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31st May 2018

Seeing sounds: 13 music books you might not know but should absolutely read

Will Lavin

There are thousands of music-related books in the world that you’ve either read or at least heard of. This list isn’t about them.

As a music journalist of 15 years and a music fan ever since birth I can definitely say I’ve read my fair share of music books. I’ve read the popular ones, the not so popular ones, the ones you might find propping a door open at your local coffee shop, the ones full of photos, the ones that have more pages than the bible (shout out to Julia Beverly for her 726 page Sweet Jones: Pimp C’s Trill Life Story book), and the hidden gems with a limited number of pressings.

There are plenty of lists that highlight the so-called best of the best in music literature, which is cool, it really is, and they’re featured on those lists for a reason, but there are so many unexplored literary masterpieces that don’t get the shine they deserve. This list is for them.


The story of Tupac Shakur as told by his personal bodyguard, Frank Alexander, Got Your Back is an eye-opening account of what went on behind-the-scenes of the career of one of Hip Hop’s biggest stars.

Discussing everything from what it was like to be around Death Row Records during the nineties at the height of the now infamous label’s fame to what went wrong on the fatal night Tupac was shot in Las Vegas that eventually led to his death seven days later, it’s the music book you didn’t know you needed.

Frank throughout also offers an insight into ‘Pac’s personality away from the cameras and it’s as compelling and passionate as it is dark and, at times, uneasy.

Frank Alexander died in 2013 and the circumstances surrounding his death have spawned many conspiracy theories, much like the death of Tupac, the man he protected for years.


Not so much a memoir – although it does have all the feelings of one – Mo’ Meta Blues is the first book from music aficionado and drummer for The Roots, Questlove, and it’s a thing of beauty.

Like a trip down a never-ending rabbit hole of musical discovery, one minute Questlove is waxing lyrical about his own upbringing and his introduction to music, the next he’s telling you about interactions he’s had with some of music’s greatest minds, including the time he went roller-skating with Prince.

The son of a doo-wop singer, Questlove has gone on to be a much celebrated cultural icon through his many different ventures, including The Roots being the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and judging from the contents in this book you can see why.


So you think you’ve had a rough life? Think again. Mark Everett (professionally known as E from The Eels) has had a harder life than you, and more than likely a harder life than any other rock musician.

He found his father dead in his room when he was a teenager, his sister killed herself, his mother died of lung cancer and his cousin was on one of the planes that struck The Pentagon during the 911 attacks.

In Things The Grandchildren Should Know, E makes you feel something. It might be misery but it really hits you like a brick to the face. And that’s precisely why it’s on this list. It’s an incredible body of work.

Also detailing the many obstacles he’s faced within the music industry and the first time he had sex, it’s an intense read but it deserves every bit of your attention.


Proclaimed “a magnificent memoir” by celebrated writer, poet and cultural icon Maya Angelou, how can you not give One Day It’ll All Make Sense a go?

The autobiography of Common (real name Lonnie Rashid Lynn), rapper, actor, activist, father and son, the book is written in a way I’ve not really seen before. Aside from starting each chapter with a letter to a different person in his life – his daughter, his mother, Kanye West, and even a younger version of himself – his mother also has a prominent voice throughout the book interjecting with excerpts about her son and his upbringing.

It’s the story of a man growing up on the Southside of Chicago who then found fame through rap, but the most impressive moments come when the book, which is named after his third studio album, looks at his transformation from boy to man and what it took to evolve as a man and as a human being.


You’ve probably heard the words “I’m Rick James, bitch” uttered (or screamed) at some point in your life thanks to Charlie Murphy’s “True Hollywood Stories” sketch that featured on Chappelle’s Show, but how much do you actually know about Rick James?

More than just a crazy character from the seventies and eighties who probably handled more cocaine than Pablo Escobar, he was one of the most talented musicians of that era. Raw, spirited, passionate, these are just a few of the words that can be used to describe the trendsetter that is Rick James.

For the most part Glow was written before his death in 2004 but it was finished by co-author David Ritz who spent a lot of time with Rick and understood his tormented genius as well as anyone.

Full of stories so crazy you wouldn’t believe they were real if someone told you them on the street, Rick’s epic tales of drug binges, orgies, defecting from the U.S. Navy, and how much he hated Prince are must read moments in music.


Blunt and to the point just like its author, the title of this book says it all; this is the story of The Streets.

The birth of an exciting new movement in the UK that changed the landscape of British music forever, The Streets, fronted by Mike Skinner, were the collective that essentially provided the springboard for grime music to leap into the mainstream. If it wasn’t for Original Pirate Material then would Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner have been as successful as it was? Would we have ever had Kano? Who knows.

In the words of the usually media shy Mike Skinner, “this book is going to try and get as close as possible to the full story of what informed the noise of The Streets…and I’m going to be as honest as the publisher’s lawyers will allow.”

Set to the backdrops of Birmingham and London, The Story Of The Streets highlights the ups and downs of one of Britain’s most important groups.


Okay, so perhaps I lied to you, it was only a little lie though. This list is supposed to celebrate the music books that perhaps don’t get the shine they deserve and yet I’ve included Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue.

How could I not include it? It’s a rollercoaster ride that every self-confessed music fan needs to climb aboard, and if they haven’t then they deserve to be kicked out of the theme park.

The frontman of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is anything but conventional and it’s never more apparent than after a read of Scar Tissue.

As charismatic in print as he is on stage, while Scar Tissue is a personal memoir that looks at Kiedis’ life dealing with drug addition, death and artistic integrity, it also outlines the history of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and it is truly insightful.


You want to talk about a book that goes above and beyond the call of duty when detailing an individual’s life? Yeah, Divided Soul by David Ritz is that book.

For most people they only know the hits when it comes to Marvin Gaye but do they know the man? Do they know that he suffered from stomach-churning stage fright? That he had a drug problem? That he lived in London for a time? That he was in debt up to his eyeballs for most of his professional career? Divided Soul looks at all of these things and more.

Written from the perspective of Ritz, who not only interviewed Marvin many times throughout his career and was a personal friend of the man with the most perfect live singing voice, he also co-wrote “Sexual Healing” with him.

Starting at birth, the book goes on to look at Marvin’s church roots, his time at Motown, his marital bliss and highly publicised marital issues, his time in exile away from the United States, and the end of the line when his life was taken too soon by a bullet from a gun fired by his own father.


Written by former A&R John Niven, who after this went on to write several other impressive novels, Kill Your Friends is as brutal as it is hilarious, so much so that it inspired a movie of the same name.

With multiple helpings of satirical humour mixed with many of John’s own unbelievable experiences from working in the music industry this is the must have book for anyone looking to laugh, cry, scream in disbelief or boil their blood to the point that they run to the nearest major record label and smash the front windows in with one of the chairs in reception.

My favourite excerpt? “One thing you’ll learn when you’re in the business of selling utter shite to the Great British Public is that there’s really no bottom to where they’ll go. Shit food, shit TV, shit bands, shit films, shit houses. There is absolutely no fucking bottom with this stuff. The shittier you can make it – a bad photocopy of a bad photocopy of what was a shit idea in the first place – the more they’ll eat it up with a big fucking spoon, from dawn till dusk, from now until the end of time. It’s too good.”


David Rodigan is a legend. To be honest I could just end things there and that would be enough.

The reason reggae is as big as it is in the UK has everything to do with David Rodigan. Like Tim Westwood with rap and Trevor Nelson with R&B, Rodigan has been the voice and radio gatekeeper of his chosen genre of music in the UK for years, and he earned it.

In Rodigan: My Life In Reggae the man who grew up in Kidlington, Oxfordshire details his climb up the ranks of radio, his time spent in Jamaica, that time he got stung by a scorpion as a child, meeting Bob Marley for the first time and then interviewing him the second time, and his dedication to the Soundsystem culture he’s been a champion of on multiple occasions.

An education as well as entertainment, each chapter is named after a different sub genre of reggae. Who knew there were so many?


While Pamela Des Barres’ I’m With The Band: Confessions Of A Groupie is ultimately a book about her sexual conquests with rock stars, there is an air of innocence contained within its pages and it’s a very enjoyable read.

Growing up a huge music fan, she went from consumer to the muse of many musicians, including Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page and Jim Morrison. In her own words she “showed my affection for the opposite sex in those days by giving them head, and I was very popular indeed.”

I’m With The Band is a very detailed diary of what it’s like spending time with famous musicians during their down time, and it’s not always how you’d expect it to be.

Enjoy Karrine “Superhead” Steffans’ tell all book Confessions Of A Video Vixen? This is better.


Barry White is so much more than the Walrus of Love. In fact, where did that moniker even come from? It’s stupid!

Barry’s story is one that doesn’t get shouted about enough. The man was a singer, producer, conductor, engineer, songwriter, and so many other things. He gave us hit after hit after hit with no compromise on quality. His raised hi-hats inspired Hip Hop culture, Marvin Gaye wanted him to produce an album for him, and his low-tempo, mid-tempo and high-tempo grooves were responsible for so many babies being born during the seventies, eighties and nineties.

White Music: The Barry White Story is a hefty book, consisting of 602 pages, that tells the story of the transcendent talent who started out caught up in gang life and after taking a pilgrimage to Hollywood in the hope of a better life found his purpose.


Some of you may know Nile Rodgers as the guy featured on Daft Punk’s “Lucky” with Pharrell, but boy oh boy is he more than that.

One of the true pioneers of disco, he and his band Chic spearheaded the movement during which time they made hits for Diana Ross and Sister Sledge. Then going on to save David Bowie’s career – Rodgers produced Bowie’s Let’s Dance album, his biggest-selling album to date – and kickstart Madonna’s career, Nile Rodgers has produced so many hits that he’ll be living off of royalty cheques for the rest of his life.

Battling drug addiction and sleep deprivation as an adult, Le Freak also highlights his upbringing moving from place to place, his mother’s abusive partners, his first sexual experiences, but more importantly the first time he ever picked up a guitar and the birth of Chic.

Hard to confirm but this is quite possibly my favourite book on the list. That is all.