Zipping up your boots & going back to The Roots
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
Tariq ’Black Thought’ Trotter.