Black Thought Discusses His New Album, Epic Freestyle & Years Of Putting In Work (Video)
This past weekend (June 2), The Roots hosted their 11th annual picnic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sadly, just moments into their headlining jam session, hosted by Dave Chappelle, rain, flooding, and lightning storms halted a highly-anticipated affair. However, one day before (June 1), Black Thought showered Hip-Hop Heads with Streams Of Thought, Vol. 1. Produced by 9th Wonder and The Soul Council, the project is a first solo centerpiece for a 25-year professional Rap veteran and Grammy Award-winning front-man for The Roots as well as The Money Makin’ Jam Boys.
Earlier on Saturday’s Roots Picnic, Tariq Trotter joined longtime DJ/collaborator J. Period, Roots member Stro Elliot, as well as Jadakiss, Fabolous, and surprise guest Styles P for a live mixtape demonstration. 9th Wonder joined the stage as Thought performed some of his new songs from the Human Re Sources release.
Appearing on HOT 97’s Ebro In The Morning, Thought discussed his project, revisited his 2017 viral freestyle, and sprinkled some gems about his past and Roots catalog.
As he told NPR Hip Hop‘s Rodney Carmichael late last week, Black Thought confirms plans for more Streams Of Thought volumes, coming soon. Asked if the upcoming installments would deviate to other producers from 9th Wonder and The Soul Council, “very possibly,” says Tariq near the 15:00 mark. He adds, “[Streams Of Thought, Vol. 1] is only five records because I want the people to be able to digest it.” It is respect for modern day attention spans, as Phonte, Pusha-T, Saba, Kanye West, and others have made some of 2018’s more talked about projects, all less than 45 minutes long. Thought points out that The Roots’ most recent LP, 2014’s …and then you shoot your cousin was just 33 minutes. “The game has trended more in that direction. I feel like that as long as the record is dense, it can be short like that.”
Revisiting his 2017 Funkmaster Flex freestyle, Black Thought unpacks the way he stores bars. “I kind of committed all of the bars to memory; I commit everything that I write to memory. But sometimes I use them in a different configuration than they were originally sort of written in. So what I’m taking into consideration with a freestyle like [the 2017 Funkmaster Flex freestyle], I wanted it to sort of be a journey. I want to be political, but not only political. I want to speak to pop culture, but not only to pop culture. There’s certain buttons that I want to push that lend validity to me as an MC, and as a forward-thinker, and as an artist. I have so many minutes [and] X amount of bars in which to do that, so it’s a lot of ground to cover.” The MC says he never rehearsed the would-be freestyle, which later became a talking-point on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Black Thought chalks moments like the eye-opening (to some) freestyle as a product of hard work and technical dedication since he was a third grader at nine years old. Now 46, Tariq remembers coming up in South Philly grade school with another recognized spitter. “Me and Beanie Sigel had a group, and that was that. And I been rockin’ ever since.” He reveals this history at 3:45. Those MCs would share the mic on 1999’s “Adrenaline,” a pivotal year for Beans, who released his Roc-A-Fella Records debut the following year.
Black Thought expounds on the role of practice. “I’m from the graduating class that’s concerned with mastery…it is about raising the bar every time out and pushing the envelope. That’s just the cloth that I’m cut from. At the same time, everything is not for everybody. For some peoples’ taste, what I do may be over their head.” In recent days, Black Thought has made great strides in a recurring GOAT MC conversation. At 12:30, the MC says that his post on Fallon’s show allows him to stay sharp. He mentions working on his breathing (reportedly circular) and dropping unnecessary syllables in his bars for more symmetrical rhymes. This makes him especially gifted at rapping to faster beats.
There are other highlights within the 40-minute chat:
Black Thought recalls washing dishes in a Philly shop as a younger man, and the impact that Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Road To Riches” and The D.O.C.’s “No One Can Do It Better” had on him during that period in his life.
Black Thought clarifies that The Roots’ 1996 “What They Do” video was not a diss at Puff Daddy, Biggie Smalls, and Bad Boy. At 19:30, he says, “Nah, man! Here’s the thing: that was our director. I ain’t write the treatment for the joint…What we were speakin’ to was people who were frontin’.” Tariq points out that Bad Boy was not the only squad using the music video stereotypes that the video’s subtitles clowned. Notably, on YouTube today, The Roots’ uploaded version does not include the subtitles.
At 20:45, Black Thought admits just how often he is mistaken for Rick Ross. “I’ve never corrected anybody. That’s wasted syllables; we’re gonna have to interact longer.”
Ebro and Peter Rosenberg want Black Thought’s opinion on the Drake and Pusha-T beef. Thought says he has heard the disses, but does not state a victor. At 27:45, they ask him if MCs using writers upsets him. “I don’t take issue with it because I’m trying to write for more people.” However, asked if an MC who seeks help can be a GOAT, Thought says. “No, you can’t [be listed with the greats]. You can’t be Top 5 if you don’t write what you’re saying.” Asked if he ever rapped something that another writer penned, he says no—outside of an estimated 20 choruses written by The Roots affiliate and songwriter Dice Raw. “No bars,” states Thought.
At 31:30, Black Thought recites the freestyle he performed at Harvard in early 2016. “I got a standing ovation,” he recalls, after delivering his life-story in verse before the Ivy League university’s Innovation Lab.
Speaking about his peer group, Thought shouts out Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, and Common, “We all paid the same dues.” He also includes Pharoahe Monch, Wu-Tang Clan, and acknowledges Pete Rock and brother Grap Luva for letting him “post up” during the InI sessions at Greene Street Studios back in the mid-1990s.
At the close of the chat, Rosenberg asks Black Thought about “Act Too (The Love Of My Life).” The MC says, “We were trying to come up with something at the time that was going to personify Hip-Hop without doing it a disservice, comin’ on the tail end of Common’s ‘I Used To Love H.E.R.’ Nobody else needed to do it after that. So the fact that I was doin’ this record and Common was gonna be on it, I felt like I just needed to pull out the stops and make it super personal. So that’s what we did.” Asked if he considers that love letter to Hip-Hop his best work, he says it is “up there.”
Thought says his top 3 verses are “Clock With No Hands,” “Water,” and “Can’t Stop This.” The writer stresses that because all are personal songs that they required more effort and thus, wound up meaning more.
#BonusBeat: This 2017 video analyzes Black Thought as the Greatest MC Of All Time (G.O.A.T.). 9th Wonder and J. Period spoke about the greatness they’ve witnessed in this TBD episode.