“Multifaceted” is an adjective that barely scratches the surface of who Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, is, what he does, and what he can do. He’s a vocalist, lyricist, composer, actor, film and TV producer, and college professor whose endeavors are all rooted in his gift for rapping and storytelling.
At 51, he’s become a household name after three decades of pushing the boundaries of hip-hop with The Roots, the band he co-founded with Questlove. In that time, Black Thought has become a paragon of longevity, artistic merit, and success in an entertainment biz that affords very few artists all three.
Yet despite the acclaim and accolades, the visibility that comes with being the voice of the Tonight Show’s house band, and the respect and admiration of rhyming peers from Jay-Z to JID, Black Thought is still hungry.
For Tariq Trotter, there’s always more to accomplish and more parts of himself to unlock. That’s why, since 2018, we’ve gotten a series of solo projects from him in collaboration with a list of unexpected producers, including Salaam Remi, Danger Mouse, 9th Wonder, and Sean C.
The latest project from the prolific MC is his collaboration with El Michels Affair, the Leon Michels-led band with their throwback analog soul feel. When I spoke to Trotter last month, the master lyricist and performer explained how he confronts his anxiety in the spotlight, why he’s more prolific now than ever before, and the role self-discovery plays in his creative process.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.
The FADER: I remember reading about The Roots’ schedule back when you were touring really heavily, something like 300 days out of the year. Crazy. Fast-forward to the future, you’re The Tonight Show‘s house band. Even though you’re relatively stationary, that’s a lot of work, a lot of things you have to do almost every day. And yet, you’re making films; you’re putting out albums; you’re teaching. How?
Black Thought: Well, for me, there are 28 hours in a day, so… Nah, I think it boils down to what level of drive one has. They talk about surrounding yourself with folks who inspire you. That’s the space that Questlove and I, and The Roots as a collective, have been blessed with. We’ve been blessed to exist and to move through our career within a space where no part is greater than the sum. We’ve always been able to inspire one another to aspire to higher levels. Getting to work with Questlove, James Poyser, Ray Angry, Stro Elliot, Dave Guy… Everybody has their own thing that they do when we’re not together as The Roots. And I would say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but we don’t really get to experience the absence because we still see one another every day.
There’s a mutual respect and admiration for what we’re able to achieve independently, and that makes us that much stronger as a unit whenever we come back together. If it’s Questlove and me, that’s a dynamic duo. If we’re coming back as 12 people on the stage — if we’ve parted ways while this guy did that thing and that guy did the other — we’re better for it. I have many things I consider my job, but you know how they say “You’ve got one job?” My one job is maintaining the dynamics of The Roots as a collective. From that, all things are possible.
You’ve had a long career. There’s been downs, there’s been ups, but it’s been a lot of ups. You’ve gone from being newbies in this, with people struggling to understand what you’re doing — “Are they a band? Is it hip-hop? Is it jazz?” — to being a cornerstone. Everybody looks to The Roots when they talk about musicianship and lyricism in hip-hop. You’ve accomplished a lot. Where do you get the drive to accomplish more? It feels like complacency isn’t a thing for you.
I mean, I could coast, but there would be a part of me left unfulfilled. There’d still be something within me that I’d need to do. Most of the things I do I’d be doing whether there was compensation involved or not. I’m a creative, an artist. This is what I’ve always been. The medium is ever-evolving. The disciplines cross. I work in different spaces, different fields, but it’s all as a creative and a storyteller, using whatever tools I have at that particular moment to tell the same story.
The reason I’m motivated to achieve more is because I’ve yet to achieve it all. I’ve crossed paths with many a man, many a woman who’s come from nothing to everything. I came from nothing in many ways. I’ve had my share of adversities in life. You play the hand you’re dealt, and I feel like I’ve played it. But there’s so much left to the trajectory. I feel like I’m about halfway through this journey. It’s been an incredible ride thus far and, by the grace of God, it continues to get better. We like to say [The Roots have] been The Tortoise and the Hair: By many accounts, we’ve played it safe throughout this long career, and it’s served us. We’ve overthought the outcome at every turn. Sometimes the reward is worth the risk, but other times the risk outweighs the reward. And we’ve been able to calibrate and calculate to make the most informed decisions for our career. It hasn’t always felt like the best move. You want your next move to always be your best move, and you feel like, “Wow, this dude graduated with me and he’s doing X, Y, and Z.” But here we are in 2023.
“Quest and I would do 20, 30 interviews a day. He always enjoyed it. He was made for it. He would do play interviews when we were kids. He was about that interview life. I was never about that.”
From a media perspective, Ahmir is usually The Roots’ mouthpiece. When you came out, people were like, “The MC doesn’t talk. He’s like, ‘If you want to hear what I think, you have to listen to the record.’” What switch flipped when you decided you wanted to let people know what Black Thought’s thoughts are?
I’ve always dealt with a certain level of anxiety associated with public speaking. Early in my career, we’d do press junkets all day. We’d go to different countries, and Quest and I would do 20, 30 interviews a day. He always enjoyed it. He was made for it. He would do play interviews when we were kids. He was about that interview life. I was never about that. To your point, I’ve always felt like if you really wanna know what I have to say, I’m saying it in all these songs. This extensive discography is me, my worldview, my sociopolitical views, how I feel about myself and my family. I was misquoted a couple times early on, and that left a bad taste in my mouth, [so I said], “You know what? Since this seems to be a recurring theme, I’m gonna fall back.”
Questlove was articulate and eloquent. He figured out how to engage the interviewer without always answering the question, even. He would engage you forever until you forgot what you asked him. It’s a skill, and he’s a master of it, so I let him rock. The Roots have always been a collective, an extended group of people who are into different things, so I was fine playing a supporting role, but that only served me to a certain extent. I reached a point where, in order to progress further along my own career path, I needed to step to the forefront. I had to embrace more of those challenges.
I was at a crossroads, tryna figure out what that was gonna look like, how I could make that happen organically, and the musical Black No More fell into my lap. I thought I was coming on to do a bit of music, but I wound up composing, arranging it almost in its entirety, and acting in it. Having to work on both sides of the table for that project gave me a different appreciation for the skill, the dedication, the nuance involved in not only musical theater, but everything I’ve done in recent years. It’s all been an exercise that informs my pen, my body, my muscle memory, and my DNA when I have to come back in a Roots or Black Thought capacity. I’ve made that awkwardness and anxiety work in my favor, and I don’t know that I would’ve been able to do it at any point earlier in my career.
I just reached a point where I had said all the things. The only thing left unsaid was the personal shit about my life and my family, things I hadn’t worn on my sleeve because I didn’t want that to be my calling card as a young person. But when I’d run into fans who say, “I’ve supported you for 20 years and I still feel like I don’t know you — what could I do to have a deeper engagement?,” I had to open up in that way. That was the final frontier.
Tell me what people are getting from Thought that they haven’t gotten from you before on Glorious Game.
Nuance. Because I’ve worked for such a long time as part of a collective, serving the greater good of The Roots’ consensus, my dexterity as a writer and storyteller outside The Roots is best served if I’m working with one producer at a time. I could work with 20 producers on 20 projects simultaneously — I’m able to compartmentalize in that way — but as long as there’s only one producer per project, that’s my sweet spot. That’s how I’ve been able to hit this productive stride in recent years.
In The Roots, [playing] it safe has worked in our favor. But there’s still something to be said about going with your gut, working in as close to an improvisational dynamic as possible. That’s what sets what I do outside The Roots apart. I don’t spend a lot of time working on the thing. I show up, we get two songs done in a session.
You write on the spot?
Yeah. I get in a room with the producer, and while they’re working on music, I’m writing to said music. It’s a challenge: I wanna be done with at least my first verse by the time you’re done with the beat.
The way I worked as a younger person was what needed to be done during that stage of my life. The way I work now best suits not only my creative ADHD, but also the palette of the audience and their attention span. I’m able to shuffle-culture my recording process in the same way the listener shuffles from project to project.
In this new phase of being open, we arrived at Glorious Game, which is one of my most personal projects to date in that I made a conscious decision: “I’m gonna make an effort for every song on this project to be a story. It doesn’t have to connect seamlessly, but it’s gonna be all narrative, and it’s all gonna come from a personal place.” El Michels Affair and Menahan Street Band — going all the way back to Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and any iteration of this ensemble of musicians — [have always had] a nostalgic aspect; a certain familiarity is associated with them. My head exploded when I found out the stuff coming from Daptone and Leon’s [(Michels’)] label wasn’t old. I was like, “Wait, this is contemporary shit? These dudes are in Brooklyn and Queens right now?”
I identify most with a living, breathing bed of sound because of The Roots’ live instrumentation aspect. And I come from the old school of recording on two-inch reels. I’m from walking around with reels under my arm, just two songs off the album in these four huge boxes I’m carrying around. Leon, for all intents and purposes, still works that way, and I feel like he’s one of the only producers who exists in that space. You’ve got some people who touch on it — Mark Ronson, Free Nationals, Khruangbin — but he’s mastered it. He lives in it, and it’s so effortless that it makes the creative process effortless, and that’s all I’m really here for.
Like we were saying, I’m not doing any of this because I need to. I don’t have to be a part of the rat race, so I’m in a space where I can be free and open and vulnerable; I could sing on a tune; I could talk about my lived experience. It’s a great place to be. But there’s no shortcut to it. You have to be 50 years old with 30-plus years in the game. That said, this is a passion project that came from mutual fandom, and the fact that Dave Guy and Ian Hendrickson-Smith have become members of The Roots and are also part of the Daptone, Big Crown extended family. We just organically started working together. I would go to the studio after The Tonight Show with Dave and Ian, and just being immersed in and part of their process, I knew something would come of it.
I’m not about forcing anything. I want everything to happen in a natural way. Once everything shut down and it was like, “Okay, sink or swim,” you could either not work at all and woe-is-me, end-of-the-world it, or you could amass the most extensive discography, expand your body of work beyond anyone’s imagination, and leave it in a time capsule because tomorrow isn’t promised. That’s the way I dove into it, and I became super productive. I was more productive over the past three years maybe than I have been at any point in my career. I’ve been able to keep multiple plates spinning and have different projects going simultaneously. As I release a project, I’m completing another one. I’m about keeping a full clip forever from here on out.
I’m thinking about the textures of this Glorious Game record: how they not only lend themselves to emotion, but also to the flow of the emotion being put into story form for a song. In “That Girl,” you hear the tenderness; you hear the admiration for women, or a woman, I’m not sure. But you feel it. Tell me a little about that record specifically.
You summed it up. During this [recording] process, [Leon] would record a full-on original composition with live instrumentation, sample a small section of it, and play more live instrumentation over that section. That lends itself to layers of emotion. If I have that sort of composition to begin with, I could listen to the music alone, without words. So whatever it is I do, it has to be adding on. It has to be giving more insight. It has to be moving the story along, moving the emotion along. It has to compel you in a different way than just listening to this beautiful music would.
“That Girl” is the other side of the coin to the [Glorious Game track “Alone,” which] is a song for women, about women. It’s relatable for any woman who has to hustle to get from A to B. “That Girl” is about my wife, my lady. LL [Cool J] set that precedent with “I Need Love” of being a rapper’s rapper — someone who’s super lyrical — who always finds a place on an album to do that “I want you” or that “I need love.” He was the first rapper that I had that level of respect for, the first artist in my top five, who made it cool, made it valid as a writer to tell that sort of story. Rakim with “Mahogany,” stuff like that. This album is a continuation of that tradition. Songs like those begat songs like the “You Got Me”s and “Silent Treatment”s from The Roots Catalog, which are still very different from what it is I do here with songs like “That Girl” and “Alone.”
But it’s all related. It represents the evolution of a type of storytelling that shows range and gives depth and dimension to an artist. I could do an album without taking a break that’s super-lyrical-dyrical-hysterical. That’s less of a challenge for me. What’s more engaging is to rise to an occasion and see something through to fruition.
“I never intended to save the world or start a revolution. I wanted to be revolutionary.”
What does the title “Glorious Game” mean to you?
Glorious game is just that information passed down from an OG, a gatekeeper, an elder statesman with a cautionary tale here and there but not being too preachy, told from a personal perspective, giving you some jewelry to move with. Hopefully every listener will be able to latch on to a different aspect of this project, and then move on and apply it to what they have to do — to their process or their relationship, their self-awareness, their lives.
In the sociopolitical climate we’ve been in the past three years, your most productive years, has your subject matter dealt specifically with what’s going on in America? Tell me about how what’s going on outside has informed your artistry.
I’ve always rapped about the same thing: what’s happening around me. Earlier on, it may have been less personal. I may have spoke more for the Black man in America as opposed to my lived experience as a Black person in America. I may have come more from a perspective of the Philadelphian speaking for my fellow Philadelphians. But at the top of 2020, when everything shut down, and with everything that’s been happening in the past few years, I’ve come to understand how — through my personal story and through me being as transparent as open as I’ve become — to best serve the greater good.
I never intended to save the world or start a revolution. I wanted to be revolutionary. There are people in my life now who were very close to either taking their lives or taking someone else’s life who, through something I wrote on a random Tuesday… If you asked me what’s the most impactful [thing] I’ve written, I wouldn’t even list those bars, but they’re like, “Yo, this thing you said at this time struck me in this way, and it changed my life.” That’s happened to me enough times that I’ve realized that it’s through those small victories that I’m able to make the most impact. This is how I’m changing the world — one person, one project, one verse, one bar at a time.