The Thinking Man’s Rapper
In a rare interview, Touré talks with Black Thought—front man for The Roots and the new house MC of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon—about what Chuck D. taught him about race, why rapping is like jumping rope, and the reasons behind his rhymes.
Black Thought is not just one of the best-named MCs in hip-hop history, he’s one of the best. As the front man of The Roots—Jimmy Fallon’s new house band for his late-night talk show—Black Thought is both a rapper’s rapper and an intellectual’s rapper, who doesn’t brag about the ghetto and never has to say how tough he is. He has a deliciously deep and steely voice, a tremendous rhythmic sensibility, and a pen that delivers furious flurries of rhymes about everything—politics, women, language, whatever. He’s got a personal style that’s as serious as a heart attack—he evinces that there’s-no-smiling-in-hip-hop thing, as if he’s not here to be loved by you, but instead here to slay you with his skill, take your respect, and leave.
Over the years, Black Thought, born Tariq Trotter, has done very few interviews—preferring, he says, to let his rhyming speak for him. But as The Roots will appear every night on Jimmy Fallon, he’s growing a little more amenable. I pulled him aside during a band rehearsal in a rehearsal space in Manhattan one day, found a tiny room, and talked to him about some of the science behind being an MC.
Who are the MCs you most closely studied and learned something from?
Kool G Rap. Big Daddy Kane. Rakim. KRS-One.
What have you learned from them?
From G Rap, I learned not to be pigeon held as regards to my vocabulary. The young Kool G Rap, when he was the cool genius of rap, it was really about the genius part and the fact that his lexicon was crazy.
It doesn’t matter than he might be using words that we, the audience, don’t know.
Shit, I use words that I don’t know but, you know, they just sound dope. G Rap was not just using hip-hop slang and words that everyone knew and not just using big words just for the sake of using them—he would use them in their proper context. G Rap, if he was an instrument, he’d be like a drum, whereas Rakim was like brass, he was more melodic. I’d compare Rakim to a saxophone. But from Rakim I got the melodic influence and just repetition in my patterns. I got more of the subtleties, I saw someone perfectly marrying consciousness with musicality with street credibility and still gangster. And his tone was crazy. He had a very distinct delivery. Sometimes nasal meets guttural.
“I’ve become a functioning cog in the machine called The Roots, but in my youth I was comin’ from a more braggadocious, egotistical perspective.”
Who else did you study?
Chuck D. From Chuck I got the black nationalism, the militancy. Chuck was a more avant-garde MC to me. And LL [Cool J] was a major influence. What I got from him was swagger. He was relatively young when he came in the game and he garnered the respect and admiration of these older MCs. He’s another guy from Queens who was saying, "I’m gonna use every word in the English lexicon and slap you in the face with it real hard." There’s something about MCs that came from that part of New York in the ‘80s.
Where do you rhyme from? Your nose, throat, chest, where?
Diaphragm. I try to. Sometimes you forget. If you have to sing you may just slip back into rhyming from my mouth or my throat or rhyming where we naturally speak. You can always hear me breathing during my verses, but that breathing becomes part of the music. If you’re rappin’ in perfect rhythm with the track then you’re gonna be breathin’ in perfect rhythm, too. And that’s part of the percussion.
But sometimes those breaths miss the mark.
I mean, if I swallow incorrectly or if I breathe and some dust goes down the wrong pipe, words will be missed or a line might be left out. The audience may be none the wiser, but more importantly it’s a bump in the stride of us onstage. And there’s gonna be a bloop, a sonic taxing for it, and everyone’s gonna be brought out of their zone for just a split second to acknowledge the fact that this one person just fucked up or left out this line. So you want everything to be as effortless as possible. It happens all the time but that’s one of the things you micromanage.
Every rapper, when they first hear a beat and start relating to it they go uh, uh, yeah, uh, uh—what’s the about?
It’s like a map. You have to be synced.
So you’re getting into the rhythm?
Yeah. When you hear a beat it usually takes a measure or one or two lines of the music before you become accustomed to the rhythm. It’s like jumping into a jump rope. You just start turning and then I jump in.
The double-dutch analogy is interesting, because you’re very much a part of The Roots in that you’re an instrument in this mix. Most rappers do it as an ego gesture—I’m the man, check me out. All eyes on me. That’s not where you’re coming from. It’s more of a musical gesture.
I’ve become an instrument in this. I’ve become a functioning cog in the machine called The Roots, but in my youth I was comin’ from a more braggadocious, egotistical perspective. I started changing as an artist the day that Ahmir [aka ?uestlove, The Roots’ drummer and leader] and I met. I feel like I became more musical and he became more street. That’s what we brought to one another. I was definitely knowledgeable in the world of hip-hop and Ahmir was knowledgeable about jazz and soul and all other music and we turned each other on.
You guys met in high school at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Did you take music classes together?
I’ve never studied music. Music for me was a hobby, something to do other than the art I’ve always done. I’ve been in art school from the age of three. I was a visual-arts major so what I learned at the school was just about colors and warm colors and cool colors and the effect that different colors have on people when you see a certain colors or two colors together. Which is where I got my name from: black being all the colors of the palette. The thing that’s carried over from my visual-art education into what I do musically is my openness. I can deal with sonic colors, the sound palette, from the experience I have dealing with the actual palette.
Has another rapper ever told you something that made a difference, or made you better?
Well, in KRS-One’s book The Science of Rap, he said come out with your jacket on. Begin your performance and your rapport with your audience by warmin’ yourself up, and that means start rappin’ with your coat on and at some point during the first three songs you take it off. This gives the impression that you’re getting even more personal, getting down to business. And that way you get an extra rush, an extra roar from the crowd and your performance elevates from that point.
How do you write a rhyme?
Rhymes will come to me line by line. Maybe I heard these two people over here having a conversation and they reminded me of a phrase that was coined years ago that people don’t use anymore that I wanna bring back. When I’ve accumulated half a book of these I’ll sit down and flip through and start writing a rhyme. I don’t usually write a rhyme before it’s due. I usually write a song when people are waiting for me to turn it in. I don’t just have a pre-manufactured thing. I don’t have songs I haven’t used yet. When I write a song, it’s tailor-written to whatever sonic bed was pre-existing.
How did you improve when you were developing?
I would always be rappin’. Always be rappin’. I’d just sit in this room and rap about everything in it. And you’d be sick. You’d be mad. Just stop rapping!
So young rappers trying should practice all the time.
The same way Norah Jones and Alicia Keys had to practice at the piano and Wyclef with his guitar, and ?uestlove—I’d call him after school and be like "Lemme speak to Ahmir," and his Dad would be like, he’s practicing, and hang up. That’s what makes a great musician, and if you’re gonna be a vocalist, if your voice is gonna be your axe, then you need to refine your knowledge. You also gotta be abreast of what’s goin’ on in current affairs, news, the latest reality-TV shit, what’s goin’ on in the Internet—you boil all of that down into one line that was witty because you compared this thing with that thing. You have to be knowledgeable of all the pre-existing information in order to edit it into something that’s fly to say.
Touré is the host of BET’s The Black Carpet
and the host of Treasure HD’s I’ll Try Anything Once
. He is the author of Never Drank the Kool-Aid
, Soul City
, and The Portable Promised Land
. He was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, was CNN’s first pop-culture correspondent, and was the host of MTV2's Spoke N Heard