Level Q

Black Thought Is Loved and Feared by Your Favorite Rapper

The Roots’ frontman talks continuously improving as a man and MC

Photos: Tim Mosenfelder/Patrick McMullan/Ken Hively/Getty Images

Tarik Luqmaan Trotter is not your father’s late-night television bandleader. Whether inside or outside of the recording booth, the Philadelphian orator and scribe extraordinaire is also an anomaly. Let’s consider his origin story.

Before Tarik Trotter turned two, his father — a gangster and Muslim from South Philadelphia — died in a hail of bullets at age 26. During Tarik’s teen years, his mother, who fell victim to the crack era, was also murdered. This was after he himself began selling drugs for the sport of it. Thought describes his younger self as a bookworm and microphone fiend who attended the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, yet by 15, he was twice able to dodge what his family, friends, and neighbors couldn’t: prison. After a family-led escape route to Detroit, he returned to Philly. Five years later, he was a member of The Roots’ crew.

When you consider the music career of Black Thought, the trajectory challenges that of any rapper from any region or era. Even after The Roots won a Grammy in 2000, Black Thought remained in mainstream anonymity while being recognized by hip-hop purists as one of the best to ever do it. And then, he became the voice of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, propelling him into the living rooms of millions across the country every weeknight.

So what did the recluse do after attaining greater fame, financial freedom, and distance from his childhood trauma? The 47-year-old father of five doubled down on his rap bars (and locked a top-five spot on LEVEL’s 40 Over 40 list). Two years ago, he teamed up with producer 9th Wonder (Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar) for the first installment of his solo EP series, Streams of Thought. A few months later, he dropped a sequel with another legendary boardsman, Salaam Remi (Amy Winehouse, Nas). The third installment drops September 25 and is produced by Sean C (Jay-Z, Wu-Tang). The talented Mr. Trotter also has a couple of Broadway productions and a Streams of Thought, Vol. 4 already in the wings. For now, his focus is on his latest release, and why although things may fall apart, he’ll never fall off.

LEVEL: Would you accredit the anonymity you spent during the first half of your career to shyness or a resistance to revealing your personal history?
Black Thought:
I think it had something to do with a level of introversion that I’ve always carried on a DNA level. Besides that, the way that I was brought up. [I was taught that] what takes place in the house stays in the house. I’ve seen what could happen when people live out loud too much. While I was coming up, those were the ones who got in trouble with the law; the ones whose neighbors were envious and who were more likely to be burglarized and accosted. All sorts of shit happens to you when everyone knows your business. I came up more guarded, and that’s sort of responsible for how I moved as a young person. It was initially something that was done decidedly, but after a while, it became almost impossible to undo. It was a wall that I built. You can’t just say, “Hey, I want some limelight now. I’m ready to tell my story!” It’s been a process to find a happy medium. I’m still super private, but over the last 10, 15 years, I’ve been making a conscious decision to open up my heart, mind, and spirit and be more inclusive with my art.

I’ve followed you since ’94 and I’ve never seen you collaborate with MCs outside of The Roots crew as frequently as you have been over the last few years. I never expected to hear a Swizz Beatz hook on a Black Thought record or you on a Griselda track.
Oh yeah. I’ve got a song that I’m probably going to use on my Gangsta Grillz album with me, Conway, and Jay Rock that is fucking bananas. At this point in my career, I have nothing to prove. I’ve done everything that I’ve wanted to do. So now I’m only going to do what’s fun for me and engaging. I’ve always been a huge fan of so many different artists; people just have no idea. I was always a huge fan of Three 6 Mafia. I took a trip down to Memphis a long time ago with Scott Storch and Malik B and did a record with Project Pat. I wanted that to come out on a Roots album and fuck people’s heads up, but it never saw the light of day. This was when Juicy J was just doing administrative stuff. He picked us up from the airport. He wasn’t a rapper at all.

“ I think some of the greats have fallen off by trying to approximate a second- or third-generation version of themselves unknowingly.”

People often say that rap isn’t a sport and an MC’s skills don’t necessarily erode with age, but often that’s the case when it comes to flow. Yet I feel, especially on a song like “Thought vs Everybody,” you’re as sharp if not sharper today than you were 20 years ago. What’s your fine-wine secret as a lyricist?
Aging gracefully by staying patched into what’s going on. Also, a certain level of humility. Being humble enough to accept the space that you occupy and own it. I think some of the greats have fallen off by trying to approximate a second- or third-generation version of themselves unknowingly. You inspired this one artist who inspired this other artist. Then you jump on a record with them. They got all the respect in the world for you because you’re the foundation, but then you abandon the fundamentals that you’ve built your craft upon to try and approximate what they’ve added. People just lose sight of themselves as artists.

Your rhymes have always reflected your name: Black excellence. Black consciousness. With no father and a mother who was deep in the streets, how did you develop a knowledge of self and interest in worldly text?
As a young person, I would come to spend some time with my father’s parents. My grandfather worked for the postal service, and my grandmother was a librarian. So they always kept books in the house with stationary and old newspaper clippings. They kind of instilled in me my pen game; the value of being well-read. That’s one part of it. Then, my mom would always find all sorts of credit card and check scams, so we would have a couple of sets of encyclopedias on deck. I became really intrigued with history, science, and English literature. In my high school years, I hung out at the library. I guess I was a bit of a bookworm, but with a purpose because there was stuff that I would incorporate into my rhymes. I think that’s what gave me a broad range. I was also a fan of Kool G Rap and Chuck D and Brother J from the X Clan: Artists that were able to set themselves apart by showing how knowledgeable they were. I felt like my street sensibility and where I come from is in me. I had that covered. So it came down to wanting to balance it out. I didn’t wanna just be a street rapper.

You’ve spoken about relating to Kool G Rap’s “Road to the Riches” as a teen, simultaneously selling drugs and working at a pizza shop. Even with music and art being your main escape, how enamored was young Tarik with what flashed and glittered in the hood?
Just being able to compete with the hot boys and corner boys always appealed to me. Which is why I always kept a job. If I didn’t buy my own sweatsuits and sneakers and gold chains and rings, there was no way to get it. It was very much do-for-self. With that being said, it still wasn’t as glamorous or even interesting to say I have a job after school and I buy my own sneakers. There was still an element of me wanting to be in the streets because it was the thing to do. So I started selling drugs just to sell drugs. I didn’t need to sell drugs to make money. I would go to school and then go to work and then get off work and just post up and sell drugs. It didn’t work out for me because my heart wasn’t in it. At that point, The Roots were already a thing. So I had my music thing going, I was a visual artist, and I kept a job. After work on payday, I would come home, sit around, and act like I made that money from selling crack.

You sold crack because making an honest living in the hood wasn’t as cool. I wish that didn’t make so much sense to me. Insane.
Yeah, super crazy. I was definitely going down the wrong road for all the wrong reasons. At a pivotal point in my life, my uncle caught wind of what was taking place through my grandmother, and they decided to swoop me up. It was almost like a corner intervention. I had a matter of minutes where I had to leave South Philadelphia. They gripped me up, and I had to get whatever things I needed, and they put me on a plane to Detroit where my father’s other brother lived. That was a wake-up call for me. It was much needed. I didn’t even stay for a year, but within that time, lots of my friends were either arrested or shot. This all happened when I was in the 10th grade. I came really close to fucking it all up.

I was one of Pun’s favorite MCs, and he would always say that in interviews. Certain people had to speak out for me in order to get my seat at that table. It was early on, and I was still making my bones.”

You’ve said that there’s nothing that surprises you when it comes to America. Has Black Thought learned anything new about White supremacy in 2020?
Nah. If anything, I’m surprised that a certain level of White supremacy is still so blatantly allowed and afforded for in 2020. If you would’ve asked me in 1998 or 1999, I would’ve felt like the proverbial change gon’ come was gonna come. It wasn’t going to happen in 2000, but I didn’t think it would take until 2020. Surprisingly, that’s the surprise: that it’s taken this long.

As a parent with children who attend prestigious and diverse schools and grew up with a Black president, how do you discuss racial divisiveness at home?
It’s been hard to give them a point of reference for quite some time. It’s been hard to illustrate for them why they need to be conscious and why we move a certain way. But even in our suburban bubble, everything that’s taken place has reached us. Where I live may as well be Mayberry. Elijah Muhammad’s grandson led a demonstration right down my block. My block is pretty diverse and liberal. There are Say Their Names signs and Black Lives Matter posters on almost every house on this street, but there’s this one dude who lives a few doors down who is a huge Trump supporter and flies his Blue Lives Matter flag in front of his house. The parade sort of stopped in front of his house, and they were out there with the megaphone. There was no physical confrontation, but for where I live, it was a huge thing. It was just demonstrative of how serious the times are. I was all for it because I was able to say [to my kids], “You see that shit that’s happening four doors down? Well, that person’s grandfather was this person, and that person saying these things is from this place and feels this way because of XYZ.”

Your oldest is 21, which means he was born when The Roots began to mine mainstream success. How did Tarik become a good father when Black Thought lived on the road for the majority of the calendar year?
In all honesty, I don’t think I’m a good father. I’m as good of a father as I’m able to be. We can’t go back and change the past. We live and we learn. With my children, I just try to remain available. Much has changed since I was a young person and spent most of the year for many consecutive years on the road. For the last 11 years and change, I’ve been working more of a 9-to-5. I feel like my relationship with my children reflects that. I’m a different person. If you’re in your kid’s lives and they know you love them and you’re able to offer any education that’s going to instill within them the tools to help them deal with this world, then you’re doing all right.

Malik B of The Roots sadly passed away in July. When was the last time you spoke to him?
I want to say at the top of this year. There was a performance with a gentleman who is a popular vinyl collector. He had a party where he invited a couple of producers out to do their beats live. Kelo, who did a lot of the early Roots classics like “Clones” and “Concerto [of the Desperado],” came out to [play] his joints. This was in New York. He invited the whole original Roots crew of MCs — Mars Co-op, Dice Raw, Malik B — and I couldn’t make it. I had a workshop coming up for my Broadway musical that was scheduled to be coming out around now [until Covid-19 hit]. I had to focus on that. Malik was in New York. He reached out to me, and we spoke. Shortly before that, one of my homies from the Bronx, who is my boxing trainer sometimes, was at a random show and ended up on stage with Malik B. He hit me like, “I’m on stage with your man right now!” It was dope for me to even catch wind through the grapevine that Malik was still recording and managing to do performances. But sadly, I hadn’t seen him in quite some time. I see Malik every year around Roots Picnic because that’s when we’re all in Philadelphia. Since The Roots Picnic this year was virtual, it didn’t afford us to see each other.

The first two volumes of the Streams of Thought series were produced by 9th Wonder and Salaam Remi, respectively. Why was Sean C the perfect producer for Vol. 3?
Sean has been my brother for many years. He’s someone I’ve always had a certain level of respect for. It’s always been mutual. When he was an A&R at Loud [Records], he was instrumental in getting me on that song that became a classic with Big Pun, “Super Lyrical.” I was one of Pun’s favorite MCs, and he would always say that in interviews. Certain people had to speak out for me in order to get my seat at that table. It was early on, and I was still making my bones. The Roots were perceived to be more one dimensional at that time. Sean C was one of those people who said, “Nah The Roots is one thing, but Black Thought is something completely in and of itself.” He’s always said I’d like to step outside of the Sean C and LV Grind Music production umbrella and have you step outside of what you do with The Roots and make an album together. So he caught me a couple years ago during a time when I was ready to accept all challenges.

Talk about Streams of Thought, Vol. 4, which is already complete. Who’s the sole producer?
14KT, a producer from Detroit who now resides outside of L.A. There are so many classics on Vol. 4., just because of the mindset I went into recording the Streams of Thought series. I’m so far ahead of my time that I will never not have a couple finished albums in the clip ready to be put out. Streams of Thought, Vol. 4 probably has the most features I’ve ever done on any project. I have features with the usual suspects like Pharoahe Monch and Yasiin Bey — I even have Redman and Fabulous on there for the East Coast sensibilities — but then I have Tobe Nwigwe, Big KRIT, Currensy, Rick Ross, and J.I.D. Everyone ain’t gonna get an opportunity to jump on a joint with me. You have to be able to hold your own, and it has to feel seamless. That’s what Streams of Thought, Vol. 4 is. I listened to it this morning. It’s only 30 minutes, but it’s crazy.

So is 2020 the year of The Tipping Point or Things Fall Apart?
It’s obviously been a tough year and uncertain times, scary on a few different levels. Business-wise, with regard to my creative side, I feel it’s been more of a tipping point. With regard to society, there is a tipping point and a paradigm shift. In order for that to take place, much has to fall apart. Things must continue to fall apart to be rebuilt and reconfigured. We’re living in the culmination of history. Not only just American history, but world history has come to a head.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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