The Roots
The Paybacks

THEROOTS1.jpg

Black Thought is feeling the heat. Not because the midday sun is baking through the windows of his Los Angeles apartment, not because he can’t find a lighter for the freshly rolled blunt he’s holding in his hand, but because the tide is turning. A week before this particular afternoon, the Roots headlined a two-night stand at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, and more than one critic took the opportunity to engage in a little Thought bashing.

“It doesn’t much help that all the guest rappers…are exponentially more charismatic than Black Thought,” wrote a critic from The Village Voice. Even The New York Times, which in recent years has fallen over itself to laud everything from screw music to reggaeton, got in a few good licks. The Roots “sound best when they’re collaborating with outside rappers,” said the venerable paper. “Perhaps that’s because their own rapper, Black Thought, is rather dull.”

So if Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter is feeling that kind of heat, it’s no surprise that he’s a little heated his damn self. “It’s just some real faggot-ass shit,” he calls out from the kitchen, still rummaging for a lighter. He finally finds one, walks back into the living room, and sits down on the couch. “I’m fuckin’ aware of muthafuckas hatin’,” he says. “Not even on the band, but on me! Comin’ at my neck.”

His eyes look weary as he blows a thin plume of smoke. Some fatigue is to be expected; he’s been on the road for almost a month. Even right now, the rest of the band is at sound check for another show tonight, and there are two more shows before the weekend is over. So yeah, he’s feeling the grind. But there’s more to it than that.

The heat comes at a very bad time. After all, everything on the surface seems gravy: The Legendary Roots Crew is preparing to release Game Theory, their first album since joining Def Jam Records amid much fanfare last fall. They recently became the first hip-hop act to perform at both Lincoln Center and Radio City Music Hall. They’ve escaped a grueling long-term deal at Geffen—under which they were shifted over to sister label MCA for two albums, only to be shifted back when MCA dissolved—and now one of their most demonstrative fans is also their boss. (Not only did Jay-Z tap them for his famous episode of MTV’s Unplugged, he has made frequent cameos at Roots concerts, including the Lincoln Center and Radio City shows.)

To quote from the group’s extensive catalog, though, there’s something goin’ on. After an Illadelph half-life in the rap game, the Roots find themselves in a very strange position. While only two of their six albums have gone gold (1999’s Things Fall Apart, which featured their only real hit single, the Erykah Badu–assisted “You Got Me,” and 2002’s Phrenology), they’ve been favorites of the press—especially the mainstream press—since their major label debut, Do You Want More?!!!??!, put their live instrumentation front and center in 1995. Lately, though, the rebuke: They’re a karaoke act, say the whispers. They’re being held back by their subpar MC. There’s no place in hip-hop for live music. They’re a jam band—a bunch of nerds making music for White college kids. The group’s drummer and unofficial leader, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, calls it the Tom Hanks Syndrome. “It’s almost a cliché to praise the Roots,” he says, meaning a backlash is simply the next logical step.

Black Thought echoes the concept. “You can only be the great artist for so long—come out with effort after effort that garners all this praise. The Roots have been around for so long that [critics] gotta fuckin’ hate on something. Why not the fuckin’ old dudes and shit? Like, Yo, you’re through. Your sound is dope, but you’ve been here for 15 years.”

Indeed, the rap game has changed since the Roots came in the major label door. Things are more singles-based now. The mixtape scene means new product comes out a lot quicker. Six grown men who play live instruments 200 nights a year simply don’t have the time to be showing their asses on 106 & Park, or popping up on every hot single. They’re a group of guys with a daily grind and government names—hip-hop’s version of office-job commuters.

Then, of course, there’s the Black Thought Question. He’s the MC, and as such, the front man. But his personality is decidedly at odds with both his central role and his extroverted lyrics. “Tariq is probably the most guarded person I know in hip-hop,” says ?uestlove. “Just his whole stance. Never lets you see his eyes. He might Miles Davis the audience and just turn his back on you.” It’s a far cry from the flamboyant personae wielded by most other rappers.

“I’m more on the low,” says Thought himself. “I move in silence. I don’t like puttin’ too much of me out there to be dissected, analyzed. Oh, what is he about? You can concentrate on any part of the collective that you want to, but people just tend to concentrate on Ahmir because he’s the more visual one. He’s out there more, people see him doin’ more collaborations.”

THEROOTS2.jpg It’s true. ?uest is one of the most visible people in hip-hop—or at least one of hip-hop’s most visible ambassadors to the music world at large. He puts together events like Dave Chappelle’s Block Party concert and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt 10th anniversary show. You might see him helming D’Angelo’s landmark Voodoo; playing drums for Pharrell on Letterman; or backing up the likes of funkateer legend Bootsy Collins, honky-tonk fiddler Charlie Daniels and rock ’n’ roll forefather Little Richard on Hank Williams Jr.’s remake of the Monday Night Football intro. Meanwhile, Black Thought never much pursued side projects. He started work on a solo album a few years back, but ended up turning the material into what became Phrenology. “For me to put my shit out wouldn’t have counted toward us gettin’ off of Geffen,” he says. “So I just said, ‘Fuck it.’”

Right now, as he climbs into his black Porsche Cayenne and sets off for North Hollywood—ostensibly to see his peoples at a studio, but that falls through and he settles for a turkey foot long at Subway—Black Thought is busier than he’s ever been. He and Danger Mouse are midway through a collaboration they’re calling Dangerous Thoughts, and he’s doing a Gangsta Grillz mixtape with longtime Philly homeboy DJ Drama, along with ongoing projects with producers Bink Dog and Kareem Riggins.

Still, what these ventures all have in common is Thought rhyming as a man alone. With very few exceptions, like rhyming alongside guest MCs on Roots records or dropping 16s on Strong Arm Steady mixtapes, he’s always been on the mic for dolo. The way he sees it, he’s not the most attractive collabo partner. “When you’re one of the best MCs,” he says, “a lot of people don’t wanna fuck with you, because you’re gonna make them work hard. If you feel like they might outshine you, why pay that dude to be on your track and shit?”

As if on cue, Talib Kweli’s “Wack Niggas” comes through the car’s speakers. Listening to Consequence, Common and Kanye all spit guest verses, Thought suddenly says, “Certain joints, I’ll be feelin’ like, Why didn’t they fuckin’ call me to get on that? Why am I not on this song? Why am I not on the Common album? Like, What the fuck? What happened? These are my homies!”

Read the rest of this feature in XXL‘s October 2006 issue (#85).

  • Pingback: » October 2006 - XXL

  • jus

    THE ROOTS…

  • pop a poppa

    why the fuck would Peter Rubin include
    reviews from The Village Voice and The
    New York Times in this article?
    since when did they know anything
    about hip-hop? shit… Tom Briehan or
    whatever the fuck his name is only
    likes music that contains demeaning
    images of black life. here goes XXL
    pilin’ on someone else’s bandwagon
    again. its not like THAT has ever
    happened before. right… just ask
    Method Man.

  • J.A.I.

    MAN I CAN SEE HOW THIS FOOL IS GETTIN’ PUT DOWN BY THESE LAME ASS PEOPLE IM NOT REALLY A ROOTS FAN BUT ONCE I HEARD HERE I COME N SHIT I WAS LIKE I GOTTA CHECK IN ON THESE FOOLS N IM HEARIN’ SUM PRETTY NICE TRACKS BY THEM IM FEELIN’ BLACK THOUGHTS FLOW I CANT WAIT TILL THAT GANGSTA GRILLZ BE COMIN’ OUT N THAT DANGER MOUSE COLLAB KEEP ON THE GRIND THOUGHT LATEZ

  • chitownstandup

    bend over XXL the white man is coming you damn fools

  • PHILAPERIOD

    One of the most dis-respected under-rated hip hop group!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Soulmatix

    yo, its just like the roots are one of those groups that dont give a shit. Black Thought is in my opinion one of the best Mc’s ever, his flow is untouchable. Its complete bullshit wat people say bout him.

  • I Fux

    Black Thought the super lyricist, your arch-nemesis
    Still with the Punisher, that’s my accomplice
    Stressin’ to emcees how they don’t really want this
    Electrifying shit his excellency Thought spit
    These cats they sentimental such with a gentle touch
    Dancin’ double dutch and all sayin’ nothin’ much
    My sound wave liftin’ your chin up like uppercuts
    New found ways of rippin’ shit up, I de-ve-lop
    Your squad chest swell up, still you’re mini-ay-ture to me
    Nature-ally I bring the extremity
    Musically intense with the globe in suspense
    Contemplatin’ where the world traveler been since
    The Roots bless you with a strong record, long like a epic
    Immerse you in some ‘ol next shit, ill poetic
    Thought from Illadelph somethin’ like nothin’ else
    My talk stomp like elephants upon every elf, cause…what

    Heat from Super Lyrical w/ the late great Big Pun

  • marlon

    people are fuckin idiots the reason Thought isn’t respected is cuz he doesn’t really have an image and in a brain dead rap world image is everything. he constructs words on par with papoose his flow is mental but if he wants to move units which is all that seems to matter these days he will need to get a grill and mention candy paint 8 times a verse otherwise he is just another annoying rapper with a point.

  • C

    When did Black Thought become wack?Lyrically, there very few rappers on his level.Of course, it’s not about lyrics anymore. Most of these metro actin’, faggot niggaz sell records because of their image. The Roots have nothing to prove to anybody!

  • Danja29

    i was agreein’ w/ you marlon… until you said ‘on par wih papoose’ and from there everything went downhill into backpacker rant #357784526.

    there are rappers out there who don’t have grills or rap about candy paint and have no prob gettin’ props and sales to match. and even tho’ i think thought is good from a technical standpoint, i gotta say that he’s also so technical and well, plain, that i understand why some people would not dig him.

    with thought, you’re pretty much gettin’ the same thing done well everytime. you never get excitement, anger, sadness, etc. from thought- you just get the same vocal tone and the same flow. he does what he does great… but it’s all he ever does.

  • tiggz

    Naija…stand up…UNDERrated.cant understand y dey be hatin on dem roots…show me a more diverse rap collective

  • Twelve

    The Roots = Real Hip Hop

    They have been underrated and unappreciated (by the masses, not real headz) for so long that I totally disagree that Black Thought is “feelin’ the heat”. They cats pro’lly don’t give shit what anybody has to say about them or their music. This is real hip hop and real hip hop don’t give a shit what the media says or if they get on the “good side” of the commercial population. It’s all about makin’ music … and in the Roots case, makin’ music that feels good and keeps the essence of real hip hop alive.

    We need to be thankful that their are MC’s out their like Black Thought, Talib Kweli and all the other Okayplayers keepin’ Hip Hop (not rap) alive.

    Respect the culture …

    -12

  • http://www.blacknasty.net black nasty

    he is very good looking. those almond shape eyes and chocolate skin. i dont care if he’s boring or if they have bag pipes on their record. the real question: DOES HE SHAVE HIS BALLS!??!

  • Twelve

    One other thing …

    Danja29 –

    The Roots is obviously a band and Black Thought’s vocal tone is just another instrument within the song. You’re not going to get piano sounds from a guitar …

    His lyrical superiority is what gotta impress most, if not anyone who rhymes themselves ….

    You may be right when you say “… you never get excitement, anger, sadness, etc. from thought …” But when you HEAR Thought, he makes YOU feel excitement, anger, sadness, etc. with the shit he says …

    -12

  • DUB

    “I LEAVE A CROWD DRIPPIN’ LIKE JOHN THE BAPTIST.”

  • Knowledge Speaks

    MARLON:
    [people are fuckin idiots the reason Thought isn’t respected is cuz he doesn’t really have an image and in a brain dead rap world image is everything. he constructs words on par with papoose his flow is mental but if he wants to move units which is all that seems to matter these days he will need to get a grill and mention candy paint 8 times a verse otherwise he is just another annoying rapper with a point.]

    Thats some real talk. I didn’t even think about that before, but he really doesn’t have an image at all. Black Thought doesn’t fall under any category at all because he’s never allowed himself to fall under any type of image. He’s just a voice without a face to the public and that’s why niggaz is hatin’ on him.

  • Lazarus

    Black thought is one of the best MC in the game past and present. fuck the haters . im glad we still got some real hip hop to listen too. keep doing u thought. still waiting for that solo.

  • http://www.okayplayer.com kid77

    Unfortunately, most people don’t see them live. They just see a guy who wears a t-shirt or polo shirt and khakis and hides his face behind some sunglasses and a hat and assume he lacks charisma. Regardless, I think people who respect hip hop and respect The Roots’ music know that they wouldn’t be what they are without Tariq, and that most MC’s couldn’t do what he does every day on the best day of their lives.

    -okp.com

    so true!

  • knowfrillz

    To compare Papoose to Tariq Trotter is an insult to the 100th power. If you wanna compare Pap to a Philly MC, use Cassidy or somebody, because he’s not effing with Thought’s worst day with his best day.

    • TheQuestian

      Exactly. Well said. Nobody this side of Pharoahe Monch is dealing with BT.

  • http://smokingsection.net DrewBreez

    It’s gay that I’m adding a comment but it had to be done. Thought is the truth. He shows not only vocal ranges but also varied lyrics and styles. Something to be said for an emcee like this one. Stop hating.

  • Fred D

    The way its looking over @ Def Jam… I say The Roots better start showin up at like Jets games and PArties with hov cause it u aint on his dick than u gets no lOve..Ie Ghost, Meth, DMX…… but for reals though, The Roots are not only legends but the best concert Ive ever been to(Audiotistics in LA) was the Roots!! real calssic niggas right there!! PEACE…

  • 7letter

    things would have been different if Malik didn’t abuse the drugs so much that cuased him to be kicked out of The Roots, Malik is Thought’s oppisite. Malik says some ill shit and is more colorful with his lyrics (not saying black thought isn’t but ppl arn’t hearing it).

  • http://www.myspace.com/blackcolumbian RL COOPER

    shit black thought is on the top when it come to this lyrics?!?! rappers now rap bout anyting the hell if i know u see it chewin on that like a piece of bubble yum. black spit that true street word these rappers need to leave the damn candy for lil kids get on his level cant no one fuck with black on a track any1 will lose!?!?
    TRE-4
    BANDIT

  • Tray_J

    Y’all need to give “The roots” a fuckin’ cover, i ain’t buyin’ your mag no more while you still have that snitch Curtis Jackson on your cover, stop suckin’ that man’s dick please, Good look on your Tupac cover though, at least you got something worth to check out, can’t wait to purchase this one.

  • http://myspace/ryannewton8 Ryan Newton

    The Roots have been doin it for years…i cant believe ppl r talkin about their frontman holdin them back thats for them to decide…i agree black thought should do more collaborations tho…XXL r the ones not supportin em and only doin articles on rappers with a single n a buzz…XXL should keep it real n do a article on RAKIM n see wutsup with that album he had droppin

  • Wesley

    The Roots are the TRUTH. They don’t have to sample, re-sample, & re-re-sample every other artist from the past or present. While some prefer to listen to the BS nursery rhymes from these wack niggas on the radio & tv, I wanna hear something positive & different from the usual okeydoke. The Roots have mastered their craft, appreciate it!

  • 9thIsWonderful

    Black Thought = your favorite rappers favorite rapper…

    why? consistency, undeniable flow, and his vocal progression which is unmatched by anyone else in hip hop.

    people in the media don’t see that, sucks for them. musically educated people understand it.

  • Phillip Nakkerson

    I’m in college right now studying Literature. Black Thought is so disgusting lyrically, that he is the only rapper we have studied. His complex rhyme schemes are UNTOUCHED by other rappers and most poets can’t even step to him. If you people have not realized, Thought is the real deal and arguably one of the best MC’s that ever was

  • http://XXL FEMI

    Black Thought is the truth, period.

    When we talk about real hip-hop, the list starts with Black Thought, Common, Mos Def & Talib Kweli. Real Hip-Hop!

    Pick up the following Cd’s: Do you want more? Resurrection, Black on Both Sides, Black Star and Reflection Eternal.

    Sit back, close your eyes, nod your head and get educated!

  • urfake

    lmao how come sum of u type how gangstars talk, ur prob ginger scrawny white kids. I cnt see people who live hip hop for real, talking on an internet forum, makes me laugh

  • http://www.geniusdevelopments.com alexander

    The new Roots album is great ….. beat all the other tv stuff .

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