Black Thought. Photo: Erica Génécé.
In 2016, wearing a white shirt with tiny embroidered roses, Black Thought centered himself in front of a whispering audience at the Harvard Innovation Labs. He had just finished a conversation with host Michael Keohane about the hand-painted clothing he’d made as a young artist, his rise within rap music, and his eventual aspirations as an actor. To the delight of the campus crowd, he asked, “I can kick a rhyme?” Nudging up his glasses, he then unleashed five minutes of complex stanzas, double entendres, and expository verses. Somewhere within the burst of sentences, he veered into the biographical. “I got to see how gangstas played at such an early age. What my father was into sent him to his early grave. Then mom started chasing that base like Willie Mays … Trouble was my ball and chain.” And then, after a pregnant pause—“Black Thought is what that all became.”
Despite almost three decades of recorded material and myriad rhymes, Black Thought has remained low-key about his life offstage. Black Thought, a.k.a. Tariq Luqmaan Trotter, grew up alongside hip-hop itself. His first purchase at a record store was Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock. His early love of rap music gave way to an enduring interest in the written word. “I remember thinking how much I just loved writing,” he says. “I’d write all kinds of things down all day long. I was around nine years old when I tried to write my first rhymes.”
He spent his formative years at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. During this time, a chance encounter with a young drummer, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, would change the trajectory of both their lives. The two, along with the rapper Malik B., formed the Square Roots, a name shortened to just the Roots by the time their first release, Organix, arrived in 1993. Running counter to hip-hop’s celebrated history with sampling, the Roots became known for their use of live instruments and a rotating lineup of band members. They experimented with sampling more in their later work, but live instruments were foundational to their ascent, and word spread about their exuberant stage show.
Their 1995 album, Do You Want More?!!!??!, and its 1996 follow-up, Illadelph Halflife, were springboards that took them around the globe for the next fourteen years—world tours, Woodstock, television, film, their very own music festival, even the White House—all of it halting somewhat when they became the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in 2009 (and eventually The Tonight Show). Collectively, the Roots have amassed more than twenty studio projects, live works, compilations, collaborations, and more. They’ve been nominated for fourteen Grammy Awards and won three, including one in 1999 for their juggernaut single “You Got Me.”
Throughout the Roots’ expansive catalogue, we’ve witnessed Black Thought’s maturation as an artist, his gravelly, aging voice and renewed boldness on recent material, all of it quite fitting of his sage persona and increasingly sermonic verbiage. There’d long been attempts made at solo projects over the years, but a perfect storm of industry semantics and gridlock deadened many would-be albums. The Roots’ Phrenology in 2002 was in fact a project whose entire framework was built around sketches intended for Black Thought’s solo debut. Phrenology signaled that Black Thought was undeniably emerging into his own, and his peers were taking notice.
In 2018, he released Streams of Thought, Vol. 1, the start of what has become a series of solo projects, each recorded with different producers. As expected, the Streams of Thought series represents a deviation from the material Black Thought has recorded with the Roots. Here, he’s more inward, more confessional, touching on topics like his family and his anxieties as an artist. To date, there have been three volumes, but a fourth is afoot—it seems to be ongoing, a living document that he’s committed to for the longterm. “Am I a journal or journalist? Olympic tournament–level genius author? Affirmative,” he rapped in a 2020 NPR Tiny Desk performance, sitting stoically in house slippers and dark glasses. He’s also been working on a Broadway adaptation of George Schuyler’s 1931 Afrofuturist satire Black No More, which he’s producing, writing music and lyrics for, and costarring in.
From our respective corners of the country, Black Thought and I spoke a couple of times over the past year, discussing watershed moments of his artistic growth, important Roots history, and the nucleus of his whole enterprise: his use of language and the written word.
What are your earliest memories of rap music?
I’m about the same age as hip-hop itself. Kool Herc and those guys started going back and forth on disco breaks in July or August of 1973, and I was born in October of that year. I was invented just a couple months after the breakbeat was invented. Some of my earliest memories are of breaks being spun at disco parties in the neighborhood. Music-wise, record-wise, though, it would be “Rapper’s Delight,” whenever that hit.
When did your interest in writing begin? What sparked it?
I was nine years old when I started writing. A rapper named RC LaRock got popular and really made an impression on me. He made me want to write actual rhymes. In 1980 he had a song called “Micstro” that was a huge influence in regards to my style. Then “Superrappin’,” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, came out, and they did a particular style that was comparable to what the girl group JJ Fad popularized on the song “Supersonic.” Then Kool Moe Dee and the Treacherous Three came out and influenced me a lot, too. But I remember “Superrappin’ ” in particular because it’s a serious record that starts out at a moderate pace. By the end of it, the verses are lightning fast. I wanted to write my first song in that same cadence.
Your writing has such novelistic detail. What subjects interested you most in school?
I was always really influenced by what I had to read. Even more than English and literature, I was influenced by history and social studies. I’ve always liked to write about people, and the ways of people, and the way we are. I like to write about humanity in whatever narrative I’m telling.
Walk me through your writing process. Do you actively take notes and mark things down for later use? Are you constantly connecting swirling sentences in your head all day?
These days I sit down and write on the computer or in the notes section of my phone. I was late to the whole electronic writing game, actually. I made fun of my counterparts for years and laughed at all the rappers I’d see writing shit in their phones. I was stubbornly analog for a long time. About a week ago I had time to go through all these old containers at my office. I found like twenty notebooks with original drafts of stuff I had written. A lot of Roots classics were in there—“Web,” “Rising Down,” “The Fire,” “Star,” and others. And that was just at first glance. I’m glad I held out for as long as I did because now I have all these notebooks to look at. It’s different from getting your music down digitally from the cloud. All that being said, I’m making a return to the pen and paper.
When you write by hand, what do you use?
I like to write in Five Star multisubject, spiral-bound notebooks. And I use a Pilot Dr. Grip retractable ballpoint. I also like the Fisher Space Pen. It’s what the astronauts use, and I like it because I can write upside down.
How did you and Questlove first meet?
It sounds cliché, but we met in the high school principal’s office. He was a year, maybe two years ahead of me. I was in trouble. He was not. [Laughs] He struck me as an odd fellow but also a serious musician. He had a super unique look, and his musicality really appealed to me. Then, when we kicked it, I noticed his extensive knowledge of breaks and how he knew the origins of so many songs that eventually became rap songs. He knew what that overall process looked like, and all of it was just the perfect missing piece to my personal creativity at that time. I was fourteen, I think.
What were the early days of the Roots like?
Questlove and I founded the Square Roots in 1987, when we were in high school. In our earliest incarnation, we were a duo who had other musicians float in and out of the equation as they were needed. After high school, we all went to college elsewhere, so it required a little more effort to keep the band together. Ahmir worked with other musicians, and I worked with other ones as well. Primarily, for me, that person was Malik B. Malik and I worked a lot together in those years when we were in school in upstate Pennsylvania. Eventually we left Millersville University and came back to Philly. It was a reunion for me and a new connection for Malik with Questlove. That was the first time they met in person. But even before that, when we were away at school, we would rap over beat tapes that Ahmir would send me in the mail. So once we cliqued up, it became Malik, Ahmir, and me.
You mentioned Malik, and we’d be remiss not to bring him up, especially with his recent passing. Tell me about your relationship and what will stand out to you most about your time together.
The most striking thing for me—and I feel like for anyone whose life he touched—was that he was just a sweet person. He was gentle. He was always very curious, in a childlike way, his whole life. There’s something to be said about maintaining that curiosity because it’s something we lose as we become jaded adults. He never lost that. You know how when it comes to the stock market they say you should “ABC”—“always be closing”? Malik’s ABC was to “always be creative.” He literally wrote rhymes on the walls and doors of his house. He would go to sleep with hundreds of pages scattered around him in bed and wake up surrounded by these pages and pens and start writing again.
I’d like to talk some more about the Roots’ earlier projects, the ones you cut your teeth on. You mentioned Organix as sort of a demo that became your first album. How did that come about?
I remember having to record Organix out of necessity, because we had secured a gig to go perform in Germany and the people who hired us asked what kind of merch we had. At that time, we didn’t have anything to sell, so that prompted us to get T-shirts made and press up CDs. While we prepared the CDs, we recorded a demo. It wasn’t our first time recording—we had made rudimentary recordings and mixtapes and demos before. But this was the first time we went into an actual studio with a more knowledgeable engineer, and what began as just wanting to record five or six songs to burn CDs to bring with us to sell became something closer to seventeen or eighteen tracks. And what we thought would serve as our demo is now our first album. At the time it felt natural, and we didn’t overthink things. We went into it without specific intentions and made the record in a couple weeks.
Looking back now, how did that time in your life feel? What do you remember most about that process?
It felt magical—recording all night until daylight broke, then going home to sleep, and heading back there again in the morning. We didn’t know that that would become our eventual lifestyle, for all parties involved. We all sort of grew up from that point on and became studio rats. That approach to musicianship and creativity became a way of life. It became all that we knew.
When was the last time you heard Organix?
I haven’t heard Organix in years, but when I do, it’s by default. I’ll hear someone else listening to it, or someone sends me a link to something. It’s a little painful to hear my voice before it was developed, in the same way it’s painful for a musician to hear something they may have recorded when they were in school, or an actor to see their screen test reels. That said, I know what it has come to mean to so many people. So I don’t downplay it. It’s a part of my contributions to the arts. That’s my history, and that began the trajectory of the Roots. You never know what or how something you may consider a throwaway, or something considered a spur-of-the-moment, is going to affect someone else for years to come—or even the rest of their lives.
And your development as a rapper and writer has grown hugely through the years. Let’s circle back to your rhymes and the process itself. You typically include a plethora of references in your stanzas. Do you consider yourself, for lack of a better term, a filter, of sorts?
That’s exactly how I think of it because if it’s a play or a book or a song, whatever the medium is, it’s culture at the end of day. And I go through life like a sponge that soaks up everything. And eventually I pour everything out in my verses.
How does being such a constant and prolific writer impact your daily life? Or does it?
I’m always searching for that one word or one sentence or one remark, and I’ll let it sit with me, I’ll think on it, and I’ll later use it as a springboard for a verse. If I’m at an art exhibition, I’m closely reading the little description that accompanies a sculpture or painting. It just needs to be fly and maybe I’ll use it in a song somehow. I listen loosely to conversations, too. There’s something to be said about the conversational tone of a rhyme and how that can be the most accessible. That’s something I always strive for. Sometimes it’s more easily achieved than others. I’m always searching for what doesn’t sound contrived, something that feels like an organic conversation.
If we were to open up your notebook right now, what would we find?
Last night I wrote these words, and I don’t know what they have to do with one another, but I have a blank page, and in the center it says “vigilant enigma.”
What are some things you think younger writers and rappers should focus on?
I think a writer should always be aware of his or her surroundings. The material is there. It’s already in the world. You have to be in tune with it to hear it and see it. The best essays, the best books, all wrote themselves. Same with paintings and dances—all of the best art, all of that shit just comes from the universe. You have to master the art of being in tune enough when it’s time to create.
What’s the process like when you’re in the room with a producer?
Step one is really trying to dial all the way in to the emotion of the music that I’m writing to. There’s a specific tone that’s set by instrumentation, and I try to vibe with it on whatever level that resonates with me. So I basically try to rise to that same level of energy. I’m able to write or rap at the drop of a dime, but every verse isn’t always the best verse. I’m also conscious of the story that’s being told in the music before words even exist. I’m there to accompany it in the best way possible and to add my own color and dimension to the song. You can easily detract from the music if your approach isn’t right.
Sometimes it begins with music that is already further along, but in other instances, it’s a race against the clock in that I’m writing to something that has yet to reach its final form and my words are emerging at the same time as the track. The idea is that when the music takes its final shape, my words will be in the same place. What dictates one process or the other is the emotion and energy of the room and what happens organically between the producer and myself—or other musicians. It’s all about chemistry in that way.
Does Black Thought get writer’s block? What do you do when your ideas bottleneck?
I get writer’s block, for sure I do. There have been times when I’ve tried to force things that weren’t in the cards. But to me, those were just things that weren’t destined to be created in that moment. When I’m able to pause and breathe and reflect, becoming one with the music and with the universe, everything just writes itself. People have said things like, How did you think of that dope verse? And I’ll be like, I didn’t. I might’ve just thought of something five minutes ago, but I’ve had things in my head much longer than that. I’m constantly jogging my memory, and I can always build a song out of that. I mean, I can spit a verse and force something from nothing, but it wouldn’t resonate with anyone, as it would or could have, if it didn’t resonate with me first and foremost. Some stuff that you end up spending a lot of time on ends up on the cutting room floor. But sometimes the stuff you end up keeping is what just quickly occurs and comes to fruition on its own.
Let’s talk about your solo releases, the Streams of Thought series. You’ve released three volumes already. Tell me about the next chapters and the main concept behind those projects.
For me they represent a different dimension, a different frontier as an artist, where I’m able to be more vulnerable and more personal and tell stories that resonate on a more emotional level than some of the Roots’ stuff. I feel like I’ve built a career in the Roots in attempts of making myself a face for the faceless, or to represent the unseen, a voice for the voiceless. But this is my own voice, unadulterated and less compromised. I’ve intentionally made each volume an effort between myself and one other producer. The Roots has always boiled down to Ahmir and myself, and we’ve always had the majority vote even though it’s a collective. This is less of a collective thing than anything I’ve done in the past. It’s very personal. I would meet folks who told me they were fans since day one and always supported me and the Roots, but that in all of their years, they still felt like they didn’t know me well as a person—things like what makes me tick, where I come from, where I’m headed, where I see myself, what my process is. I feel like the Streams of Thought series represents all of that.
Have you been writing more with all that’s taken place in the past year or so?
I haven’t been writing more, per se, but I’ve continued to write. I’ve been slightly more productive overall because I can sit still and finish what I started. Salaam Remi and I work well together, so we completed a few songs virtually as well.
For me to get an even better sense of your process, can you share something you’re working on?
Sure. The night before, I wrote, “We’re our ancestors’ wildest dreams. How we rose to the pantheon of kings, out of modest means. To advance beyond”—and then there’s a blank and a last line that just reads, “ … I believe.” So I’ll go back and fill in the middle portion that I left unfinished. From there, it might be tomorrow or six months from now, but I’ll look at that and see what kind of headspace I was in, and I’ll be able to construct a whole verse around it.
A Black Thought guest verse is highly sought after. Have you been doing more features recently?
Yes, I’ve been doing a lot on others’ projects—like a lot of features. I have twenty or so verses that I’ve been able to do recently just from working at home. I guess I just have a hard time saying no. [Laughs]
Looking back just on the past few years of your career, how has your mental state been? Do you keep up with the news to inform your writing? In what ways do you think it’s impacted your art?
With everything that’s taken place, sometimes it gets to be daunting. I definitely don’t watch the news as frequently or closely as I had before this past year because I feel like it’s inevitable at this point to be exposed to what’s going on even if I don’t watch it. More recently, I’d say in the past few weeks, I’ve tried to wean myself off social media as well. That being said, because I have children and work at The Tonight Show, there’s no escaping the news. The way it’s affected my psyche is that it’s pushed me into an ultracreative space. I’ve been writing and recording and reading as if the livelihood of myself and others depended on it—which it does, actually.
What goes through your mind when you contemplate your legacy?
I’m very conscious of what my legacy is going to be and what I’m leaving behind and what my contributions will be for generations to come. I’ve just been really conscious of that and just recording and being creative in multiple different mediums to solidify my legacy. I want to make sure I’m leaving my mark in a proper way that is most representative of what my evolution has been. This is as close to collapse as we’ve ever come in some ways, so I’ve approached this important time as I would if it were the end of the world.
David Ma is a longtime journalist whose work has appeared in Wax Poetics, NPR, the Guardian, The Source, Billboard, and others. He is part owner of Needle to the Groove Entertainment, cohosts Dad Bod Rap Pod, and maintains Nerdtorious.com, a repository and remnant from the blog era. He writes from the Bay.
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