The Roots' Black Thought On How Art Saved His Life : What's Good with Stretch & Bobbito The Roots frontman Black Thought (aka Tariq Trotter) joins Stretch & Bob for an open conversation about his early days in Philly, how childhood trauma motivated him to succeed and the guys uncover his 1994 freestyle from their show at WKCR.

The Roots' Black Thought On How Art Saved His Life

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What's up, everybody? Peace. Just a heads up, there may be some strong language in this episode. Ooo (ph).


Some bad words.

BLACK THOUGHT: Hey, what's up? This is Black Thought from the legendary Roots crew. And you're checking out WHAT'S GOOD WITH STRETCH & BOBBITO on or wherever you buy your pancakes.


BARTOS: What's up, everybody? This is Stretch Armstrong.

GARCIA: Why do you always open up the show? Why don't we switch it up? Hey, everybody. My boy right here is Stretch Armstrong.

BARTOS: And my man to my left is Kool Bob Love, aka - wait, no, Bobbito Garcia, aka Kool Bob Love (laughter).



GARCIA: ...That's right. And today's guest is none other than Roots member, Grammy Award winning, "Tonight Show" - I mean...

BARTOS: Master mic-smith...


GARCIA: Yeah. And we've known him for quite some time. We crossed his paths as an unsigned artist, as an up-and-coming artist back in the '90s when we had our hip-hop show. And we both performed at the Roots picnic two years ago.

BARTOS: Right across the street.

GARCIA: Across the street from NPR studios. And, you know, he has been splashing as of late with, you know, fierce freestyles, new record releases.

BARTOS: It's really a beautiful thing. I mean, there are a number of artists that passed through our doors, you know, in the '90s from our - the show we had back then that have gone on to, you know, colossally big things. You know, I'm talking about Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, et cetera. But I got to think, for myself, that seeing the success that Black Thought has had warms my heart in a way that is unique because he's really the embodiment of the culture. He's had a really uncompromised approach to his work. He's never had those kind of missteps where we see artists that have tried to maybe cross over or...

GARCIA: Interesting.

BARTOS: ...Expand their...


BARTOS: ...Listenership by doing something that's sort of out of their wheelhouse. And he's super famous...


BARTOS: ...As, you know, someone you see nightly on "The Tonight Show."


BARTOS: I mean, it's incredible that he's been able to reach that amount of success and have the power to see his new projects come to fruition in a way that's also uncompromised.

GARCIA: I can't say anything more. Hold tight, people. Black Thought up next.


BARTOS: And we're back in the presence of greatness. Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, welcome to WHAT'S GOOD WITH STRETCH & BOBBITO.

BLACK THOUGHT: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks so much. Thanks. You guys have, like, a catchphrase? Like, you got to start every joint off with, like, so, what's good?


BARTOS: That was kind of it. I kind of felt like saying welcome back because we really do have a shared history when it comes to...

BLACK THOUGHT: Absolutely.

BARTOS: ...Radio. And it's amazing...

BLACK THOUGHT: Absolutely.

BARTOS: ...To have you here.

GARCIA: Yeah. It's like - we had Black Thought when we were on the air in the '90s, and now we have Black Thought in our current incarnation. So, you know, talking about the '90s, I used to work at Def Jam.

BLACK THOUGHT: I used to be a Def Jam artist. I was - I survived Def Jam.


GARCIA: So anyway, I used to send promos to AJ Shine (inaudible)...


GARCIA: ...Radio in Philadelphia.


GARCIA: And Stretch and I - we had...

BARTOS: (Unintelligible).


GARCIA: ...We had a friendship with any college radio DJ around the world, really.


GARCIA: Because, you know, we would send them our tapes, and they would send them - they would send us their tapes. And one demo that AJ sent us was "Organics," The Roots' very first album.


GARCIA: And, you know, we played a couple of tracks on the radio. And then come '94, we invited the crew up.


GARCIA: And, Stretch, you want to play him the little excerpt?

BARTOS: I do, in fact.


BARTOS: We have some audio prepared. This is actually the appearance you made on our show on September 8 in 1994.


BLACK THOUGHT: (Rapping) Check - check it out. I get up over in my seat with all my rap energy. Leader of the black ministry, I got the chemistry to confuse. I amuse because I pay dues. Yo, I never take shots and never lose. Mad crews get ripped. Lyrics from my lip is like quick, mad heavy. I get down like a Chevy and shit, ripping Cs to confetti or shreds. I go to your head and I got the dreads. Representing The Roots for Feds and papes (ph), niggas (ph) catch vapes. And yo, I make my way on fire escapes just like the Wu. I got to do what I got to do to represent the Roots crew. So who the hell are you? I'm stylin' a better telling when I'm lyrically excellin', rebellin'. Now I take my hands out my pocket just to get a wave and a flave. I can rock it, put you in your grave. Yes. On point, eternally. Mr. Black Thought, I'm burning the MCs that might want to battle, attack, or better battle the Black Thought, the black cat that talks (unintelligible).



BLACK THOUGHT: And on today's episode of cringe-worthy.



BLACK THOUGHT: No, man. That - it - I just - there was - I just had a visceral experience, man. I've never heard that audio, you know what I mean? Like, it's just crazy, man. It really took me back to, you know, traveling up to New York City from Philadelphia and just like - you know, like, we took that really, really seriously. Like, you know, there weren't that many rappers from Philly that got a chance to sort of represent, you know? So yeah, that really took me back.

GARCIA: So, you know, Questlove - he mentioned that you and him and the crew would get tapes of me and Stretch's show in Philadelphia and you would hear cats being like, yo, I want to kick this freestyle. Stretch and I talk about the terminology a lot, right? So, like, you know, in New York, at the time, if you were going to kick a freestyle, it just meant a rhyme that wasn't on an album or a 12-inch.


GARCIA: It didn't necessarily mean that it was off the top of the head.

BARTOS: Or a song - it just was lines - bars as they say now.

GARCIA: Unreleased. Unreleased. Unreleased.

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah. What it meant was it had to be fully improvised. So it had to be off the top of the head, so to speak. I don't know if that was a rule, but so many people who came, you know, to rhyme with you guys rhymed off the top of the dome, so to speak. So yeah, that sort of became the standard. We would do entire Roots performances where my partner at the time, Malik B., and I would just freestyle the entire show the way we - like, it influenced our recording process in that, you know, we would get songs done relatively fast. Like, we'd be in the lab doing, you know, two and three joints per session just because, you know, we were freestyling, you know? So we, at that time, became super proficient. And it's super hard to determine whether it - you know, what the difference is, you know? So I sort of aspired to that greatness at the time, you know? You guys are so super attentive and just, like, quiet. Like, I'm not used...


BLACK THOUGHT: ...I don't know, like...


BLACK THOUGHT: ...Maybe the - this is how you guys do it now.


BARTOS: You know what? We're trying to make up for what we did in the '90s, which - I mean, what was that like? It was like, we don't want to ask him anything.

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah, like, damn...

BARTOS: We just want to...

BLACK THOUGHT: ...It's crazy. Like, you're not...

BARTOS: ...Shoot the crap and...

BLACK THOUGHT: ...There's no multi-tasking going on. Nothing, like...

BARTOS: ...Where's Bob? Oh, he's sleeping under the - yo, Bob...

BLACK THOUGHT: Where's Lord Sear, like...

BARTOS: ...Black Thought is here.

GARCIA: Right, right, right.

BLACK THOUGHT: ...There's nobody manning the phone lines. Got great memories.

BARTOS: It's a different animal.


GARCIA: So in your experience - right? - in these - in this decade leading up to you coming to New York, what are these influences that you're collecting from, you know, early '80s to '90s that are Philly-specific?

BLACK THOUGHT: Philly DJs sort of always won battles and always won awards and stuff like that and were always super sharp. I remember there was a record. I forget the name of the artist, but it was a record called "It Ain't New York Because Philly's Stepping In." You remember that joint?


MC BREEZE: (Rapping) With all due respect to New York City, yes, we're fly and we're saditty (ph). He's Hand Master Flash.

HAND MASTER FLASH: (Rapping) He's MC Breeze, the creator of the melodies.

MC BREEZE: (Reading) He's Hand Master Flash. He's the king of the cuts. And any human beatboxer nail yo butt down below the ground. Boom is the sound you will hear when you're coming to Philly town.

HAND MASTER FLASH: (Rapping) But right about now, that's not the point. The point is that Philly's no slummy joint. So put on these sneakers and your underwear because the BF boys are finally here.

BLACK THOUGHT: It was, like, (singing) it ain't New York 'cause Philly is steppin' in.

GARCIA: I think the only - I think only - Lady B only played that. They didn't play it in New York.

BLACK THOUGHT: It was a Philly anthem. You know what I'm saying?

BARTOS: That's what they call rare rap and the 12-inch goes for $800. Money in Zurich, Switzerland, got the only copy.

BLACK THOUGHT: Straight up. But no - yeah. And my other - my influences were definitely Schoolly D, you know, who pioneered gangsta (ph) rap singlehandedly. Questlove and I - we were in high school with artists like Boyz II Men and Amel Larrieux...

BARTOS: Really?


BLACK THOUGHT: ...And Christian McBride - Joey DeFrancesco. Like, they were all sort of - we were coming of age together. But we were - Questlove and I were more interested in the stories that our friend Jay Ones would come in and tell us because Jay Ones was down with the Hilltop Hustlers. And he used to come and tell us stories about - yeah, you know, I was with Mimi Brown in the limo - you know what I'm saying? And he would sometimes get picked up in a limousine, you know, after school. And it's like, wow, he's going to do rap shit. You know what I mean?


BLACK THOUGHT: But it was - you know? We had Joe DeFrancesco, who was playing - he was playing keyboard - playing piano for Miles Davis at the time. And we didn't care - I didn't. I was, like, where's the dude that knows the rappers?

BARTOS: He was your classmate?

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah. Yeah. He was our classmate. And Christian McBride, Boyz II Men - all those people that I sort of named. So that was - it was definitely an influence as well. We went to sort of the LaGuardia of Philadelphia - you know, the high school for creative and performing arts.

BARTOS: And that's where The Roots were formed?

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah. yeah. That's...

BARTOS: When you were 14?

BLACK THOUGHT: ...Something like that. 1987 - so I was, like, 14, you know what I'm saying? Maybe about to be 15 or something.

BARTOS: At that point, where did you think you fit in talent-wise? Like, on the scale of, like, I'm just starting out to, yo, world supremacy.

BLACK THOUGHT: I thought I was, like, the greatest. Like, I thought I was the best.


BLACK THOUGHT: Even at 14. Yeah. I thought I was the best at 9, you know, when I first picked up the pen.

GARCIA: Do you remember a rhyme that you wrote when you were nine years old?

BLACK THOUGHT: My - the first rhyme I ever wrote is one of the speed joints - like super-rapping.

BARTOS: Wait. This is a milestone because this is going to be the first time that Black Thought does a written on STRETCH & BOB.

BLACK THOUGHT: All right. It's like (rapping) I'm a hip-hopper never stopper rockin' all around the clock a double-T. You know it's me. I'm rockin' on the M-I-C. The money make a booty shake, a party rockin' non-stop, a girl take a heart break. Undercover super-lover debonair. I'm everywhere. Double-T, I can't be beat. Especially on the M-I-C, so if you want to challenge me, take the mic and I'ma be to rock you in a rocker. I ought to make you want to scream and shout. The beat is oh so fresh. DT, I'm oh so deaf. In the place to be and then a (unintelligible). My name should be double-T, but I also called myself DT rock back then, you know, so...


BARTOS: Sounded like young DT.

GARCIA: Beautiful, man.

BARTOS: Wow. Bob and I were talking about things that sparked a memory for us from Philly - pulled up a little Google action on a police bombing of the MOVE organization.


BARTOS: MOVE was a black separatist, black power.


BARTOS: Oh, still exists, OK. Basically, there was a lot of friction between them and the neighbors. Police were constantly getting called. And eventually, there was a confrontation in which the police dropped a firebomb on a rowhouse and the entire block was burnt down. And innocent people were actually shot as they were trying to escape the fire.

BLACK THOUGHT: Absolutely.

BARTOS: Correct?


BARTOS: What did that mean to you - that whole event?

BLACK THOUGHT: I think 11 people died in that fire. You know, again, if I'm not mistaken, many of whom were children. There were only two survivors, you know? A child - a boy named Birdie. And a woman, Ramona Africa. As far as I recall, you know what I'm saying? Definitely a part of Philadelphia history that shaped my sort of conscious and my awareness and just my understanding of propaganda, you know? And how it's, you know, perpetuate - because I remember how - I remember what the news coverage was and I remember how, like, the community was sort of made to feel. But Osage Avenue, where that took place - that's where - that's the street Questlove is from. Questlove is from Osage Avenue. He's from a few blocks down, but, you know, Philadelphia blocks are short, so he's basically from that street. And, yeah, it was definitely sort of the beginning of my consciousness, you know.

BARTOS: I had the pleasure of listening to, multiple times, the freestyle you dropped at Harvard.

BLACK THOUGHT: Oh, yeah. yeah.

BARTOS: I was really just intrigued by - you know, you jump in really just eviscerating politicians, like, from the first bar.


BLACK THOUGHT: Living in some times that's the craziest. They say these legislators are the laziest. Dedicated religious figures have gone atheist. Each and everything must change, there's no escaping this. I'm on a block - post-apocalyptic smoke covers, coincidentally presented by the Koch brothers. The magnitude of this is bigger than the both of us. The attitude is trying to manage not to choke from it. Go and get the bolt cutters. Open the floodgate. Any relationship I've ever been in was love-hate. The city I was living in really never was safe. For some, a temporary resolution was duct tape. Now, I'ma probably be on the black list, but I don't give a fuck, so I'ma shrug like Atlas.

BARTOS: Clearly, you are a voracious reader of literature. You drop, you know, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald - it goes on and on and on. It's also apparent that you stay up on current events.


BARTOS: Has that been a part of you for your entire - the adolescence through adult life, or is that something that more recently has become a little bit more urgent with where this country's been going?

BLACK THOUGHT: I've always sort of listened to news radio. Like, I grew up, you know, riding in the back seat of a Cadillac with my grandfather driving, you know, chain smoking Benson and Hedges Gold...


BLACK THOUGHT: ...And listening to news radio, so...

BARTOS: Listening to NPR.


BLACK THOUGHT: ...I mean, you know? So it's - like, that's what I do. I'm that, you know, dude who's like, could you please put on (unintelligible) - you know what I'm saying? I mean, I hear what's - what the news says is going on. So I have a more broad representation. I try and, you know, dial in deeper, you know, into world news and just, you know, get different opinions, you know what I mean? It's almost a responsibility as an artist. I'm able to inform the listener because I'm informed.

GARCIA: I'm just curious about the physicality of your performance. Like, clearly, you're embracing a lot of energy, a lot of history, a lot of reading, a lot of - but how does that manifest in, you know, the body of Black Thought when he's on the mic?


GARCIA: I see you got the towel here like you're ready to go to the ring.


GARCIA: You came prepped. I guess you think we're going to ask you to rhyme.

BLACK THOUGHT: No, man. No. You know, I just - you know, I just try and do my best, bro, you know what I'm saying? I come out. The fact that I don't have a hype man, there's no DJ, you know, who also has a mic. There's Questlove, but more often than not, he's speaking into a mic that only we hear because he's - you know, he's band director, so he's giving us direction. So I'm up there with nobody to sort of back me up...


BLACK THOUGHT: ...But, you know, the way in which I resonate with the audience. So I try to make that connection. But then I'm also - I'm an introvert too, so it's weird. It's - like, I try and make eye contact and connect with the audience, but sometimes I feel like too much of a connection and it's like, woah. It's like - yeah, it's overwhelming, and I got to, you know what I'm staying?

BARTOS: Stop. Stop staring at me.


BARTOS: You're on stage, what do you want?

BLACK THOUGHT: I know, it's a little bit of that. I don't know. I'm on stage, but I - you know, there are very many layers of the facade - of protection for me, you know what I mean? There's the band. There's the - you know, the fact that there's other instrumentation that it's at a higher, more elevated level literally than I am. So it's like, look at them. You know what I mean?

GARCIA: Are you stretching before you perform? Are you doing vocal, like - they trained us for this NPR (laughter).

BLACK THOUGHT: I used to do that sort of thing. But I don't do any of that anymore. There's...

GARCIA: (Imitating vocal stretching).

BLACK THOUGHT: ...There's no preparation that goes into a performance that I'm about to do aside from concentration and mental sort of focus.

BARTOS: Are some performances, though - do certain performances take you to a place that others don't?


BARTOS: All right, so, like, the Funk Flex one?



BLACK THOUGHT: (Rapping) I'm sorry for your loss. It's a body dead in the car, and it's probably one of yours. The writing all across the window and the walls...

BARTOS: I mean, you know, if you're playing basketball, you might be in that zone where you feel like you're not even pulling the trigger. It's just, like, God is guiding the ball into the hoop.


BLACK THOUGHT: ...(Rapping) I will not talk in class. Now it's pistols punishing people for talking fast. And all these innocent bystanders is hauling ass. I hate to say I told y'all, but I told y'all. Things fall apart when the center too weak to hold, y'all. I'm just collecting what you owed to my old jawn. You about to get swooped down on and stoled (ph) on. Fools swear they wise, but wise men know they foolish. Well, we was...

Yeah, there are definitely some performances that I feel like God sort of takes the wheel. You know what I mean? And I do experience that blackout sort of thing. But as it pertained to that Flex freestyle, that was - I mean, I blacked out, but it was not a blackout sort of, you know, moment. Preparation did go - much preparation went into that freestyle.

BARTOS: Right.

BLACK THOUGHT: Because it was, I mean, it was, like, my first Flex sort of - you know what I mean? - like, official freestyle.

BARTOS: Even though later on you said, yeah, it was just what I was thinking about that day (laughter).

BLACK THOUGHT: I mean, it was. It was all I was thinking about that day.


BARTOS: True, true. It's just what I was thinking about, nothing else.

BLACK THOUGHT: No, then I got there, and we did an interview. And I was like, shit, like, you know I mean? I'm losing my edge. Like, I came in ring ready. And - you know, and we charming it up. And he's like, yeah, man, some of my favorite Philly dudes - man, Philly. And I'm like, yo, like, when can you put the beat? So that's why as soon as you hear the beat, it's like, boom, and then I just start rapping immediately.

BARTOS: Yeah, amazing.

GARCIA: Boom, and it weights a ton.


BARTOS: Oh, man. You know, earlier you mentioned how the whole art of freestyling, how that made recording records more expedient.


BARTOS: Did that make them lyrically perhaps lighter, as to say you maybe didn't ruminate on a topic and go deeper and craft it? Did you have to give up the gravitas for the expediency?

BLACK THOUGHT: I don't think so. I think, you know, at that stage of our career, like, we were way less removed from high school and college curriculum. A lot of that information was just still fresh, like, just information that I sort of had to retain. It was still there to be pulled from, you know what I'm saying? Like, now, you know, you sort of have to, you know, watch a documentary, read a book. It's like - I feel like I'm trying to refill the blanks - you know what I mean? - because over time they sort of get depleted.

Like, your lexicon, you know, it lessens - you know what I'm saying? - unless you're, like, constantly sort of fueling the fire. And then also, both Malik B. And I, before we signed a deal, we would go out on tour with some of these jazz musicians like Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, different, you know, contemporary jazz artists of the day who we knew through our manager at the time, A. J. Shine's partner, Rich Nichols, who - he passed away a few years ago. But back then, he was a...

GARCIA: Rest in peace.

BLACK THOUGHT: ...Yeah, absolutely, rest in power. He was the jazz DJ at Temple University. So he forged a lot of these relationships. And he was able to, you know, before we secured a record deal get us out there as sort of working musicians making, you know, at least a couple dollars to go and, you know, do this quick gig in Austria with this saxophonist. But none of them will play in, you know, the 4/4 meter.

BARTOS: Right (laughter).

BLACK THOUGHT: So they would just play all this crazy end-based - crazy jazz. David Murray, you know, I mean, just streaming out over the place with sax. And then it's like, you know, you have to find a space within that to fit in, like, to rap. And it's freestyle. So coming from that to where you're going to play a breakbeat that, you know, is one of my favorite joints, and it's in 4/4, it's just, like, it's a huge relief. You know what I mean? It sort of returns from just regular old hip-hop. You know what I mean? So we were coming off of that, too.


GARCIA: I'm going to switch gears 'cause, I mean, clearly you're reading a lot. As a youth, what were you reading and being inspired by? Because I don't think you've arrived recently at being more politically active or socially conscious or - you know, I mean, you were talking about the MOVE incident in the '80s, and you were affected by that. So what was the early - you know, was it comic books? Was it, you know, cats passing you books that they were reading as Five Percenters or - you know, what was going on in Philadelphia in the young Tariq Trotter's mind?

BLACK THOUGHT: I mean, you know, I was sort of - I was born into the Nation of Islam. You know, so there was - there's lots of information that I would sort of receive, I mean, I guess just because it's what I was being exposed to, you know, in the household, and, you know, speeches that I would hear and, you know, paper - newspapers and all that sort of thing, pamphlets that my mother would have when I was growing up. But then I also grew up around my grandmother, who was very active in the church and would take me, you know, to church with her. So I got some of my information, from there as well, but...

GARCIA: But were you reading the Quran and the Bible?

BLACK THOUGHT: I was reading the Quran. I was reading the Bible. I was always super into English, you know, lit. Like, I was - English and history, or, you know, at the time I guess social studies or whatever was like my - a couple of my favorite courses in school. I mean, besides - outside of visual art, you know? So I don't know. I really - I took to Shakespeare and the cadence in which he would write sometimes. And when I saw rappers, you know, using that - you know, when I saw Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap and Rakim sort of rapping in iambic pentameter...

BARTOS: (Laughter).

BLACK THOUGHT: ...It's called, I was like, yo, this is dope. You know I'm saying? And it had a huge impact on me as a young writer. You know what I'm saying? I said, yo, this is dope. And it sort of opened up, you know, a world of, you know, just trying to - I try to navigate - one of those Wu-Tang dudes said before that too much knowledge might break up the rhyme. You know what I'm saying?

And I think that rings true. Like, there's a such thing as, you know, just being too densely packed with information for the listener to digest. You know, like so much that, you know, they shut down, and they're not receiving anything that you're trying to give them. So there's a delicate balance between, you know, keeping it street, keeping it hood and then saying something that's going to, you know, make you want to go do a little bit of research. You know what I mean?

GARCIA: Well, I also think, you know, there's something to be said for layering, right?


GARCIA: So, you know, we got to do Rakim for the season. And, you know, in doing our research, I was listening to certain rhymes. I was like, I heard that 30 years ago, and I'm just realizing...


GARCIA: ...The meter for it now...

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah, that's crazy, man.

GARCIA: ...As many times as I've heard that.


GARCIA: Right?


GARCIA: And so, yeah, it's wonderful to, as hip-hop, appreciate it. And it's interesting, too, because I'm realizing that, like, you know, for the generation prior to ours - I'm born in '66 - you know, like, hip-hop for us was part of our education.


GARCIA: Right? Like, whereas...

BLACK THOUGHT: A huge part for some of us.

GARCIA: My older brothers went to the...


GARCIA: ...Library. They went to bookshops.


GARCIA: For us, we were learning...

BLACK THOUGHT: Absolutely.

GARCIA: ...From what we were hearing...


GARCIA: ...In hip-hop.

BLACK THOUGHT: Yep, absolutely. You know, that was our window, you know, to the world. It was - and was the original sort of, you know, CNN, MSNBC for us. It was Melle Mel - you know what I'm saying? - and Grandmaster Caz and, you know, Kool Moe Dee. And then it was - I mean, it was Afrika Bambaataa and those dudes. And then it was, you know, the Chuck Ds and Rakim, Kane, G Rap - you know what I'm saying? - just a look into their world. For some of us, it wasn't just a part of our education. For some of us, that's the only education that we've had. You know what I mean?

BARTOS: It's also a huge value for me as a white kid.


BARTOS: The information that I garnered from hip-hop...


BARTOS: ...Was - I mean, you can't even measure it. You know, what I learned in school compared to what I learned from music...

BLACK THOUGHT: Exactly, right.

BARTOS: ...Are completely different things.


BARTOS: And, yeah, I wouldn't be the same person if it wasn't for hip-hop for sure.


BARTOS: Are you - you know, I get it. You know, spirituality and religion are, you know, for a lot of people, very personal and private matters. I don't know if that's something you're comfortable talking about. But are you still a Muslim?

BLACK THOUGHT: I mean, I feel like, you know, I was born a Muslim, so I'm kind of, you know - that's what it is.

BARTOS: I mean, does that feel like a cultural identity, or is there an actual theological practice that goes with that? Or is your spirituality something else entirely?

BLACK THOUGHT: I mean, I think my spirituality is also ever-evolving. And, I mean, there's no - I mean, I've studied quite a few - I've studied religion from a few different perspectives, none of which I agree with, you know, 1,000 percent wholeheartedly. So that's sort of where I am with my spirituality, you know? But yeah, I mean, you know, I could go - I could quote, you know, verse and - chapter and verse with, you know, Christians and, you know, Muslims as well.

I feel like that that adds to, you know, like, why my music sort of feels informed or as informed as it does. You know what I'm saying? Yeah. I don't know. You know, I study Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Christianity, you know, just the religions and practices of the world. And I try and find that common thread, that common denominator. And that's what, you know, I tend to believe the most - you know what I mean? - you know, when there's a reoccurring theme.

GARCIA: Black Thought - MC, comedian, actor...

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah, yeah, fashion designer.

BARTOS: Artist.

GARCIA: ...Writer...

BLACK THOUGHT: Visual artist.

GARCIA: ...Sunglasses...


GARCIA: ...And one role that we're missing is father. And, you know, as a parent myself, you know, the other day, I brought out my son to my basketball tournament that I produce. And yo, he grabbed the mic.


GARCIA: He had never seen me announce a game. I'm not an MC like you, but I'm saying, like, I announce basketball games.


GARCIA: And he grabbed the mic, and he just started being like - started saying numbers.


GARCIA: So, you know, that's clearly - I don't push my son towards basketball. I don't push him towards hip-hop or...


GARCIA: ...You know, nothing. Like - but he, in his DNA strategy, he's got signals that are telling him, like, yo, basketball's cool.


GARCIA: Music is cool. I'm wondering. What type of relationship do you have or what do you see in your kids that is clearly reflected in your spirit that you're seeing come out of them?

BLACK THOUGHT: All of my children are artists, you know? Some of my children are visual artists. Some are musicians, you know? I have...

GARCIA: Wait. How many children do you have?

BLACK THOUGHT: I have six. I have five boys and one daughter.

GARCIA: Oh, wow.


BLACK THOUGHT: Two of my boys are twins. My youngest, Tariq (ph), who's about to be 3, and then my oldest, Ahmir, who is 18 - and Ahmir is a musician. My son - my next son under him, Benjamin, is a visual artist. He's starting in a couple of weeks at University of the Arts in Philly.


BLACK THOUGHT: So - yeah. And Ahmir - you know, he's a singer. He plays piano. He plays guitar. You know, he aspires to be - I don't know - a vocalist of some sort. But his focus isn't on rap. And he can rap a little bit, like - but it's a joke when he does it, you know? I don't mean, like, his bars are a joke.


BLACK THOUGHT: I mean, like, when he does it, he's just, like, messing around. He might hear this.

GARCIA: Dad, I want to battle you tonight.

BLACK THOUGHT: But, no - but what I - you know, I definitely - I try not to impress upon my children, you know, any sort of, you know, direction in that way either. I'm just there. I'm here, you know, to advise and for guidance if you sort of need it. But I don't want to ruin it for you by, you know, making it something that I'm super excited about and, you know, making you feel as if you have to sort of go - you know, follow in my footsteps or else, you know? My daughter, who's 12 years old, she's into film and documentary - taking, like, a filmmaking course right now. And...

BARTOS: How old is she?


BARTOS: I mean, this is not fair.

BLACK THOUGHT: And like...

GARCIA: (Laughter).

BARTOS: No, I mean, this didn't happen when we were 12.

BLACK THOUGHT: Oh, yeah, tell me about it.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

BLACK THOUGHT: She - I don't know. I don't want to scare her away from her natural sort of, you know, wit. So I'm just going to - you know, I'm going to see how it pans out, you know, just let her do the documentary thing for a while. But, I mean, it's exciting when you sort of, you know, get even an inkling that your child might just genetically have some part of your creativity. You know what I'm saying? You have to sort of nurture it without affecting it - like, you know, messing up the space-time continuum. You know what I'm saying?

BARTOS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GARCIA: I think similarly, I experienced some trauma as a kid. And being a parent, there are moments when my son does things that stirs up both for me and my wife trauma, you know, reminiscent of our own experiences.


GARCIA: And it's like, whoa, where did that come from?


GARCIA: Do you have those moments?

BLACK THOUGHT: I mean, I suffer from PTSD. You know, and it manifests itself just in different ways at - you know, at different times. You know what I'm saying? What was normal for me as a child I've grown to understand is not, you know, normal - just murder and being exposed to that sort of thing and understanding, you know, the concept of the taking of one's life, knowing people, seeing people murdered at such a young age and just, you know, gunshots and what Philadelphia was like when I was growing up. I mean, and it wasn't only this way.

But, you know, just many of the things that I saw as normal, I can't even articulate the effect that they've had on me. You know what I'm saying? It's an everyday sort of struggle, you know? That's just real. And, you know, I mean, I feel like very many of us suffer from undiagnosed mental health issues and, you know, traumatic stress, you know, issues just based on where - when and where we sort of, you know, grew up. You know what I mean?

BARTOS: You've spoken openly recently about the murder of your mother.


BARTOS: In the wake of that, having to go through two trials...


BARTOS: ...When they caught the perpetrator.


BARTOS: Having to live that twice - once is horrific enough. Twice - you said for a moment, you were sinking into a space of nihilism. I think you said you understood what a serial killer might...


BARTOS: ...That mentality.


BARTOS: But then something switched in you.


BARTOS: And you were able to use your mother as a source of inspiration...

BLACK THOUGHT: Absolutely.

BARTOS: ...Determination and perseverance.

BLACK THOUGHT: Absolutely.

BARTOS: I don't know if you'd like to share that.

BLACK THOUGHT: In a nutshell, that's it. You know, both my parents were murdered - my father when I was super young and my mother when I was in high school, like, around - you know, after Questlove and I had sort of been together for a year or so, I lost my mom. You know, I felt like the world might end. You know, like, my world - something within me was lost when I lost my mom.

But it sort of renewed a drive as well within myself that just made me more determined to sort of make whatever it was that I was going to do pop. You know, and at the time, I didn't think I was going to become a professional musician really until after I lost my mom. That's when I really decided, like, you know, this is what I want to do. Like, this and only this is sort of what I want to do.

GARCIA: Did that focus help you move forward from the incident?

BLACK THOUGHT: I think so. I think that's what got - I think art is what sort of got me through. You know, I was surrounded with just, you know, a good team. And I just had - I had good friends. I had a good girlfriend at the time. Quest was there. His family stepped up. You know, my family stepped up. And we just were able to sort of get through it.

BARTOS: So being in The Roots was more than being in a band. It was...

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah, absolutely.

BARTOS: ...A community...

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. The Roots...

BARTOS: ...Which, you know, if you had been a solo MC, your trajectory may have been...


BARTOS: ...Very different.

BLACK THOUGHT: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, The Roots is a family. The Roots is a community. It's a, you know - or at least that we began as a family that grew into a community and now it's sort of an American institution.


BARTOS: Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed.

BLACK THOUGHT: I mean, a little bit, like, you know what I'm saying?


GARCIA: So when you get back off the road, you know, doing all these tours and all these passports and eating and, you know, the sneakers...

BLACK THOUGHT: Definitely eating.


BLACK THOUGHT: I may have eaten a few sneakers.


GARCIA: When you go - when you walk through the door, what's the first thing that Tariq tries to do as a ritual at the crib?

BLACK THOUGHT: At the crib - kiss my family, take my shoes off.


BLACK THOUGHT: Well, no, not in that order. Take my shoes off, kiss my family. It's weird. You know, as soon as I walk into the crib, my wife, she starts talking like - you know, I don't know - I mean, I guess this happens for a lot of guys. She starts talking immediately, like whether our eyes have met or not.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

BLACK THOUGHT: Like, she could be in a different room, upstairs, different section of the house. Once I open the door...


BLACK THOUGHT: ...She's going to start talking. So, I mean, it's just like - it's about preparing myself for that. Sometimes, you know, I'm standing right outside the door just like, you know, doing a stretch, just like...


BLACK THOUGHT: You know what I mean? Just, like, getting that last, you know, inhalation in before - you know, because when I open the door, it's showtime, you know what I'm saying? It's on.

GARCIA: Well, I mean, she may not have seen you for a week or two weeks or even more, right?

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah. Yeah. I keep strange hours sometimes. And I mean - and the fact that, you know, "Tonight Show" takes up so much time. And I still try and maintain, you know, a presence as, you know, a solo artist, and we will still do stuff as The Roots. It's like - there's only so much time.

GARCIA: I feel like your sunglasses have become the equivalent of LL Cool J's kangol (laughter).

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah. Yep. Yep.

GARCIA: LL never - yo, he was at a wedding. And Pete Nice told me that LL took a shower...

BARTOS: (Laughter).

GARCIA: ...Before he got - went to the pool with his kangol on. Like, he just didn't take it off. So...

BLACK THOUGHT: Yo, that's crazy.

GARCIA: Your sunglasses are kind of, like, representative of similar...

BLACK THOUGHT: Absolutely.

GARCIA: Your sunglasses are becoming, like, mythic proportions at this point.

BLACK THOUGHT: I mean, it's part of my brand, you know what I mean? It's part of my...

BARTOS: You have a sunglass line, right?

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah, I do. I did a collaboration...


BLACK THOUGHT: I did a collaboration with...

BARTOS: Shameless plug.

BLACK THOUGHT: ...Moscot, who, you know, happens to be, you know, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, optician in New York City. You know, they've been around for over a hundred years. I think the year that we collaborated, which was a few years ago now, they were celebrating their 100th anniversary. And I did an amazing frame. It's called the Grunya, which is one of their classic frames. It's been around for years. And I took it and tweaked it and, you know, changed the colors and changed the size and freaked the lenses and, you know, put my signature on the inside, so that's a thing. Yeah.

BARTOS: So Tariq, my man, musically...


BARTOS: What's down the pipeline?

BLACK THOUGHT: You know, more volumes of "Streams Of Thought" are going to be coming out, you know, in relatively close sequence.

GARCIA: 9th producing again?

BLACK THOUGHT: I've got some more stuff on 9th, you know, that's unreleased, as well as with a whole slew of other, you know, sort of like-minded producers that, you know, you might expect me...


BLACK THOUGHT: ...To be working with. But then there's a couple of curveballs, like total surprises that people are going to be like, what? And some of that is, you know, the best stuff just because of the urgency. You know, a lot of these collaborations are done over two or three, you know, or four sessions. It's not like I'm spending weeks at a time, you know, like I'm in an album recording process. You know what I mean? It's - what "Streams Of Thought" is sort of about is what comes of a more brief sort of interaction. You know what I mean?

BARTOS: Let's take a quick break. We're going to come right back with Black Thought and the Impression Session.


BARTOS: That means one thing. It's time for the Impression Session.

GARCIA: Here's how it works. We play you a track, you react - simple as that.

BARTOS: All right, Black?


BLACK THOUGHT: Back that. OK. All right. Let's do it. Let's do it. Let's do it.

BARTOS: Who's going first?

GARCIA: You go first.

BARTOS: All right.


DJ POLO: (Rapping) Yo G Rap, since we didn't make no records in a long time, why don't you show these rap sap suckers what kind of rhymes you got, money?

KOOL G RAP: (Rapping) Deadly rhymes...

BLACK THOUGHT: (Rapping) Here's the solution. Smoking so bad I'mma cause a pollution. With satisfaction, bad assassin, fatal attraction, chop you to an improper fraction. Ill insanity, kill like "Amityville Horror" as I wipe out humanity. Won't leave a path, a track, a trail to trace. But when you're staring inside of a mirror, you see my face. And I'll terrify...

I thought it was an instrumental.


BLACK THOUGHT: (Rapping) A fox clever than ever. Silly ducks write rhymes with feathers, never no needles are needed to inject this dope cause I'm a death wish - not even Bob Hope's rhymes are rugged, soul flooded, cold blooded.


KOOL G RAP: (Rapping) You ain't better, you're butter.

BLACK THOUGHT: (Rapping) So just cut it.

He said you ain't better, you're butter...

BARTOS: (Laughter, clapping).

BLACK THOUGHT: ...So just cut it. Like, come on, man. And this is in 1987, yo.

GARCIA: Right, right, right, right, right.

BLACK THOUGHT: Crazy, man. Oh, OK. I'm sorry. So now, what's the next one?

GARCIA: (Laughter).

BARTOS: We're moving on.

GARCIA: Well, we got to - Stretch, you got to identify the record.

BARTOS: That is Kool G Rap, one of our favorites of all time. The song is called "Men At Work," and it's from his 1988 album "Road To The Riches."

BLACK THOUGHT: Yes, and it also inspired a Roots song called "Thought At Work," which we're going to...

GARCIA: Which you crush.



BARTOS: We can't play too much music on this show.


BARTOS: But I don't think more needs to be said...


BARTOS: ...Than that (laughter).

GARCIA: We'll go to - can you play please - let's go with track No. 1.


PATTI LABELLE: (Singing) Goin' on a holiday, gonna make a sign, hang it on the doorknob of my mind. Goin' on a holiday, headed for the hills where I know I'm not the hunted prey.

BLACK THOUGHT: That's Patti.

GARCIA: Of course.


LABELLE: (Singing) If you see me, look into my eyes and read...

BLACK THOUGHT: I mean, it's - yeah, this just makes me proud.


LABELLE: (Singing) Get it out of here.

BLACK THOUGHT: (Vocalizing) Yeah, that just makes me proud - like, you know. Like, Patti - if there was a...

GARCIA: So that's LaBelle.

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah, that's LaBelle. You know, Patti - yes.

GARCIA: "Goin' On A Holiday" is the name of the track.

BLACK THOUGHT: Patti LaBelle makes me just super proud when I hear that. It's like if Philadelphia had a Statue of Liberty, then it would be Patti LaBelle.

GARCIA: She - you know, I had the great fortune - when I was at Lower Merion High School, I was part of an academic program. And she was involved...


GARCIA: ...As a mentor.


GARCIA: And I was selected to be the mentee. And I spent...

BLACK THOUGHT: That's crazy. Patti LaBelle - like, you're becoming more and more from, like, Philadelphia...


BLACK THOUGHT: Like, by the minute. Like, you - like...

GARCIA: Yo, she...

BLACK THOUGHT: You're about to be able to hold office.

GARCIA: She introduced me to tempura. This was, like, 1984.


GARCIA: I mean, I had never even heard of that. She used to make potatoes, just singing in the kitchen and all that. But yeah, I mean, of course, I wanted to play that for you because of the Philly component...

BLACK THOUGHT: Absolutely.

GARCIA: ...But also The Roots. I don't know that the crew gets the credit that it may for sort of the current of neo soul that comes out of the Philadelphia scene.


GARCIA: And your - it's like your members were participatory in that. But also you were having guest vocalists, you know, Jill Scott on "You Got Me," the live version, before Erykah gets on...


GARCIA: ...For the album version. And you're just kind of, like, grabbing all these talented people...


GARCIA: ...And pushing - Jaguar Wright - you know, all these people forward.

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah - Jazmine Sullivan, Musiq Soulchild, you know, Bilal, John Legend, Kindred the Family Soul.

GARCIA: They're all part of this Roots...


GARCIA: ...Extended collective, right?

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah, part of a movement, an era, that, you know, was represented by jam sessions that we would hold. Everyone sort of came down, you know, to check that out, too. Like, you know, we'd be like, yo, Prince is in the house. Janet Jackson's here. You know, I mean, people would come down from New York and people would come out from LA to sort of see what was going on because it was magical, like, at that time. Yeah.

GARCIA: Crazy. I mean, one of my favorite records of all time by The Roots crew is the "You Got Me" live concert version...


GARCIA: ...When it's like, my name is J-I-L-L-S...


GARCIA: Oh, my God.


BARTOS: That was beautiful, Bob.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

BLACK THOUGHT: You should've just let him, you know, keep going.


BARTOS: I would never let him do that.

GARCIA: He didn't let me rhyme on a show back in the '90s and now he doesn't let me sing on our podcast. I don't know.

BARTOS: (Laughter).

GARCIA: You're holding me back. You're holding back my artistry.

BARTOS: There's a trend here.

GARCIA: (Laughter).


GARCIA: That's right.

BLACK THOUGHT: Cucumber slice.


BARTOS: Tariq, my man, thank you for coming.

GARCIA: Do you prefer to be called Tariq...


GARCIA: ...Or Thought?

BLACK THOUGHT: I mean, you know, either-or. I mean, you know...

GARCIA: Interchangeable.

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah, they are. They are. I mean, but on, you know, "The Tonight Show," I prefer to be called Tariq. But just in life, like, yeah - Tariq, Thought, whatever, you know?

BARTOS: We feel like we've known you a long time.

BLACK THOUGHT: Absolutely. You can call me Tariq. Like, you guys have known me long enough to call me 'Riq (ph).


BLACK THOUGHT: You know what I'm saying?

GARCIA: Yo, 'Riq.


BARTOS: Well, for real, for real, 'Riq, man...


BARTOS: Thank you.

GARCIA: It's been real.

BARTOS: And, you know, I know you hear it a lot, but we don't see you that often. Congratulations on...

BLACK THOUGHT: Oh, no, thank you.

BARTOS: ...The family, the success, everything, really.

BLACK THOUGHT: Thanks, bro. Thank you guys, man.


BARTOS: That is our show. This podcast was produced by Michelle Lanz, edited by Jordana Hochman and N'Jeri Eaton. And our executive producer is Abby O'Neill, music by composer Eli Escobar and our own Robertino Garcia.

GARCIA: If you like the show, you can find more at or wherever you get your podcasts, including bonus video content on Spotify on Fridays. Thanks to Spotify for their support. While you're at it, please go to Apple podcasts and rate, review and subscribe. That's how we know you are listening.

BARTOS: You can follow us on Twitter - @stretchandbob - or Instagram - @stretchandbobbito.

GARCIA: Word up.

BARTOS: Peace.

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