Black Thought Explains How He Constructs His Brilliant Rhymes
For more than 20 years, Black Thought has been one of the most consistent, prolific and greatest MCs in Hip-Hop. If he has been underrated, and that qualification becomes less applicable after each verse he smashes, it is solely because he has been a team player within the framework of a group, The Legendary Roots Crew, led by himself and Questlove. Thought’s approach has been more Tim Duncan, than Michael Jordan, quietly collecting rings, but an MVP all the same.
As the years have passed, the MC born Tariq Trotter’s role has expanded to include a regular network television gig on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, a mega music festival with The Roots Picnic, which now takes place in both Philadelphia and New York and, most recently, an executive producing role for all of the non-stage music for the Broadway musical Hamilton, which has become one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of the decade. His work with Hamilton has taken up more than two years of his life and, ahead of the release of the Hamilton Mixtape (December 1), he sat down with Billboard to discuss the mixtape, Hamilton, his approach to creating his rhymes and more.
In discussing how he and Questlove became involved with Hamilton, Trotter explained that they were there from the earliest stages of the production. “We’ve been working on the tape for as long as Hamilton has been on our radar and that was way early in the game, when it was still coming together at the Public Theater. We were part of the first musicians that Lin invited to check the play out and gauge what involvement might possibly come,” he said. Thought also revealed that, in many ways, the mixtape version of Hamilton was bringing the concept back full circle, as that is how creator Lin-Manuel Miranda originally envisioned it. “Lin’s original idea was to present the story in mixtape fashion. So as that idea evolved, it became a musical then a couple different bodies of music, and then it evolved into us executive producing all of the non-stage music that would be associated with Hamilton. And this is like the Hamilton Mixtape Vol. 1, with the very possible potential of putting out a second installment.”
In many instances, when well-known artists are brought on to “executive produce” an album, the title is more vanity credit than anything, with the person creating the album leveraging the executive producer’s name to gain attention for the project. Tariq was clear that he and Questlove were both extremely hands on for the two years in which they’ve been working on music for Hamilton. “We were super involved. It’s just a lot of responsibility as far as who’s gonna be the best artist to execute the vision, what is gonna play together sonically the best — every minute detail came down to a decision between Lin, Questlove, myself and Riggs Morales (of Atlantic Records),” he said. Tariq also commented on the toll his dedication to the mixtape took on some of his other projects, saying “We did work on a new Roots record, we have other projects that — I wouldn’t say we put them on the back burner — but for lack of a better word we had to divide our attention in favor of the Hamilton projects.”
One of Black Thought’s most fascinating revelations, however, was the amount of time and energy he puts into his craft. For an MC who makes rhyming look so effortless, whether via his mind-blowing off the top freestyles or his show-stealing guest verses, Thought says he puts an enormous amount of effort into his work. While others are celebrated for not writing rhymes, his often are the result of painstaking revisions. When asked about how he approached his lyrical contributions to the mixtape, Tariq replied “As in all things, I work in drafts, and I think the first couple drafts I had for the records that I appear on were more literal in that, yes, I was really, really trying to stick to the Hamilton narrative.” Building on that theme of working in drafts, he expanded, saying “But every song that I write, I’ll listen to what I have — whether it’s a line or a beat or a chorus or just an idea — and I go over it again and again and again until it begins to come together. It might take two hours, it might take two years.”
Revelations like that give new meaning to the title “Thought @ Work.” The Hamilton Mixtape will be released tomorrow (December 1), and features contributions from The Roots, Nas, Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz, Queen Latifah, Snow Tha Product and many more. Read the full Billboard interview with Black Thought here.