Black Thought Sets Out On His Own

Jun 1, 2018
Originally published on July 11, 2018 8:52 am

Black Thought has been a guiding force for The Roots since he co-founded the group with Questlove back in high school. The Philadelphia innovators have found success through many different avenues, and for almost a decade now have served as the house band for Jimmy Fallon's incarnations of Late Night and The Tonight Show. But in all those years as a revered lyricist, Black Thought hasn't really taken on a big project without The Roots — until now.

On Streams Of Thought: Vol 1, the debut solo release from the the self-described elder statesman, Black Thought chronicles his life. Produced by 9th Wonder and The Soul Council, the five-track EP is out now, and is the first in what he says will be a regular series of projects.

"I feel like I've been around for such a long time, as a writer and as an artist, that I need to sort of speak to the way that my perception of the world has sort of changed," the rapper tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "The Roots, we signed our first record deal when I was about 19 years old, so I'm a very different person than I was then."

Always the higher thinker, Black Thought is just as likely to name-check Dostoyevsky as he is his hometown of Philly in his work. That's evident on songs like "Twofifteen" and "Thank You," as he touches on topics ranging from ghostwriting to a tough childhood. According to the rapper, fans will hear a sense of vulnerability in his rhymes that they've never heard before.

"I think the true artist — musician, dancer, writer, actor — a true artist is able to sort of articulate pain and tragedy, in a way that sort of expresses what the listener or the beholder may have been feeling but was less able to communicate."

Black Thought's Streams Of Thought: Vol 1 is available now. Listen to the full interview at the audio link.

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Not long ago, I spoke with Questlove, hip-hop drummer extraordinaire of The Roots, about creativity. He said one of the most creative people he knows he met in high school, his Root co-founder Tariq Trotter.

QUESTLOVE: The way that his brain thinks - I don't know any human being on Earth that can absorb that much information and text in one go around.


TARIQ TROTTER: (Rapping) Listen close to my poetry. I examine this like an analyst to see if you can handle this.

CORNISH: Trotter is best known as Black Thought. "Tonight Show" fans know him for his look - short-brimmed hats, dark glasses, regal beard and a smile that, while rare onstage, lights up the place. Despite 25-plus years as The Roots' front man and lyricist, Trotter hasn't really done a project without them until now.


TROTTER: (Rapping) Yo, the universe let the planets align. Spent 10K and the card didn't decline.

CORNISH: He's putting out a regular series of collaborations. They're called "Streams Of Thought." Volume 1 is out now. I asked him about the inspiration for the first song which, true to form, nods at a literary great, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the novelist known for exploring pathological states of mind.


TROTTER: (Rapping) Where I reside is the dark side of the glory. The fury I manipulate is the arc of the story written without a ghostwriter to author it for me. This is crime and punishment. I'm the judge and the jury. Listen.

I was doing an interview with Barry Michael Cooper for New York Times. And he - you know, he said, like, I'm the Dostoyevsky of hip-hop. That sort of resonated with me. And it's something that I took to the drawing board.


TROTTER: (Rapping) If every man's a temple, the circumstance is simple. So to be transcendental I do enhance the mental. This is elder statesmen conversation. Take a look into them books from down in the basement, yeah.

CORNISH: This is also a song in which you reference being an elder statesman, right?


CORNISH: Take a look at the books in the basement. I didn't know if I'd get to the point where I'd get to interview rappers who had reached that point.

TROTTER: (Laughter).

CORNISH: It's good news (laughter).

TROTTER: Yeah, it's great news. I feel like we've - I've been around for such a long time as a writer and as an artist that I need to sort of speak to the way that my perception of the world has sort of changed. The Roots - we signed our first record deal when I was about 19 years old. So I'm a very different person than I was then.

CORNISH: Maybe a song like "Thank You" speaks to that a little bit.

TROTTER: (Laughter) I think so.


TROTTER: (Rapping) Thanks for the memories, for first and third of the month check deliveries, agencies in the early '80s for giving cheese to families with parents who had drug dependencies. Mass (unintelligible) storefront ministries. Dinners from the chicken lady, Miss Genevieve.

CORNISH: Now, I should say some of this imagery, which is really lovely and lighthearted description of growing up - you grew up in Philadelphia, right?


CORNISH: To give people context, you also had this very traumatic childhood. So when you talk about getting a record label signing at 19, this is after a lot had gone on in your life, right?

TROTTER: Absolutely. Absolutely. Before the age of 2, I lost my father. He was murdered - a case that was never solved. My mother was also murdered I think when I was 16 years old or so. Her killer I think is serving a life sentence now. By the time I was, you know, 16 years old, I had done a lot of growing up. But, yeah, the song called "Thank You," it's my way of saying that, you know, as trying as the times may have been, the past is what makes me the person that I am today. So...

CORNISH: Is that something you've come to recently? I mean, not that the music was ever really, really dark. I mean, there are rappers out there who basically are telling kind of gang life tales, right? Like, that's how they came up, especially, like, in the '90s with gangster rap. But for you, is it only recently that you've found you can look back and say, OK, I'm OK?

TROTTER: Yeah. You know, recently I feel like I've just come to terms with maturity and really more so with vulnerability.


TROTTER: (Rapping) This unbroken token of appreciation for frequencies and stations not keeping the people waiting, for players who support and remaining completely patient. And each and every record in the basement, listen; thank you.

You know, I think the true artist, musician, dancer, writer, actor - a true artist is able to sort of articulate pain and tragedy or whatever...


TROTTER: ...In a way that sort of expresses what the listener or, you know, the beholder may have been feeling but was less able to communicate.

CORNISH: And that's sometimes discouraged in hip-hop in the past. I feel like now you hear more of it.

TROTTER: Yeah. I mean, it's - traditionally, yes, hip-hop was sort of founded on the winner-takes-all concept. And you're not supposed to show chinks in the armor. I feel like only recently has it become OK and just far more acceptable to represent your true, vulnerable self. For me, I'm a super private person. To open up in the way that I have been in recent years has been cathartic in a way but has also been traumatic, I guess (laughter).

CORNISH: Oh, really?

TROTTER: I mean, you know, there's something to be said about a person who sort of lives life without letting that many people in who's suddenly letting people in.


TROTTER: (Rapping) Yo, Jimmy making fun of me. I'm human, and there's only one of me. And I said, hold out. Yo, (unintelligible).

CORNISH: How much does that have to do with this job you've had in recent years - right? - as part of the house band for "The Tonight Show" where you guys are onstage in front of America every night? And you have to crack jokes. And you have to crack a smile. And you have to be willing to laugh at yourself.

TROTTER: That actually probably has a lot to do with it. There is a certain part of, you know, almost every day that I live in levity.

CORNISH: Which is funny. You're usually the straight man.


CORNISH: Like, the camera cuts to you and it's like, sunglasses, beard. And I think the joke is just, will you crack a smile?

TROTTER: Yeah (laughter).

CORNISH: Out of everyone onstage, can they make you smile?

TROTTER: But, I mean, you know, that - the beard, the sunglasses, the hat pulled down low, that's all, you know, just layers of my veneer, how I sort of protect myself I guess, you know? But, yeah, you know, I feel like this job has definitely made it far easier for me to open up and to show that sort of vulnerability and lightheartedness.


TROTTER: (Rapping) They got a homegirl named Abby. Her last name is Cadabby. I showed her my report card. She said...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Abby) Not too shabby.

TROTTER: (Rapping) They got all types of cool kids there.

CORNISH: You know, I've never asked you or never heard about your creative process. And being the lyricist for the group, how do you keep track of ideas? I mean, are you a person rapping into your smartphone? Are you a person taking notes on scraps of paper? How does it work?

TROTTER: The writing process for me is more like essay form. I'll read a book. I'll watch a documentary or a film or whatever. I'll go to an art exhibit and just try and open myself to influence. It's almost like going through a book with a highlighter. Like, songs sort of organically evolve and write themselves if you're in tune enough to sort of listen. You know, but what I've learned not to do is to say, oh, I'm just going to make a mental note and I'll remember that later because...

CORNISH: Oh, that doesn't work for you either?

TROTTER: Yeah, it doesn't work.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

TROTTER: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

CORNISH: That's what you've got to call the next one.



CORNISH: The lost treasures of Trotter.


CORNISH: Like, all the music I forgot (laughter).

TROTTER: Trotter's treasure trove.


CORNISH: Well, Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, thank you so much for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TROTTER: I'd like to thank you all for having me. It's always such a pleasure.

CORNISH: Black Thought - his new EP produced by 9th Wonder and the Soul Council is called "Streams Of Thought Vol. 1."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.