They were illusions. That’s one kind of creativity, maybe the oldest, when art imitates life but then throws a wrench into that process, thereby proving that it’s not life at all. But the food that Nathan served was also a kind of parody. The thing that it looked like, but wasn’t, communicated a set of expectations. That level of trickery seemed baked into the way that he worked. Nathan was already making delicious food, but he felt as though he wanted to increase the degree of difficulty by forcing another creative challenge upon himself: not only should this taste good, but it needs to look like something else. When I started to ask around, I found that this was more common than I thought—the idea of layering ideas over ideas, especially if there was a joke loaded into the process. Often, that trickery took place at the end of the process. The original work was done, but packaging it created an opportunity for parodic treatment.
I collected many examples of this principle while I was writing this book, but one of the best came from the music world, from the pub rocker Nick Lowe. I remember 1977 as the year that my dad listened to pop constantly in the car, such as Andy Gibb’s “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” and the Emotions’ “Best of My Love.” I was too young to see all of the other things that were happening: punk records like the Sex Pistols’ debut and the Ramones’ Rocket to Russia, high-modern classic rock like Pink Floyd’s Animals, political reggae like Bob Marley’s Exodus. It was also the year that David Bowie released the first record in his Berlin trilogy, Low. Nick Lowe took offense, not seriously of course, at Bowie using a misspelled version of his last name, so he did the same, releasing an EP called Bowi. The first time I heard that, it sounded silly, sure, and snotty, but also like one of the most purely creative things I had ever heard. He was turning tables that I didn’t even know were there.
I thought about these kinds of tricks often during the writing and editing of my food book. The cover of that book is based on the artwork of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a sixteenth-century artist who made portraits of people as assemblages of gourds or trees. When I first saw his paintings, Arcimboldo reminded me of hip-hop—he was taking existing images and reordering them into something new. For the cover of that book, a version of an Arcimboldo portrait was made of me. The act of making a food-face for myself wasn’t completely serious, in the sense that everyone knew that it was ridiculous. But it was completely serious as a creative act. The artist had to find shapes and textures and colors that matched, and then had to assemble the thing so that it was a plausible photograph. In a sense, this was harder than Arcimboldo, since he could paint a face made from food. For our book cover, we had to find food that looked like features. There’s radish in there, and squash, and a doughnut for a bow tie. It’s a parody of an existing style (Arcimboldo’s paintings) that gains meaning by also incorporating elements of another style (hip-hop sampling).
The other example I ran across recently is Documentary Now!, a show that was cocreated by Fred Armisen and Bill Hader. Both of them were on Saturday Night Live (Fred played Prince, of course), and both have done excellent work outside of it. Bill has done voiceovers for Pixar movies and written for South Park, and Fred cocreated Portlandia with Carrie Brownstein. The two of them loved movies, and in particular they loved documentaries. What they decided to do was remake them. They did a version of Grey Gardens call...

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