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Black Thought: My Life in 20 Songs

The Roots’ longtime MC digs back nearly 30 years to detail the behind-the-scenes stories behind the group’s most indelible songs and deep cuts beloved by hardcore fans

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When Rolling Stone asked Black Thought, the ferocious, nimble rapper who has fronted the Roots for three decades, for his list of Roots songs that defined his life, he — subconsciously or otherwise — initially submitted tracks by other artists. Picking his own highlights from 11 albums, numerous guest appearances, and one of the most lauded freestyles of the decade turned out to be much harder.

“It was a lot easier for me to think of the 20 songs that soundtracked my life,” he says. “With my own songs, I couldn’t even wrap my head around it.”

Over the course of two hours, though, the loquacious musician born Tariq Trotter dug back nearly 30 years to detail the behind-the-scenes stories behind both the group’s most indelible songs and the deep cuts beloved by hardcore fans. Trotter, 48, co-founded the Roots with drummer Ahmir Thompson (Questlove) after they met at Philadelphia’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in 1987. The band grew to include co-founders Malik Abdul-Basit (Malik B.), Trotter’s dexterous counterpoint for more than a decade, and Leonard “Hub” Hubbard, the group’s unassuming, but crucial, bassist for more than 15 years — two key former members who died in the past 18 months. (Rich Nichols, the band’s longtime manager and a pivotal part of the group’s success since its formation, died in 2014.)

Even amid the pandemic, Black Thought remains an overachiever, with projects ranging from the return of a multi-day educational workshop at Carnegie Hall last summer to providing the lyrics and music to the upcoming Black No More, an off-Broadway musical written by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley. (Trotter will also make his theatrical acting debut in the show.)

“I’m always going for a level of sociopolitical commentary. That’s the no-brainer element that’s going to be there no matter what,” the rapper says of his song choices, which could double as a commentary on the long arc of his career. “But I also wanted to include a certain degree of vulnerability and just being personal.” Where words like “longevity” are more aspirational than factual for most rappers, the music of Black Thought — from 1993’s Organix to 2020’s Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able — has long transcended trend-hopping.

“That’s what makes the Roots the Roots: There’s no expiration date,” he says. “The shelf life is eternal.”

From Rolling Stone US

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“When the People Cheer” (2014)

The idea was to show a more personal side and vulnerability in a way that you couldn’t fake. I wanted to make it relatable and speak to the blue-collar aspect and take away all of the smoke and mirrors that’s associated with being an artist and having a career as a “rap star.” I was able to manifest all of that in the narrative that I saw in that verse. The bar was set so high and no one could escape that barometer; not even me, and it was my group. It lent credence to your writing ability to have one of your rhymes make it onto a Roots album during that time. I was still held to that same bar.I recorded it in my basement in the closet. It was a throwaway for me in that I thought it was something I was going to have to revisit 10 more times, and Rich [Nichols] approved the writing almost on his first listen. That was maybe the second time that I did a verse that Rich didn’t really have any notes on. And then it was about trying to get a better performance. I was never able to even get a better performance; we wound up using that closet recording from my basement.

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Funkmaster Flex Freestyle (2017)

I was super-surprised by the reaction to it, because I didn’t feel like it was anything different from what I’ve done for 25 years or so before. I’ve always been consistent. I obviously evolved, but I don’t I feel I’ve reached my peak yet. Granted, I’m aging, but as an artist, I’ve yet to reach my full potential. So when I did that verse, I was really just trying to get home from work [on The Tonight Show]. I went there with the intention of doing a quick interview and I didn’t know how long I was going to rap for. I didn’t say, “Hey, I’m going to go do something that’s going to be a career-defining moment that people are going to say was a seminal performance.” I was making a stop on my way home from work.I think it struck a nerve because people of a certain age and era who have supported hip-hop as a culture for a certain period of time had begun to lose hope in hip-hop and its importance and identity. There was so much material coming out that didn’t really resonate with an adult hip-hop fan, someone who was mature and had a different specific hip-hop sensibility. The fact that I said what I said over that Mobb Deep beat — I could’ve probably said the same thing over Nas “Oochie Wally” and it would’ve hit differently — gave generations of people newfound hope in the culture. That was the day that I saved the game. I broke the internet. It was a huge “I told you so” moment. That wasn’t my intention, but… [pauses] I did fucking tell you.

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“Thought vs. Everybody” (2020)

That was the first song that we recorded for Streams of Thought Vol. 3. It was my intention to have completed my verse by the time the beat had taken shape. So that’s exactly what I did. I always try to speak to the hip-hop that had come before me that I had an appreciation for, as well as that same sociopolitical commentary that people have come to expect from me. I feel like my only competition at this point is myself. So it’s not even the idea of one-upping myself; It’s about taking it to a different place, yet maintaining that same level of excellence. When I started that verse, I was thinking of Killah Priest’s verse on GZA’s “4th Chamber” like, “I judge wisely/As if nothing ever surprises me/Loungin’ between two pillars of ivory.” How could I do something like that without biting him?My verse has the same sort of regal, celestial opulence: “They asked why I seem so solemn/On the throne between three stone columns.” I never want to sit in the same cadence or flow for a song in its entirety, especially if I know there’s not going to be a chorus. I want to take you through a couple different layers of the onion. That’s why I made a conscious decision to continually switch up the flow on that song. It’s just about speaking truth to power and how I feel as a Black man in America. It became more timely over time; I feel like it became more potent and powerful. When whatever you create gets better with time, that’s a sign of greatness.