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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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“Act Too (The Love of My Life)” (1999)

I feel like it is another part of [Common’s 1994 breakthrough song] “Used to Love H.E.R.” It’s the same sort of energy. It’s the personification of hip-hop and an ode to hip-hop and our culture in that way. But it’s the Roots’ take on it. It was a very short session. That was one of the songs that almost wrote itself; Common and I have a very unique chemistry in that way. It’s weird how few songs we have together. You would think that we’d have more actual recorded documentation of our relationship. But it’s very much a brotherhood and I feel like he’s an extension of the Roots.We came of age together. There was one point in time where Common, Jeru the Damaja, Pharoahe Monch, and I were gonna form a supergroup but we never got to record the material. But we did some some shows together. That song “Love of My Life” was about all of that. It was just a different take on that personification of hip-hop and how do I do it as efficiently as Common did without making it corny or sappy.

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“You Got Me” (1999)

“You Got Me” changed my career and my life forever. It was my first Grammy, and I feel it solidified my place as one of the greats and the Roots’ place as as one of the all-time greats. We paved the way with that song for everything that Erykah [Badu] and Jill [Scott] and D’Angelo and so many other artists who would come out afterwards would do.It was the perfect storm: It was super-lyrical. It was picking up where I left off on that whole narrative, “Silent Treatment” vibe, but more effectively. I was able to conjure up imagery in a more vivid and believable manner. There’s people who are able to identify with at least some element of that song in so many different walks of life: Being torn between your relationship with your significant other and your art or your job; the positive and negative side of a career as a creative. I think I was able to touch on all of that.The simple, double-time jungle-influenced drum solo at the very end took it out of this world into another universe. So often we have a vision for a song at its conception, but because of budgetary issues or clearances or red tape with the label, more often than not, you’re not able to execute a visual representation of a song that lives up to that initial idea. But with “You Got Me,” we hit it out of the park and the Charles Stone-directed video took it to another universe.

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“The Seed 2.0” (2002)

This one was polarizing. Everything that “You Got Me” was for us stateside, “The Seed” was on a worldwide level that catapulted us into a glimpse of pop-rock stardom in Europe. It was no easy feat to take something that essentially wasn’t broken and already an amazing song and to add onto it in an organic way without bastardizing what Cody Chesnutt already had.We were opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers in Italy and this crowd was not a Roots audience. We’re killin’ it as we always do, and they were booing the fuck out of us, throwing bottles onstage and doing every Italian hand gesture. Flea had to come out so they would chill. But when we went into “The Seed,” they were like, “Fuck the Chili Peppers.” [Laughs] Game over. “Oh, these guys sing that song, we had no idea.” They went crazy, and that’s what it was like for us on the strength of that song in Europe. It was police escorts when the plane lands like we’re the fucking Beatles.

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“Clock With No Hands” (2006)

This was about real shit that was happening in my life at that time: family drama with both my brothers in spirit and also with my blood brother. It was one of the first songs that was going to be narrative, but true and about real people. For lots of folks, this is one of my best lyrical performances. You ask me my two favorite verses that I’ve written, and it’s one of these verses and the first verse on “Dear God 2.0.” I was able to articulate everything that I was feeling when I’m not always able to do so. Historically, I’ve had to just settle for being able to approximate what it is that I want to say, because I can’t find the words. But with this, I was able to get it all off of my chest.

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“Dear God 2.0” (2010)

It’s a timeless classic. It’s my “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was timely when it came out; it would have been timely had it been performed in the Sixties; and it’s just as timely now. People being turned into zombies by technology. It’s just so much information that I’m touching on in this pseudo-conversation with God. If you had to leave a voicemail for God, what would you say if you had that opportunity? How the world’s so fucked up if everyone is made in God’s image?

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“The Fire” (2010)

The line on that song — “I’m the definition of tragedy turned triumph” — doesn’t only sum up my career, it’s a summation of my life. All of the obstacles that my family had to deal with and overcome; both my parents being murder victims at a very young age and losing both of them to the streets. It was the formula for failure. All of my homies that I grew up with wound up either dead or in jail at a relatively young age. There weren’t very many role models or success stories to point to.When I was writing this, it was about that fire within us all. The spirit and the motivation that compels you to push through pain and adversity. If I was doing a motivational speech in song form, what would it be? It wound up becoming an anthem for the Olympics that year. It became an inspiration to so many people, from athletes to activists to visionaries to thought leaders to little kids, to people dealing with depression. It’s taken on a life of its own.

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“Doin’ It Again” (2010)

If “The Fire” is a motivational speech, “Doin’ It Again” is almost like a TED talk. It’s more direct; I’m taking out the filler and I’m speaking directly to my naysayers. It’s the ultimate “Look at me now. You said I’d never be able to do it. We did it. And I’m doing it again.” It’s not a remix to anything, but it’s me approaching the process and life with that same energy like, “Guess who’s back in the motherfucking house.”Our manager Rich [Nichols] would always get on me about my writing and having throwaway lines. “Get to the point and stay on subject.” He’d always send me back to the drawing board. This was one of the first times I did a performance where Rich was like, “That’s what I’m talking about. You did it.”

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“Kool On” (2011)

It was one of the standout songs on that album [Undun] for me, because it was a sore thumb of sorts. It just really sets the tone of a snapshot of a specific moment in time. It’s celebratory and something that feels really familiar and nostalgic. The way we performed on “Kool On” is like our side group the Jam Boys, when we would get together and blow off steam after having worked on some of the heavier material.

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“Bird’s Eye View” (2013)

“Bird’s Eye View” was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment. I did a TV show and when it was time to go, my driver wasn’t outside. His tire was blown. I was exhausted and spent and really just wanted to get home. [The song’s producer] Statik Selectah texted me; I told him I was in Brooklyn and he said, “I live six minutes from there. You wanna just stop by and knock it out?” I went in there with the full intention of only being in there for as short a period of time as possible. I recorded it in one take, then I was gone. I was there for a total of maybe 12 minutes.It was something that I recorded to maintain relevance within the diehard hip-hop heads who may have been doubting me or thinking, “The Roots have moved on to late-night TV and that’s probably the last we’re going to hear of Black Thought as a lyricist.” I did it for the naysayers. When Static’s album came out, people started losing it over the track and it took on a life of its own. It became another watershed moment for me. History was being made on that night. But again, there was no way to tell at the time; it was just something that I was doing to try and get home.

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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.