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. Read More