Getting time with Tariq Trotter a.k.a. Black Thought was difficult considering time differences between L.A. and New York. HipHopDX catches him within the wee hours of the morning around 5AM PST which is 8AM EST. He’s driving around making moves left and right before his daily gig with The Roots as apart of Jimmy Fallon’s backing band on The Tonight Show. By the time this interview is over, Black Thought would have made a few wrong turns to his destination and paused the conversation to speak with his wife on the other line. Clearly, the man has a lot on his plate.
If anyone understands the notion of slow and steady wins the race, it’s non-other than frontman of The Roots. Flying below the radar of mainstream Hip Hop since the early 90s, there hasn’t been a collective that’s stood the test of time like them. Being a man of social action, he’s also worked for several years building The GrassROOTs Community Foundation which serves to create “a world where all girls grow up to be healthy women” according to their mission statement.
As the non-profit organization gains traction through various events including The Roots Picnic and their annual Super Camp, The GrassROOTS Community Foundation has gained one supportive ally in their fight to change communities across America. One would be iconic optical company Moscot who collaborated with Black Thought on a special edition Black Tortoise Grunya frames limited to only 300 pairs. Proceeds of the shades will be donated to The GrassROOTS Community Foundation.
Black Thought chats with DX about the creation of the frames with Moscot, Mona Scott Young’s involvement in The GrassROOTS Community Foundation, the death of Richard Nichols and The Roots not having a label home.
Black Thought Explains Collaboration With Moscot And Work With The GrassROOTS Community Foundation
DX: Having a good morning so far?
Black Thought: So far, so good. Definitely hectic but a normal morning for me.
DX: How many interviews do you have lined up this morning?
Black Thought: A few [Laughter]
DX: Considering your time in the game, what have you learned in regards to dealing with the media?
Black Thought: How I deal with the media? I think overtime, I’ve learned to deal with the media very carefully because I don’t deal with them too often. I would say I’ve learned to deal with the media on a need to deal basis. That’s something I’m working on within myself. Even though I’m a performer and my job entails me.. my job description has me in close contact with my audience often, that’s not necessary what I enjoy the most. I am a relative introvert and I’m not the most open book in general. I’m pretty guarded and uber private which is something I’m working on that because the way that I am by nature is bad for business.
DX: Talk about your recent collaboration with Moscot. How involved were you with the design aspect of the limited edition Tortoise Grunya frames?
Black Thought: I was super involved. The frames were designed by me. I was involved in every aspect. I took a classic frame, the Grunya, which has been one of my favorites and that I wear often and tweeked it. I changed the size of the frame, the colorway, used some different material, lense and put my name on it. Yup, every aspect. One of my concerns was putting together a frame that could be unisex and one that could be multifunctional. I wanted it to go from the beach to the red carpet and could be paired with any color scheme that one might wear. In that, I as very conscious in selecting the tortoise print and the fact that it was the color some might consider a camouflage look which on par with the culture in regards to fashion. Though it’s an animal print, it’s ambiguous; real eye-catching colorway. I decided to use it on the arms and inside of the frames which when you look at them dead center, it has that classic look that Moscot is known for. I felt like this collaboration was dope because Moscot is a legendary eyewear company and has been on par with everyone around for years. That’s kind-of what The Roots represents as artist. We celebrated the 20th anniversary of what many people consider is our second album but I consider it our first Do You Want More?!!!??!. I consider it our first because it was our first on a major label. We had Organix which I consider our demo and From The Ground Up which was our EP on a British label. Do You Want More?!!!??! was our first album with Geffen which turned twenty recently. During that same time, Moscot turned 100 years old and I felt like it was a great collaboration to happen now. Two classic forces to be reckoned with in fashion and music.
DX: Okayplayer has had its own shop full of apparel along with reported collaborations with the likes of Creative Recs. Did that make the process a little easier?
Black Thought: No not particularly. What I’ve worked on with Creative Recs kind of fizzled out and we haven’t been collaborating for quite some time now. What I was doing with them was something I was trying to design specifically for Barneys New York. It wasn’t an official “lets not work together” but we haven’t worked together thus far. A shoe company I am working with and have been involved in the shoe design is SAWA from Ethiopia and distributed by J. Crew. I’ve been working on a Black Thought shoe with them. I’m appreciative of all things Ethiopian and African. They did a show sometime ago with Chuck D through a Public Enemy shoe and I liked the way that came out. That gave me the encouragement to collaborate with them. I have the Moscot collaboration, the SAWA collaboration that’s coming out soon and this is leading up to my own line I’m introducing soon in the next couple of years.
DX: 100 percent of the proceeds from the Moscot frames are going to the GrassROOTS Community Foundation. In your eyes what’s been the greatest accomplishment for the organization so far?
Black Thought: We provide a service to the community that’s lacking and is very necessary. We do programs in schools and initiate different sorts of health, fitness and nutrition programs with different schools that we work with. What I would say that I’m most proud of or the signature endeavour of GrassROOTS is the Super Camp summer camp we do every summer here in North Jersey. It’s heavily evolving every year and we’re able to incorporate more and more children for about five years now. I’m proud of the Super Camp and the annual 5K marathon we do on the morning of The Roots Picnic. It creates a different kind of awareness in Philly which is where me and the president of the foundation Janice Johnson became friends. She and I became friends, many, many years ago and it holds a special place in both of our hearts. The community and school system there is in much need of these and the GrassROOTS does as much as we are humanly able to do.
DX: Who’s been the biggest supporter of the organization within Hip Hop?
Black Thought: I don’t know man. In terms of Hip Hop, the biggest supporters of the organization is myself, probably the late Rich Nicoles which was our longtime manager and my partner Questlove. This is something that I’m solely involved in like it’s an effort of my own. I’ve been urging my fellow bandmates to become more involved in this process and they have been. I dearly at some point would love all of The Roots would wholeheartedly be active in. Some of the guys take place in the annual 5K and some take part in the annual fundraiser we do in Philly called Let’s Move It event. Also on my board is Mona Scott Young who is very active and supportive. Her daughter is apart of the camp every summer. Mona does a fundraiser for her Mona Mi Foundation every year and a portion of those proceeds goes to GrassROOTS. Another person is Talib Kweli who hasn’t interacted with the organization in the past but this year he’s taking part in a town hall panel that takes place the morning of the annual Let’s Move It event in Philly. It’s a health form we normally do in the morning and the party is at night so Kweli is also on board with this. DJ Jazzy Jeff is also very active as well in what we do.
DX: Speaking of Mona Scott Young. Are you a fan of Love and Hip Hop?
Black Thought: Ummm, I’m not the biggest fan of Love and Hip Hop but I’ve seen it. If Love and Hip Hop is going to help these kids that are in dire need of programs and assistance; If Love and Hip Hop is going to help us give voice to some of the voiceless then I’m a huge fan of it.
DX: The organization does a lot of work for women and girls who are normally marginalized in generally in society more specifically Hip Hop. Do you think things are changing for the better?
Black Thought: Things are changing for the better but it’s a gradual progression. I don’t think anything is going to change overnight if there’s any indication from the current state in media, social media. Hip Hop is a reflection of society as all art and what I do with the GrassROOTs Community Foundation is all I’m able to do in order to counteract it.
Black Thought Talks Average Day On The Tonight Show and Favorite Featured Appearances
DX: It’s been around six years since The Roots began working as the houseband for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. What goes into a typical taping of an episode and how exactly do you guys find time to still make music?
Black Thought: There is much rehearsal that takes place everyday. Rehearsal begins around 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning and depending on who the guest is or isn’t that day, I may not have to be there that early. My bandmates usually arrive between noon or one then they begin what the sandwiches are for that day. The sandwiches are the small vignettes of music that you hear coming in to and out of commercials. We work on that all day and then the music we play for each guest as they walk out from behind the curtain. Then the walk-over monologue music and whatever background we need to do for the day in terms of sketches. All of that is rehearsed all day, every day. Then we tape the show around five in the evening until night.
DX: Where does album creation come into the mix considering the workload?
Black Thought: We have a studio that we’re able to record in our dressing room. We definitely use that studio. We do all sorts of stuff there at NBC. Aside from that, we do whatever we’re able to do workwise before or after our time with NBC. Just last night, I was in the studio with DJ Premier off work and went right back to work again. We’re on Fallon 44 weeks a year five days a week. Then you factor in holidays and family time. We make it work. We could be taking that time to relax but we feel it’s an obligation and it’s sort of in our nature as artist to create. So anytime don’t have to do something for the show at NBC, we’re in our creative mind and spaces. It’s a brand that we want to maintain and still nurture. We’re not ready to retire. We’re not able to tour as much as people were use to but what we have now is stable gig and we make it work from that.
DX: You’re working with DJ Premier. You dig PRhyme last year?
Black Thought: Yeah I was a fan of the record, I liked it a lot and I just made a wrong turn [Laughter]. What I was working on last night is apart of the deluxe edition of that album.
DX: Will the world ever see The Talented Mr. Trotter eventually?
Black Thought: I don’t know. I don’t know. Hopefully they will. Because of my time or the lack there of and all that I have on my plate. It’s a huge undertaking to do music outside of The Roots brand but I attempt to. I just don’t know what sort of time-frame it would be able to take place.
DX: You’ve done so many guest features outside of The Roots. What would be your favorite so far?
Black Thought: I really enjoy the stuff I’ve begun to do annually with Statik Selektah. In the past couple of years I think I killed my verses on the Statik song with Raekwon and Joey BadA$$[ “Birds Eye View”] and that appearance with Action Bronson and Royce Da 5’9 [“The Imperial’]. I was also proud of my guest verse on Pharoahe Monch’s recent album PTSD [“Rapid Eye Movement”]. Those are verses that I think I’ve killed recently but one of my favorite featured verses that I’ve ever made was on that “In Da Park” track on Ghostface Killah’s Apollo Kids album. I really enjoyed that.
DX: One of my favorite projects of last year was And Then You Shoot Your Cousin…. Where you satisfied with the response of the album?
Black Thought: Yeah, the response was the response. The way it was perceived, I was satisfied with it.
Black Thought Discusses Life For The Roots After Def Jam and The Time He Discovered Rakim Was A Fan
DX: Where do you go from there?
Black Thought: We go to the next record. I’m not sure of what it’s going to be but ideally, our next record would be some sort of departure from where we left off. Maybe a return to The Roots of the past? I’m not sure but we move forward from there.
DX: My favorite project from The Roots is Game Theory which was your first album on Def Jam after leaving Geffen Records. What did being on the iconic Hip Hop label mean then compared to now?
Black Thought: We’re not really on Def Jam now. We’re kind-of free agents if need be. It was cool, Def Jam was cool. Geffen was cool. I didn’t feel any difference. Def Jam felt like Geffen. A major label is a major label to me. We’ve always been self sufficient in that we never were dependent on a major label for much ever. So with that being said, when we were doing albums for Geffen, Def Jam or any other label, I feel like we’ve had the same results and we should be held in the same regards because we worked our personal brand. We shamelessly self-promoted our work and calculated our whole entire existence since we began. I don’t know if it would make much of a difference what label we went to.
DX: My favorite track on that project was “Livin’ In A New World.” What are your thoughts on the privacy debate in regards to the NSA considering you made a few allusions years ago on that track.
Black Thought: You know, I feel like there’s much that I’ve discussed on records years ago that have come to pass and you just gotta do the knowledge. It’s a bunch of books that I use to read back in the day and stuff that I’ve heard that have become the way of the world. You can go back to a lot of my old material and find predictions that’ll speak on how the world really is now. It’s crazy.
DX: Several months after his death, talk about the importance of Richard Nichols to The Roots.
Black Thought: It was a blow. It was a great loss. I think I know what Apple felt like when they lost Steve Jobs but life kind-of goes on and he’ll forever be apart of The Roots.
DX: Did you ever get a chance to hear Kendrick Lamar’s new single?
Black Thought: No I haven’t, but I’m a fan.
DX: Speaking of Kendrick, how did it feel to have him spit over the “Clock With No Hands” instrumental for “P&P1.5 “and “Peace of Light” for “The Heart Pt.2” on Overly Dedicated?
Black Thought: I felt definitely honored for him to have been that much of a fan if he wanted to rock on some of our material. He never reached out to me to collaborate but on the same token, we haven’t reached out as well. I would love to one day work with Kendrick because he’s one of the younger artist more recently whose work we appreciate.
DX: Has there ever been a surprising moment where you met an artists and realized they were a fan?
Black Thought: The first time I met Rakim, it was at this photoshoot with all the major Hip Hop artist at the moment in Harlem. The photo was recreating a famous photo of Art Kane entitled “A Great Day in Harlem.” I think the version we were shooting was suppose to be called “A Great Day in Hip Hop” for XXL. Everyone was getting into their places for the photo and I had to run and use the bathroom. I step out of place and go into one of the brownstones we were shooting and went to use the bathroom. When I was coming back everyone was ready to go waiting on me. As I made my way back to my spot, one of the people I was trying to get by was Rakim who I was a huge fan of and always have been. I had never met him until that point. Before I started to introduced myself because of course I was going to introduce myself to Rakim, he was like “oh shit Thought what’s up?” That took me by surprise like how does he know me this early in my career. I didn’t think it was safe to assume anyone knew me at the time who I was and Rakim was already up on my shit. We’ve worked together a lot since then but that day was surprising.