Black Thought Speaks About The Roots Picnic And New Music On The Way With Royce, 9th Wonder & Eminem
For nearly 30 years, Black Thought and Questlove have been performing together, as The Roots. In that time, they have released 16 albums and EPs, performed at tens of thousands of shows, and entertained millions nightly, as the band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The expanse and quality of their body of work has put them in the conversation with The Rolling Stones, U2, Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament/Funkadelic and other all-time great bands.
In 2008, The Roots saw an opportunity to create a music festival that reflected the diversity of their brand and the musical tastes of their band members. The 1st annual Roots Picnic was held in their hometown of Philadelphia and featured DJ Jazzy Jeff, Diplo, Gnarls Barkley, Esperanza Spalding, among others. Since then the yearly event has grown in popularity, without ever sacrificing the diversity or quality of music being offered.
Ambrosia For Heads recently spoke with Black Thought about the upcoming 9th Annual Roots Picnic, which will take place on June 4 in Philadelphia (click here for tickets), and The Legendary Roots Crew MC was open and reflective on the mission of event, The Roots’ place in history, current artists he enjoys, his wish list of artists with whom he’d like to perform, his current projects and much more.
Ambrosia For Heads (AFH): The first Roots Picnic back in 2008 featured Diplo, Esperanza Spalding, DJ Jazzy Jeff, The Cool Kids, Gnarls Barkley, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings and J Davey. The same diversity in the lineup you had back then remains strong now. Was that part of the mission when you started the Picnic?
Black Thought: Absolutely. That’s part of the mission and it has remained [the mission]. That’s kind of what sets the Roots Picnic apart from other festivals. There are very many festivals that happen on an annual basis now. How does one distinguish themselves from the pack? The answer, in our minds, is by remaining ahead of the curve and keeping an ear to the street. It’s like the “something old, something new, something borrowed” kind of philosophy. The Roots Picnic is where legends and upstarts meet. So yeah, it’s a way to introduce artists to different audiences. It’s a way to introduce a legendary artist who’s been around for a longer period of time to some younger people who may not have been up on it—and vice versa. Yeah, that’s what makes the Roots Picnic super unique, and why the brand continues to expand. The Roots Picnic is basically something that’s taken on a life of its own. It’s a brand that we’re very proud of.
AFH: This year, you have everyone from Future and Usher to Lil Dicky and Tish Hyman performing. How do you go about selecting the artists who participate? Do you actively scout talent?
Black Thought: Yeah, we’re scouting talent. We’re part of quite a few networks of artists and DJs and booking agents and management, so we’re able to tap into our own in-house resources, so to speak, and see who everyone is checking for, and what artists are everyone’s kind of “first choices.” Then we kind of narrow it down based on availability and what’s gonna keep the bill as diverse as necessary. We don’t want to put two artists who represent the same sensibility at the same time on the festival. We want to maintain that variation and bring dope DJs, producers, vocalists, MCs together. That’s kind of the formula that’s been working for us.
There’s never gonna be a Roots Picnic where everyone that I suggested is gonna be booked, or Questlove [choices], or [any other member of The Roots]. When we all come together and are able to submit an artist or two or three apiece, we kind of do a focus group, in-house, among the people whose opinions make up what you all know as The Roots. It makes for a festival that’s worth checking out.
AFH: There are artists like Tish, who was part of your Grammy event and show at South By Southwest. Are you using those platforms to get a sense of what the feel is with these artists and who you want to bring to the Picnic?
Black Thought: Absolutely. Well, in the case of Tish Hyman, she was already booked for the picnic at the time she did The Roots Grammy session and that first annual South By Southwest Jam. That is kind of a litmus test that we use on a far smaller scale, but it’s still high-energy no less. The jam kind of represents one element of what we do as The Roots. If you’re able to hold your own at one of those jam sessions, which tend to be very intense. Artists don’t always pick what they get to perform and how to perform it; you’ve got to roll with the punches. So that definitely demonstrates to us how a particular artist or musician may or may not function under pressure. Again, in the case of Tish Hyman, we already [booked her] for the Picnic. Her performances at both of those jam sessions just re-solidified [her] like, “hell yeah, she’s gonna kill the picnic.”
AFH: On that same theme, given the extensive range of artists you play with, at the picnic, at your Grammy festivities, on The Tonight Show and more, how do you go about preparing to perform such a massive amount of material with your guests?
Black Thought: We rehearse. [Artists] don’t have carte blanche in your ability to miss the rehearsals and just show up and wing it, no matter who you are. No matter who the artist is that we’re collaborating with, be it on The Tonight Show or the Roots Picnic, or if you’re just coming out as a regular surprise guest feature during The Roots’ performance, we try to keep it really professional. We try to go over the material that we’re gonna do on stage, beforehand. We would squeeze Prince into our little, small dressing room studio at NBC the same way we would M.O.P. or The LOX. [Chuckles] We don’t discriminate. It’s not like, “Oh my god, this is Usher, let’s go about the process in a different way.” Folks kind of respect the brand. They respect the product that we put out and where we set the bar, performance-wise. So people are willing to kind of roll with those punches. They understand that it’s in their best interest to go over things so we can get them as tight as possible. But even that being said, the performance never goes [exactly as planned], and that’s the beauty of it. The beauty is rehearsing to get it tight enough, then you could deviate a little bit from the intended path. Because there’s a certain confidence knowing that if you deviate you won’t get lost, if that makes any sense.
AFH: Anderson .Paak is an artist who recently has brought live instrumentation back to Soul and Hip-Hop. As the keepers of that tradition, how important do you think what artists like him, The Internet, Kendrick Lamar, and others are doing to keep musicianship alive?
Black Thought: I think that what they’re doing with live instrumentation it’s super important. I think even, what’s more important…any rapper, any vocalist could kind of jump on stage with a bunch of hired guns, right? And they use the musicians that are poppin’ that they feel are gonna be able to most closely approximate whatever sound they’re trying to recreate. There’s something to be said about an artist who brings all those musicians into the studio when the music is still in the formative stage. There’s a certain homage that I feel is being paid to what [The Roots] represent. But there are artists who may be into Anderson [.Paak], who may be into Kendrick [Lamar], who may be into The Internet and all these artists who aren’t as familiar with the Robert Glasper’s and the Bilal’s and what have you. It’s give and take, but I’m very happy that the artists who kind of are representing that back-to-live-instrumentation or who are representing that live music movement, I’m happy that they’re doing it the right way.
AFH: Given that A&R-like session that you have with The Roots brain trust in considering artists, what are some songs that you’re really checking for, and artists over the last five years?
Black Thought: You know what, man? Record-wise, I don’t really listen to too many records. I don’t listen to too much new music. I kind of get my new music through checking out performances, through The Tonight Show, and through word of mouth. I just really trust the opinion of people in that brain trust. When I’m working on my own stuff, when I’m working on Roots stuff—which has been the case over the past year or so, or I’m working on Hamilton stuff, I don’t want to be too heavily influenced by what’s poppin’ right now. I just don’t listen. People put out a record, I might check the comments, I might check out the reviews, but I don’t want it to rub off. I’ve been in a really good creative space since last summer or so. I’m about to sound old as shit, but the last music—new music that I was really checking for was Kendrick Lamar’s [To Pimp A Butterfly]. I was definitely checking for the last Future album [DS2]. One of my favorites was the most recent A$AP Rocky album [At Long. Last. A$AP]. Really, since those records hit, I’ve been more reclusive and just trying to focus on my own stuff. Sometimes, whether you like it or not, you’re just gonna be influenced by what you’re listening to. I’d rather listen to the classic Soul, classic Rock, and Jazz and have that influence me, ‘cause that’s always what I’ve gone to the drawing board with. When I’m driving my car, I listen to news radio; I listen to NPR and 1010 WINS.
AFH: I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear you say Future, because there isn’t that conventional melody with his music. What appeals to you about his music?
Black Thought: Future’s beats aren’t usually that melodic, but Future is very melodic in his cadence. He’s a dope songwriter. I could listen to an R&B song that Future wrote and I could tell that Future wrote it. I’ve been a Future fan since “Tony Montana” days. I like the way he’s developed as an artist, the way he’s progressed. There’s a song on [DS2] called “I Serve The Base” that’s really put me in the mind of Bomb Squad production. Like, I felt like it was Public Enemy-esque. Yeah, maybe people will be surprised, but I’m listening and I’m checkin’ for stuff. I’m checkin’ for everything. When I’m not, then I’m not checkin’ for anything.
AFH: At this point in your career are there any artists with whom you would like to perform but have not done so yet?
Black Thought: I personally have never performed with Prince. I think that might be cool. I’ve been in Prince’s presence. I’ve been in the room with Prince. He’s been at Roots shows, I’ve been at Prince shows, but we’ve never performed together. Questlove has performed with him, but I haven’t. So I would love to perform with Prince. But even more so than Prince, I would love to do a collaboration, be it on stage, in studio, or both, with Sade. That would be dope. In the spirit of the collaborative albums we’ve done [with John Legend, Elvis Costello, and Betty Wright], I would love to do a Roots & Sade project. I think that would be amazing; I could die after that. I’d feel like I had arrived. There’s a bunch of artists, if I think hard and long, that we’d love to work with. We’ve worked with everyone under the sun, but there’s lots of people that we’ve been blessed enough to cross paths with.
AFH: So who would be the top dead or alive artists with whom you would like to perform, including people that you have performed with in the past?
Black Thought: Off-top…if you ask me an hour from now, it might be a different answer. Stevie Wonder. Sade. Bruce Springsteen. One of my favorite performances that I’ve ever done was a show that we did with Springsteen and The E Street Band in Copenhagen, Denmark. We opened up for them and shut it down. Then he brought us back out to perform. It was stellar. We performed with him a couple of times on Fallon too, but that Denmark show was one of my favorite concerts that I’ve ever done. Him. Billy Joel. Just to name a few.
AFH: Somebody you’ve performed a lot with who is not a musician is Dave Chappelle. Over the years, The Roots have had a special kinship with him, often doing shows together. How did that relationship start and evolve?
Black Thought: Our relationship with Dave Chappelle kind of comes from… Dave has always been really cool with Talib Kweli. Talib Kweli has performed with us millions of times. I think I first met Dave on some tour, some run, where Kweli was also performing with us, and Dave just came out to check the show. [Talib Kweli] may or may not have been there. But whenever we’d go through Ohio, and Dave was at home or near home, he’d come out and represent. It started from there. He’s hilarious. He’d invite us to shows of his. I’ve seen him do his comedy thing all around the country. There is a comradery and a fellowship that developed from that. His team has been always been composed of people who are also close friends of The Roots. He’s a close friend of friends of The Roots. We just have a huge overlapping of kinship. Whether we’re making music and Dave is doing comedy or not, I feel like we consider each other friends. That’s one of the most important elements of collaboration. I feel like it’s always shown through when you have a relationship with the person you’re working with, beyond whatever you’re doing at the moment. That’s when it’s organic and really soulful.
AFH: Speaking of that, you and Questlove have been working together for nearly 30 years now. How did you imagine your journey would unfold when you first started?
Black Thought: Our journey has unfolded the way we imagined it. We always imagined ourselves as a band that would go on to greatness, a la The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. Early on, we were super influenced by Public Enemy, Native Tongues, and all the stuff they were doing. But we always had a vision for The Roots that was kind of above and beyond just the genre of Hip-Hop. So we always imagined ourselves growing into household names and national icons, so to speak. I feel like we’re well on our way. We’ve come a long way and still have a long way to go. This is how we envisioned it. We always saw ourselves as Def Jam [Records] artists, and we had that as part of our career. Everyone that we’ve ever had on our wish list to work with we’ve had a chance to work with, except for Sade [chuckles] in some way, shape or form. Sometimes there’s a degree of separation. But yeah, we’ve had a chance to collaborate with all of our idols. For me, it’s been really full-circle to the way where now people who influenced us list us as influences. That’s just crazy. [Laughs] Some of the greatest musicians in history will quote something that Questlove said or they’ll quote some of my lyrics or a time that they interacted with us as having been an inspiration to them. That’s when it feels everything we’ve been doing, we’ve done the right way.
AFH: You mentioned being in a great creative space since summer. Are you working on anything right now that you can share?
Black Thought: Oh yeah. For a long time we had been executive producing the original cast recording for the Hamilton Broadway music. We’re still buzzing from the Grammy win for that record. Now we’re looking forward to the next installment of the Hamilton collection, so to speak—which is another album. I think it’s going to be called The Hamilton Mixtape. I think it’s coming out sometime this summer, maybe around the one-year anniversary of Hamilton being on Broadway. It’s just a dope record that features so many different artists of note doing interpretations, interpolations, and remixes—like “music inspired by the musical.” Look for it; I’m on quite a few songs on the record, and just so many other artists. Everybody that you’d expect to be featured is going to be featured. It’s just dope. Hopefully, onward and upward with that project.
Questlove and I are in a really good creative space, Roots-wise. We’ve been working on new Roots music. We don’t have any particular concept or any particular time frame that we’re looking at but we’ve been working on new Roots music.
I’ve been working a lot with 9th Wonder. So we have quite a few songs together, one of which I think we’ll be putting out pretty soon. I think it’s probably gonna break the Internet.
I’ve been working a lot with Royce [5’9”]. We just put out a song a couple of days ago called “Rap On Steroids” that people are kinda goin’ nuts about right now. It’s a snippet of a song that, in its entirety, will feature Royce, Eminem, and myself. Look forward to all this new stuff coming out.
The 9th Annual Roots Picnic will be held on Saturday, June 4, in Philadelphia and will feature The Roots, Usher, Future, DMX, Lil Dicky, Leon Bridges, Tish Hyman, Swizz Beatz, Kehlani, Anderson .Paak and many more. Tickets can be purchased here.