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.”
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).