Black Thought Recaps 50 Years Of Hip-Hop History In An Epic Freestyle

Earlier this month, The Roots’ Black Thought rocked the Grammy stage as part of a massive Hip-Hop 50th-anniversary tribute. The set was curated by Thought’s band-mate Questlove (who played along from the drums) and featured Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Rakim, Big Boi, Posdnuos, Busta Rhymes, Scarface, Ice-T, Too Short, Salt n’ Pepa, and many more. The performance showed Hip-Hop’s range across generations, regions, and styles. At one part, Black Thought shared the stage with LL Cool J for a rendition of L’s 1985 Radio album cut, “Untitled.”

Weeks later, Black Thought is back with another tribute to Hip-Hop upon its ceremonial 50th year. This time, the MC who professed his love for Hip-Hop in “Act Too (The Love Of My Life),” does it once more as a compelling love letter that plays like an essay-in-rhyme. Benny Boom directs the black-and-white video for BET. The lyrics are transcribed below.

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Black Thought begins at Hip-Hop’s origin story: “Beneath the flickering lamp post, we dance / Managing to keep the kick of the amp closer than / What some refer to as the spiritual santos / That span the days of Dapper Dan through June Ambrose / The band made us clap our hands / What came after was the scratch from the Grand Wizards and Grand Masters / One topic of discussion was whose hands were faster / Than a 6 train, where the illest tags were plastered / The pillars of the village at the origin of it / Came to occupy the space of our eternal beloved / This culture we constructed, was determined to thug it, and kept it rugged / While the proverbial gates got flooded / Cold-blooded, no budget / But we became raw to end the gang wars / What we started this thang for / So we were kings of pursuing visions of grandeur / With root of rhythm it was true religion we came towards.”

His next stanza asserts the role of women in Hip-Hop history: “When Sylvia Robinson became a Hip-Hop mogul / Who could ever know we’d reach the tip-top total? / Or how one Common cause could become so noble / That we’d be goin’ ‘exit through the gift-shop’ global / That gift that kept givin’ us light / And keeps givin’ advice / Took on a life of its own, and keeps livin’ / We found strength in numbers, many of whom were women / Like Sha Rock and them who were there from the beginnin’ / As our rocks, they could never be kept in the vault / There’d be no Kim and Nicki Minaj without Pepa and Salt / I hope Cardi B and Megan thank Latifah and Lyte / And L-Boogie, superheroes who were eager to fight.

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Thought moves into drawing comparisons and contrasts to Hip-Hop’s days past and now: “Before our entire lives became computerized / We were back-spinnin’ in shell-toes and Puma Clydes / As we watched some of our stars continue to rise / Up to Jupiter and Mars, we learned, to utilize / Our credentials / And how to maximize the potential / To build brands, layin’ the proper groundwork’s essential / To go from Public Enemy to Tribe Called Quest / To JAY-Z, Diddy, Pharrell, Drake, or Kanye West / To where our world could be as free as Ron Artest / In a place where no one else has got to sign our checks / We made fortunes outta fame like Run and D.M.C. / When we ‘came in the door’ like Ra and Eric B. / To make somethin’ outta nothin’ and it’s come to define a legacy / More meaningful than just a moment in time / The kinda brilliance we reveal instead of holdin’ inside / Ordained by God is the only way we know to describe / If you’re rollin’, let’s ride / You’re welcome to get in the car / Be whoever you need to be, but don’t forget who you are / You are a north star, as Black as my thoughts are / It’s true that back in the day, they used to report how you were too Black / Or too Latin / Too tapped-in / Too from the hood / But ever since we conquered Hollywood, it’s been all good / And don’t even really feel like it take long / To get from a payphone to Twitter, you stay strong / And diligent, great songs / Created a safe zone / That did it, citizens reppin’ the name of they place on / They finna say it ain’t where you ain’t from / It ain’t where you was headed, it’s where you at / From here lookin’ back, I say we did it / We made it, they hate it, and said we were over and gone / I feel it’s the move to say we proved all of ’em wrong

In the lyrics, Black Thought’s wordplay is rich and deliberate. This freestyle cues to songs by Fearless Four, Ghostface Killah, A Tribe Called Quest, Boogie Down Productions, and so many others. He cues to Megan Thee Stallion, Curren$y, Migos, Grand Wizard Theodore, Common, and himself all in one place. Every word is powerful and evocative in a freestyle that covers so much ground.

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In closing, Thought looks at how far the culture has come: “You got your money right, mind right / We been in the limelight / ‘It’s the joint’ ’til you on point ‘all the time, Phife’ / Thug Life, Vamp Life, Jetlife, Tramp Life / Do it for the ‘Gram, Soundcloud, Bandcamp life / Can’t stop, won’t stop, body-rock, door-knockers, bolt-lockers, clock-hangin’-’round-the-neck, sho’-shot / Tour stop, next joint to drop gon’ be more hot / Pure pot, walk me to the corner-store got / The boogie-down, breakdown, face-down, take-down, H. Brown, H-Town bass / Harlem Shake-down, Capetown til’ the details of our escape down / We was hungry, but there’s than enough on the plate now / 8 Mile, Rosecrans / Ten toes, both hands, Peachtree to 9th Ward / In and out the psych ward / CO’s and PO’s and OG’s and GO’s / The rites of passage that’s passed down from the griots / In search of capturing / Here in the absence / Of egos / Extraordinary ethos / Takeoff from The Migos / We rose to become entire eco / Systems, it’s wild / To think about how long the people have ‘listened now’ / ‘Fifty years down the line,’ we can spark this / My eternal beloved, Hip-Hop, is where the hearts live / And ‘that’s word / I’m NOT the herb, understand what I’m sayin’?” Those closing lines borrow from Divine Force and Ghostface.

In April, Black Thought is partnering with El Michels to release his second album in as many years. Glorious Game arrives April 14 following last month’s first single, “Gratitude.” 2022’s Cheat Codes with Danger Mouse was named among Ambrosia For Heads best of last year.

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#BonusBeat: Black Thought tells AFH about how hard artists would go to get fresh J Dilla beats: