I had the honour of interviewing Black Thought from The Roots on Westside Radio, a few weeks before their London performance in July.
Black Thought: Man, three years ago, maybe four. Too long.
Drez: That’s right, too long. How was that performance in London. Do you remember it?
Black Thought: Yo, I remember we didn’t have a bass player. He left, he had to go back home. So the Tuba player played all the bass lines and the keyboard guy too. Yeah, it was one of them shows we had to ride through. It went really well.
Drez: Wow, that’s a sign of true showmanship. Freestyling on the spot. Right, let’s step back in time before to when you met Questlove in High School. Was it a particular song, movie or emcee that inspired you to get into the rap game?
Black Thought: I got in to it relatively early on. Like while I was forming, Hip-Hop was also forming. Like Melle Mel and The Message, Beat Street, the movie Wild Style, the graffiti documentary Stlye Wars. These were all super influential, and made a lasting impression on my young mind.
As regards to my decision to become a professional Emcee. I embraced Hip-Hop as a whole. Like I was a visual artist, I tried to DJ, did the human beat box and breakdance, but I just excelled at rapping.
Drez: Brilliant. I think a lot of people and heads around the world can relate to a lot of the movies and the pioneers you just mentioned. They influenced a lot of people. So, that brings me onto my next question. The scene started off in the Bronx and then filtered out. What was the Hip-Hop scene like in Philly when growing up?
Black Thought: Philly was changing the direction of Hip-Hop in that, we were doing things differently to New York, in particular, the whole DJ game. Like New York DJ’s, Afrika Bambattaa and Kool Herc, Red Alert, Flash and Grand Master Theodore and even Jam Master Jay. DJ’s of that era, in the late 70’s & 80’s they would cut the record, but only enough to bring it back to the break. It wasn’t about tricks or cutting, chopping the record up.
Cash Money, DJ Jazzy Jeff from Philly were doing things different with the record. That effected me and so I wanted to do something similar, but lyrically. I wanted to take the same approach to way I rapped, not just me, but other aspiring young Philadelphia emcee’s and pick up where the rappers of NY had left off and take it to the extreme.
Earlier on in the game, even though DJ’s weren’t doing acrobatic tricks, the DJ was still the staple of the party, and the job of the emcee in essence was to just hype up the DJ as he played the records that kept the party going. And what you started to see, like with Grand Master Caz and definately RUN DMC, and a other few New York rappers, like Sponnie Gee. They began to shift the focus and it now became the person doing the speaking.
In Philly we were taking it one step further. Trying to be more efficient, the baddest, the toughest, the most lyrical and we always had a little bit more to prove coming from an area that was not hip on the map.
That’s what made The Roots who we are today cos we’ve never lost that kind of competitive edge. Even now, we are honorary New Yorkers, especially Quest Love.
Drez: Appreciate that history of Philly from day one. It explains why The Roots have so many albums. You’ve touched upon the competitive edge, by what’s the secret behind the longevity in your own words?
Black Thought: We’ve remained relevant through constant reinvention, without ever abodoning what it is that originally made us credible. We’ve always managed to stay on par with the current trends and what’s happening stylistically in the world, without jumping on the band wagon and becoming a trendy act. We’ve gotten in, where we fit in. No pun intended, we’ve remained true to our roots!
Drez: That definately comes across with the way The Roots portray themselves: you keep it right, you keep it real. So from Quest to banging beats, and you rapping on street corners, now 20 years later you’re performing in front of thousands, how does that make you feel?
Black Thought: I feel accomplished. I feel honoured. I feel legendary, you know what I mean. I feel like, whatever accolade come my way as a musician as an artist, as an orator in regards to my musical achievement, I think it’s well deserved and it’s all been a long time earned. There’s no thing as over night achievement in the world of The Roots. It’s been a long winding, tumultuous road. We’ve managed to maintain our grip.
Drez: No doubt. You touched upon some key words. Legendary is something that is attributed to The Roots and yourself, being one of the illest emcees in the game. I just wanna ask you, what is your favourite track off any album and why?
Black Thought: Woah, man. That’s tough. That’s like trying to pick my favourite child. One of my favourite tracks is ‘Clock with no hands’ (album: Game Theory 2006). It represents something very personal and what I was going through, and the way I chose to deal with the issue at hand.
Also ‘Dear God 2.0’ (album: How I got over 2010) that is definately a major record for me. These are particular records that mean the most to me, and two songs that are at totally different points in my career.
Drez: Thank you for sharing that. If you were to form a super group, with yourself in it, two other emcess and a a favourite producer. Who would you pick?
Black Thought: I would say, Me Mos Def, maybe Pharoah Monch or maybe even MF Doom. Well definitely me and Mos. Production wise, that’s a tough one. Maybe Madlib, someone like DJ Premier. I would want it to be different to what I do with The Roots, that’s why I didn’t say Questlove.
Drez: When talking about The Roots these days, we got to talk about Jimmy Fallon. How did that relationship come about?
Black Thought: Jimmy is a huge fan of all things music, and the fact that The Roots have always been able to encompass every genre of the craft throughout our carrer’s. The word got back to Jimmy and when he was considering the late night show, a mutal friend by the name of Neil Brennan, jokingly suggested to get The Roots as the house band.
In fact Jimmy was down and began courting us for months. He would show up at different gigs and so we began building a relationship. We became friends first and once the camaraderie was there, that was the time Jimmy was seriously considering the show.
It was also taking place at a time in the industry when things were just changing. I mean people streaming music as opposed to buying it in a store. It was the death of the book store, the end of cd’s and concerts were selling way less tickets. We took that as being a sign to change and decided to make things relevant. Over six years later it’s still working like a charm.
Drez: I feel what you’re saying. You’ve moved with the times, keeping it relevant and building a new audience at the same time. In fact my kids love the YouTube video’s you guys have done with classroom instruments. Who came up with that concept?
Black Thought: Thanks man. We came up with that idea along with some writers. It’s something that worked and the first couple of times we did it, it trended, and got so many millions of hits that became a staple. It’s become big now, and as long as the artist we are doing it with is of a certain calibre, then it’s a good fit all round.
Drez: Any solo projects in the pipeline for you?
Black Thought: I’m working on some stuff with Freddie Gibbs. With the legendary Scarface. Beanie Segal and I are talks as we’re both from Philly. Yeah, I have a couple of projects.
Drez: Thank you for your time again and London can’t wait to see The Roots perform on Friday 10th July.