Brooklyn, New York – As the longtime voice of The Roots, Black Thought has inspired aspiring rappers around the globe. But he has musicians and celebrities that he looks up to, too – and on Tuesday night, he got to spend time with two of them.
In Brooklyn, New York City, Nitehawk Cinema hosted a screening of The Last Dragon, the 1985 cult classic martial arts film co-produced by music legend Berry Gordy. After an audience went down memory lane for the film, Black Thought hosted a brief Q&A with Taimak, the lead actor who played Leroy Green (a.k.a. Bruce Leroy), and singer El DeBarge, who appeared in the movie and on the soundtrack. The event was a fundraiser for Black Thought’s charity, GrassROOTS foundation.
Thought, born Tariq Trotter, was just 11-years-old when the film released, and his eyes lit up as he shared memories about seeing excitement in downtown Philly after the film hit theaters during Easter weekend in 1985.
“That’s the first time I saw people leaving, for all intents and purposes, an arts exhibition…and not being able to contain the energy or control themselves. People tore up downtown Philly,” he said, remembering storefronts being destroyed. “…I wouldn’t even say it was violence, because it’s not like people were fighting. We just didn’t know what to do with ourselves.”
“Everybody wanted to be Bruce Leroy, and whoever didn’t want to be Bruce Leroy wanted to be El DeBarge.”
He also credits El DeBarge with being part of the foundation go his prosperous rap career. He remembers performing DeBarge’s “I Like It” as a child at a talent show. The following year, in fourth grade, he would perform in his first rap concert with a young Beanie Sigel.
“(“I Like It”) is one of the first songs that I memorized and learned all the words to. We won the talent show, and that’s what gave me the confidence to come back the next year and say, OK, let’s do this Hip Hop thing,” he said.
Taimak, who recently released a book called The Last Dragon, said that as an introverted child in New York, that martial arts was the only way he had to express himself. His parents moved the family to Europe, to be closer to friends and further from racial tension in the United States. While overseas, Taimak saw a TV commercial with Bruce Lee and was instantly obsessed. He grew up practicing Lee’s moves in the mirror.
When he went in to audition for The Last Dragon, he was surprised to be ushered into a small room instead of being welcomed to a stage. He didn’t have experience acting, so he had never done a script reading before.
“In my mind, I just thought it was about going out there, doing these fancy kicks and flipping around. … I did terrible, and I was so upset. I felt horrible, because I could tell by the look on his face that he knew that I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “He said, you look the part, but you have to work on this.”
He later re-auditioned and landed the part, convincing the producers to fire the other actor they had hired.
DeBarge briefly returned to the spotlight earlier this year, as a guest performer with Kanye West on Saturday Night Live. He sings backup vocals for several songs on Ye’s album The Life of Pablo. He spoke to the audience about working with Gordy and West.
“I was honored to work with Kanye West, he’s a true genius,” he said. “Speaking of genius, Berry Gordy did a great job on this movie, The Last Dragon. Today, we’re still talking about it. A lot of things he taught me as an artist, even as a man, they help me today. The etiquacy, the professionalism, how to just be true to one’s authentic self.”
Taimak and DeBarge also shared loving words about Vanity. The Canadian singer/model played Taimak’s love interest in the film, and was perhaps more well known as a former girlfriend of Prince. She died in February of renal failure at age 57, same age as Prince when he passed away last week.
“She’s fantastic, she left a mark out here that transcends her outward beauty. Her spirit was amazing. So were Julius and Leo,” Taimak said, noting the deaths of Julius J. Carry III and Leo O’Brien, who played characters Sho’Nuff and Richie, respectively. Taimak admitted that he had an emotional moment during his book tour when thinking about his lost co-stars. “…Sometimes I feel sentimental about it, but I’m not a person anymore that likes to get my head caught up in the things that don’t feel good. I like to celebrate people’s greatness.”
DeBarge said he had immense respect for Prince as a musician, and that he remained friends with Vanity after meeting her during the shooting of The Last Dragon. He said that he missed both of them, but like Taimak, he wanted to end on a positive note.
“They wouldn’t want us to be sad, they would want us to celebrate what God did through them while they were here. The arts, the gifts, the crafts, and true examples how to bring it home,” DeBarge said.