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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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“There’s Something Goin’ On” (1995)

It spoke to the buzz that we had built with Organix and with our early European tour; just going overseas and doing those initial festivals. “There’s Something Goin’ On” could have just as easily been, “There’s something brewing. There’s something on the horizon.” There was a buzz about this band and about this movement. There’s something eerie about the musicality of the song, just the classic sound of the Fender Rhodes and electric bass. There’s an old soul, kindred spirit sort of energy that you feel coming on in a wave when you hear that music. Listening to it recently, I get the same sort of feeling. It moves you in a different way. That was the initial intention. It was intended to bring about some emotion, some anticipation for what was to follow, so it served its purpose in that way. It was a great palate-cleanser to establish our arrival, so to speak.

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“Proceed” (1995)

The chorus was some inside joke. There’s always been lots of running jokes and inside humor in what it is that we do as the Roots. “Proceed” was a chance for us to show our range as musicians. It was something that just felt very different from everything else that was going on out there in the marketplace. But at the same time, it was something that if you were an artist who influenced us and made us want to do what it is that we did, the connection wasn’t lost. It spoke to the commencement of a new beginning.The way we would record a lot of that music earlier on was freestyle. We were in the legendary Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia in a very small room and we were recording onto tape still. A lot of stuff would just be stream of consciousness. Malik and I would just record it as it came to us; as it was going to tape, we would rap the raps, so to speak. “Proceed” was one of those songs.It was a really accurate display of Malik’s and my dexterity and our chemistry as MCs and how we had our routine down pat from doing so many live performances. Before we got into our official songs, we would just come out and just start freestyling. “Proceed” represents that chemistry at its best.

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“Mellow My Man” (1995)

It was a glimpse into how we get down and our world. There were no live hip-hop bands before us. It was very much decided ahead of time that we were going to have the same instrumentation on every song. “Mellow My Man,” again, the lyrical dexterity and how well Malik and I worked together. If “Proceed” was a representation of where my head was at, then “Mellow My Man” was more representative of where Malik’s head was; it was just outlandish and almost zany.It was just weird shit where you feel like he made a mistake [laughs]. What is that? What did that mean? Why did you say that like that? He would explain it and it’s like, “Oh, shit!” “Mellow My Man” is indicative of his ability to pivot from one idea to another within the same breath. It’s also just an homage to classic hip-hop. We come from the era of, “One, two, one, two, in the place to be, to my man, to my mellow my man.” All the shit that you say that gives you another brief moment to think of the next thing that you’re going to say that actually means something.

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“Silent Treatment” (1995)

There was no Amina. This was the beginning of me becoming knowledgeable of how to work in narratives. That was like my earliest storytelling work, and being able to string a story together that makes sense and being able to sell it. Part of being able to sell any story — to make anyone believe anything that you have to say — is you have to believe in yourself. That was part of the process: me convincing myself that this is about a real person. But I’ve met folks throughout my career who are like, “I’m Amina. That song’s about me.” That song took on a life of its own. It was in the tradition of being a great storyteller, telling an adventure à la Slick Rick. But also having that one song on your record that is about girls; the “I Need Love” or I Want You” from LL Cool J.Most of the emcees who inspired me to do what it is that I do — Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, even Kool G Rap — had that one song that’s about a girl. “Silent Treatment” was in that tradition. When we recorded it, I felt like, “Oh man, I’m singing on this joint. I’m rapping about a girl,” like, “The rappers’ rappers aren’t really going to rock with this.” But everybody loved it. When I met Biggie for the first time, he was singing the “Silent Treatment” chorus and told me, “That’s my favorite shit.”

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“What They Do” (1996)

In 1996, the Roots released the video for “What They Do” lampooning various rap clichés and what Questlove called the “champagne culture” of many garish videos. Notorious B.I.G. and the group had had a near-falling out two years before, when the band misheard Biggie’s “invisible bully like the Gooch” line as “…the Roots.” (Biggie was, in fact, a huge fan.) Now, Biggie felt the group was mocking his video for “One More Chance” and commented on the quasi-beef to The Source. Questlove offered to write an op-ed for the magazine, explaining how the whole thing was a big misunderstanding. Biggie, however, was killed the next day.There’s nothing that I could have done differently other than have been more informed. Maybe if I watched videos more at the time, I would have known while we were shooting the video for “What They Do,” that there was a particular scene that almost mirrored a specific scene from a Biggie video. It goes back to the rapport that we had from meeting each other, with him essentially co-signing us. When we did this satire video, that was coming from a place of light humor and making fun of something that everyone was doing at the time and all these different rap video stereotypes, it was funny.Even Biggie found it funny, but I think his feelings were legitimately hurt. “Out of all the shit that you guys are doing that’s so general, why single me out and do something that was reflective of my video specifically, as if I had ever did anything to diss the Roots. I’ve only shown you love.” It was a case of “Who’s on First.” I had no idea at the time that there was a part that looked like Biggie’s video. We were huge Biggie fans; It was a mutual respect and appreciation for one’s craft.

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“Section” (1996)

It was an anthem about representing where you’re from and making something that was so distinctively Philadelphia and making it your own in your area. It was a milestone record for me because it was my first Hip Hop Quotable [an influential section of The Source]. I’ve never been super-excitable or the hype dude. I acknowledged it as a milestone, like, “It’s about time.” It was validation. I honestly felt like Malik did a better job on it than me.

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“Clones” (1996)

I got arrested at Newark Airport. Before we had to take a flight on the drive up from Philly to New York or Newark, we would smoke a pound of weed, and there had been one or two flakes of weed that had fallen onto the carpet. So we get into the jeep and the police at the airport were hating because it was a Land Cruiser with all these accoutrements. They asked [our manager] to move the car out of the way, so he jumped in the car and went to move it up, but the back door was still open because we had to load luggage into the car. So now they could charge him with having moved the vehicle with the door open. So they essentially pulled us over in the loading lane at the airport.They searched the car and saw these two flakes. “OK, now you guys are going to jail.” While we were loading our stuff into the car, Kamal found this huge Rambo knife that I used to split blunts. I put it in my inside coat pocket because I was about to go home. They said, “Since we found paraphernalia, we’re going to search all of your persons.” We just got off a flight. We’re trying to talk them out of searching us. And they searched and they found a machete on me, and all fucking hell broke loose.Three of us were arrested. While we were in a holding cell — which was essentially on the runway still at the airport — I hear the police calling in the case and I heard them refer to Pennsylvania as “Pennsy.” We were always trying to think of something dope to call Philly. I got a bar immediately, and in that cell, I just started my “Clones” verse.They say you can’t tell when history is being made. But as that beat was taking shape, I knew it was history being made and this would be the Roots’ arrival for all the naysayers who may have felt like the live instrumentation wasn’t their bag or the Roots was “less than” real hip-hop. Because anything that we’ve done up until that point, “Clones” was going to shut all that shit down.

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“The Next Movement” (1999)

All these different recording studios that we frequented throughout our career were essentially church. It was about just getting the energy from the brick and mortar. We were coming up to New York now to record at [Electric Lady]. We were working in the studio with the people who inspired us to do what we did. We were working with Bob Power. A Tribe Called Quest would be in the next room, or Busta Rhymes or De La Soul or Mobb Deep. Nas is down the hall. So there was a certain creative energy that we had working in New York that was just very different than being at home.I remember this one trip we went up to record and Kamal just started playing this crazy shit. I think we may have been tripping on mushrooms at the time. We used to make mushroom tea, and we’d drink the tea because it was more of a mellow way to do it if you’re going to also smoke a thousand blunts. We were probably on mushrooms at the time, and we came up with “The Next Movement” and “100% Dundee.”I’m more the straight-edge now, but throughout our career, I lived the rock & roll and hip-hop lifestyle more than the others. And I did everything that came with it. [Laughs] Ahmir has always had to maintain the pocket. It’s not always fun to be the drummer; if the drummer is drunk or high, then the music is going to suffer. During those days, he wouldn’t have partaken in anything.

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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.