Zip­ping up your boots & go­ing back to The Roots

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Black Thought: ’Y’all just reg­u­lar. I’m an apex preda­tor.’

Who Tariq ‘Black Thought’ Trot­ter Why care Be­cause if you don’t know by now you’ll never know — there's only one undis­puted king of the hip-hop disco. Where to find it Down­load from npr.org

I’m go­ing to nail my colours to the mast: there is no greater hip-hop group on Earth than Philadel­phia’s The Roots. I’ve known this since I first heard their 1993 al­bum Or­ganix com­ing out of a friend’s Walk­man head­phones on the bus home from school. As I lis­tened to them tell me to pass the pop­corn and sing the praises of grits, I knew that

The Roots and I were des­tined to be life­long com­pan­ions.

Time may have made them fa­mous to the world as the end­lessly ver­sa­tile house band for Jimmy Fal­lon’s Tonight Show, but those who know, know The Roots are much more than that — hiphop’s great in­stru­men­tal­ists and con­science-rais­ing in­no­va­tors, led by drum­ming im­pre­sario Amir “Quest­love” Thomp­son and fronted by the genre’s Dante — Tariq “Black Thought” Trot­ter. They are high-school friends who formed the band while stu­dents at the Philadel­phia School for the Cre­ative & Per­form­ing Arts in 1987.

If you needed any re­mind­ing of the tal­ents and stay­ing power of The Roots, look no fur­ther than the video of Black Thought on Hot 97’s Funkmas­ter Flex show in De­cem­ber last year. There the 40-year-old MC de­liv­ered a siz­zling one-take, 10-minute freestyle verse that broke the hip-hop in­ter­net and pro­vided a glimpse of what it must have been like in the golden age of Athens when, hav­ing lis­tened to some rea­son­ably able poets try their best to re­count the hero­ics of the Iliad, Homer laid it down, dropped the lyre and made the blind see.

As one YouTube com­men­ta­tor put it, “Black Thought is Thanos … he holds all the in­fin­ity stones.” Those stones in­cluded name-checks of Kafka and Dos­to­evsky and an ad­mon­ish­ing dis­missal of the new-school wannabes by their old-school bet­ters.

Over the course of 25 years and 11 al­bums, Black Thought and Quest­love have carved an in­deli­ble mark on mod­ern Amer­i­can mu­sic, and that jour­ney is re­counted in a re­cent episode of fel­low hip-hop gamechang­ers Stretch and Bob­bito’s NPR pod­cast What’s Good? Black Thought stops by to have a ca­sual but fas­ci­nat­ing chat with his two old friends about how he got to be Thanos, his in­flu­ences, love of Shake­speare and his thoughts on the mad world of the Trump era, reli­gion and par­ent­ing.

Born on Oc­to­ber 3 1971, Trot­ter was raised by mem­bers of the Na­tion of Is­lam. His fa­ther was mur­dered when he was one, his mother was killed when he was in high school. He briefly dealt crack co­caine be­fore ar­riv­ing at the high school where a meet­ing with a fel­low hip-hop en­thu­si­ast named Amir Thomp­son would change his life and the course of many oth­ers for­ever.

As he tells it now, for Trot­ter, the early hip-hop verses of artists such as Big Daddy Kane, Eric B and Rakim and Grand­mas­ter Flash and the Fu­ri­ous Five served as “the orig­i­nal CNN”, open­ing him and Thomp­son up to a new world full of press­ing is­sues that weren’t be­ing ad­dressed on their tele­vi­sion screens.

When he first picked up a pen and started to em­u­late his icons, Trot­ter knew that he was the best and so he’s not sur­prised that many have since come to the same con­clu­sion. Cocky? Per­haps, but as the reign­ing heavy­weight of rap, Black Thought now moves in a world where, as Nor­man Mailer once said of heavy­weight box­ers, he’s “like God’s big toe. You have noth­ing to com­pare your­self to.”

Trot­ter is also a vis­ual artist, fash­ion de­signer and ac­tor – you can see him in his cameo role in to ’70s New York porn ori­gin se­ries The Deuce —and he’s in­spired a love of cre­ativ­ity in his six chil­dren, all of whom are in­volved in the arts. It seems the legacy of the man who dur­ing that fa­mous freestyle re­minded his com­peti­tors that “y’all just reg­u­lar. I’m an apex preda­tor” is guar­an­teed for many years to come. Lis­ten­ing to him you re­alise that many of hip-hop’s sup­posed “di­nosaurs” are re­ally Jedi with plenty left to teach.

‘What’s Good with Stretch & Bob­bito’ is avail­able at npr.org

Pic­ture: Lloyd Bishop/Getty Im­ages

Tariq ’Black Thought’ Trot­ter.

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