Black Thought Speaks About His Mother’s Murder & How Hip-Hop Saved Him (Audio)
Black Thought gives one of the best interviews of his career while speaking to Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito for their What’s Good podcast. The iconic Hip-Hop hosts and their guests know one another. It was 24 years ago this month that Tariq Trotter got into a car in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and drove to appear on the duo’s WKCR 89.9 FM radio show at Columbia University. He went off the dome in a blistering freestyle over Buckwild’s beat on the O.C. “Time’s Up” instrumental. that ability and propensity for rhyming have only enhanced with time. Stretch plays some of that audio at 5:30 in the conversation.
Black Thought refers to the experience of revisiting the 1994 moment as “cringe-worthy.” “I just had a visceral experience; I’ve never heard that audio again. That’s crazy! That really took me back to traveling to New York City from Philadelphia. Like, we took that really, really seriously. There weren’t that many rappers from Philly who really got a chance to represent,” he says of the moment. As Bobbito had received a copy of 1993’s Organix demo-album from fellow college radio DJ (at Drexel University’s WKDU) A.J. Shine as part of their exchanges, the radio hosts played songs and eventually invited the crew to the Big Apple to appear on the show. A.J. Shine would later become part of the Grand Negaz production team and work on multiple Roots albums.
Later (8:30), Black Thought reveals the Philadelphia natives who’ve influenced him the most before he made his way into New York City from the early ’80s, into the ’90s. “Philly DJ’s always won battles, and always won awards, and stuff like that, and were always super sharp…There was a record [by The Singing MC Breeze and Hand Master Flash] called ‘It Ain’t New York, ’cause Philly [was] steppin’ in.’ It was the Philly anthem, though. Straight up. But no, yeah, my influences are definitely Schoolly-D, who pioneered Gangsta Rap single-handedly. Questlove and I, we were in high school with artists like Boyz II Men, Christian McBride, and Joey DeFrancesco, they were all sort of, we were coming of age together.” Black Thought continues, “We went to sort of the “LaGuardia” of Philadelphia, The High School For Creative And Performance Art.” Manhattan’s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School alumni include Wesley Snipes, Nicki Minaj, Omar Epps, and others. While at South Philadelphia’s “CAPA” in the late-1980s Black Thought and Questlove formed The Square Roots. Black Thought was 14 years old.
As the interview continues (15:00), Stretch & Bobbito inquire about Black Thought’s love for literature and his deftness for keeping up to date with current events as it relates to his lifestyle, and his work. “I’ve always sort of listened to news radio. I grew up riding in the back-seat of a Cadillac with my grandfather driving, chain-smoking Benson & Hedges Gold [cigarettes] and listening to news radio. I hear what the news says is going on, so I have a more broad representation. I try and, you know, try and dial in deeper into world news and just get the different opinions. It’s almost a responsibility as an artist. I’m able to inform the listener because I’m informed.” That kind of awareness is throughout his solo and group catalogs as well as his 2017 Funkmaster Flex freestyle, which is also discussed.
However, Black Thought’s influences have not always been purely news worthy or musical (22:00). The 46-year-old dives deeper into his influences as a youth on the streets of Philadelphia. “I was born into the Nation Of Islam, so, there’s lots of information that I would sort of receive. I guess just because, it was what I’d been exposed to in the household, and speeches I would hear, and newspapers, pamphlets my mother would have when I was growing up. But I also grew up around my grandmother who was very active in the church and [would] take me to church with her. And I got some of my information from there as well. I was reading The Quran. I was reading The Bible. I was always super into English Lit. English and History, or at the time I guess, Social Studies, or whatever, were some of my favorite courses outside of Visual Art. You know, I took to Shakespeare and the cadence in which he would write sometimes. When I saw rappers, you know, using that, when I saw Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap, and Rakim rapping in iambic pentameter, it’s called, I was like, ‘Yo this is dope!’ and it had a huge impact on me as a young writer.” In August, Thought broke down G Rap’s “Road To The Riches” and explained why it contains his favorite Rap verse. Later in the interview, Stretch and Bob’ play another early G record, “Men At Work.” Thought responds by pointing out that 2002’s “Thought @ Work” is an homage to the Cold Chillin’ classic.
Deeper into the interview, Black Thought touches on his relationships and blossoming creativity between himself and his children. The father of five boys and a girl has a family that includes a son who shares his name with The Roots’ drummer and band-leader. One poignant piece at the end of this segment in the interview reveals Thought’s profoundly emotional turmoil that he suffered as a child, as it relates to his own family, and how it has manifested itself throughout his life today (32:00).
“I suffer from P.T.S.D,” he admits, referring to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. “It manifests itself in different ways at different times. What was normal for me as a child, I’ve grown to understand is not normal. [This includes] murder and being exposed to that sort of thing and understanding the concept of the taking of one’s life. [I was] knowing people, seeing people murdered at such a young age, and you know, gunshots, is what Philadelphia was like when I was growing up. And it wasn’t only this way, but many of the things that I saw as normal, I can’t even articulate the effect they’ve had on me. It’s an every day sort of struggle. That’s just real. I feel like many of us suffer from diagnosed mental health issues, and traumatic stress and issues based on when and where we grew up,” Black Thought says with openness.
This deeply personal anecdote rolls into a much more solemn piece regarding the murder of both Black Thought’s mother and father, the hardships that followed from the loss of both of his parents, and how he later used their passing as fuel, inspiration, and determination to continue through and persevere (33:00). “Both [of] my parents were murdered. My father [was murdered] when I was super young, and my mother [was killed] when I was in high school. Like after Questlove and I had sort of been together for about a year or so, I lost my mom. I felt like the world might end. My world, something within me, was lost when I lost my mom. But, it sort of renewed a drive as well, within myself, that just made me determined to make whatever it was that I was going to do, pop.”
The Roots started gaining Rap recognition when Black Thought was in his early twenties. He was asked if he knew if music would be his calling to pop. “I still didn’t think I would be a professional musician, really until after I lost my mom, that’s when I really decided this is what I want to do. This and only this is what I want to do. I think art is what sort of got me through. I was surrounded with a good team, I had good friends, I had a good girlfriend at the time, Quest was there, his family stepped up, my family stepped up, and we were just sort of able to get through it. The Roots is a family. It is a community. At least we began as a family that grew into a community and now is sort of an American institution.”
Elsewhere in the conversation, Tariq explains how early gigs he and Malik B had with avant-garde Jazz musicians allowed him to rhyme to a multitude of rhythms. Thereby, when Flex played Mobb Deep’s “The Learning (Burn)” instrumental, which happens to be in 4:4 time, it allowed him to lock in.
Earlier this year, Black Thought released Streams Of Thought, Vol. 1, produced by 9th Wonder and The Soul Council. That album was included in Ambrosia For Heads‘ best of 2018 midyear list. Additionally, Tariq dropped Trayvon Martin dedication, “Rest In Power.”
Additional Reporting by Jake Paine.
#BonusBeat: According to producer 14KT (Athletic Mic League, Elzhi, Royce 5’9, Danny Brown, Bun B), Black Thought and Yasiin Bey may be up to something: