Black Thought Is A Triple Threat. He Acts As Well As He Raps.
“I feel like whether acting or making music or visual arts or fashion, I feel like you’re sort of using the same muscles, with emphasis on different elements at different times,” Black Thought tells Ambrosia For Heads. It’s the day after his birthday, and the man who always seems to introduce himself simply as Tariq is focused. As The Roots are wrapping their 18th project (by Questlove’s count), he is celebrating a pivotal role on David Simon’s The Deuce. Playing emotionally eruptive pimp “Reggie Love” in the series set in 1971 “Rotten Apple” Manhattan. “I feel like I’m always tapping into the same creative space, whether it’s in front of the camera, just writing, or writing a song, or should I come up with a fashion idea, I want it to resonate with people. I want people to feel like what I’m creating speaks to them in some way. I want to be able to bring emotion out of people, and I want it to feel like a very tangible journey. I want you to feel like I brought you along like you became part of my narrative. We’re together. That’s across the board on [all] mediums.” The Deuce shows some new audiences the magnitude of Tariq Trotter’s acting chops, 17 years after playing the male protagonist in Romeo & Juliet adaptation, Brooklyn Babylon.
As a Grammy Award-winning MC and singer, Thought has long contested as the hardest working man in show business. Acting cements his triple-threat status–in addition to rapping and singing–and The Deuce shows him playing a villain, by most perspectives. “Reggie Love” is a cold pimp, who can manipulate anyone from prostitutes to bartenders to news reporters. While at times he uses brute force, “Reggie” has depth. “It explores the middle-ground [of pimps]. I think the [‘Reggie Love’] role was written in a way that it makes for a villain, but a complicated villain. It gave me a chance to bring a certain depth and dimension to the character,” he says of the Season 1 performance. “It is humanizing at moments. He’s—as far as pimps go—a likable guy, almost.” Another Grammy-toting MC, Method Man plays “Rodney,” another pimp working the strip. Previously, Meth’ worked with David Simon, George Pelecanos, Nina Kostroff Noble, and much of the cast on The Wire.
Thought grew up in South Philadelphia, approximately 90 miles from the neon bulbs, cigarette butts, and sidewalk sex market of Times Square. In 1971, he had not been born. However, he used a composite to capture the style, soul, and sophistication of the role. “The character, in my approach, was an [amalgamation] of different personalities that I’ve been exposed to at different points in my journey: neighborhood characters, people on TV and film, family members, stuff like that.”
Philadelphia was not unlike New York City. While Kensington and the 13th Street corridor long featured open-air prostitution, peep shows, clubs, and porn shops, it was two blocks on Market Street that had real ties to “The Deuce.” Richard Basciano, the recently-deceased porn magnate responsible for Show World on 42nd Street also owned the real estate for Philly porn theater, The Forum, along with adjacent peep shows and adult bookstores. “In Philly, it was a little more on the low, but still a reality,” says Thought about his exposure to ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s red-light culture. “The closest thing we had to Times Square in Philly was probably driving to Atlantic City—and just hit the strip, which was like right over the bridge. That was very much like Times Square to me, in the ’70s and ’80s. When I was a young person, I remember just riding down both 42nd Street and Atlantic City on trips, and just people-watching. [I would] be lookin’ at the ladies out there, the working-girls, lookin’ at the players and hustlers. There were tracks in Philly as well, but nothing as all-out, in-your-face, bright lights as 42nd Street.”
Musically, Black Thought has pulled from the 1970s. Beyond samples, riffs, and overt influence, The Roots made the Grammy-winning Wake Up! with John Legend in 2010, filled with refreshments of R&B and Soul throwbacks. Known for the ’60s and ’70s influence in his dress, vernacular, and cool demeanor for decades before “Reggie Love,” Thought appreciated the authenticity of the HBO series. “It made transitioning into the role a lot easier. So often, people attempt to do a period-piece, and because of budget restrictions or creative limitations, it’s just not always done right,” he says. “So to be part of a period-piece that was properly executed, it makes it that much more easy to just kind of submerge—or immerse yourself into that world, so to speak.”
This month, David Simon and George Pelecanos told NPR’s Fresh Air that if optioned, upcoming Deuce seasons will evolve into the very same blocks and sex trade, but in the ’80s and ’90s.
In the same interview, Thought updated Heads on the status of The Roots LP. Audio is included in this week’s LAST 7 episode: