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An Interview with Black Thought

As the lead vocalist for veteran Philly hip-hop innovators the Roots, Tariq Trotter, a.k.a. Black Thought, has spent the last thirty years exploring and reshaping the art of emceeing. With his dexterous patterns and unique approach to phrasing, Black Thought writes verses that flow like a veritable waterfall of vivid images, stories, elaborate brags, and pop culture and literary references. Throughout the Roots’ early run of classic albums in the ’90s, Black Thought, alongside his partner-in-rhyme, Malik B (who died tragically in 2020), combined the improvisational approach of jazz with incisive battle rhymes. 

Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995) found Black Thought experimenting stylistically with jazz-scatting (“Datskat”) and pulling off daring feats of improvisation on the song “Essaywhuman?!!!??!,” in which he engaged in an intricate call-and-response: he’d freestyle a line and have it echoed back to him by a different soloist in the band. For 1996’s Illadelph Halflife, Black Thought and the Roots crafted striking stories about life in the streets of Philadelphia. Songs like “Episodes,” “Push Up Ya Lighter,” and “Panic!!!!!!” instantly transport the listener to a damp train stop on SEPTA’s Broad Street Line or drop them off in the middle of a violent drug war in South Philly. 

In 1999, the Roots released Things Fall Apart, an album forged out of the band’s frustrations with the state of the record industry. Ironically, Things Fall Apart was their most successful release to date, accomplishing the nearly impossible balancing act of being both a commercial and an artistic breakthrough (they won their first Grammy for TFA’s first single, “You Got Me,” a somber earworm that also includes a drum-and-bass-style outro). Since the dawn of the 2000s, the Roots’ sound and Black Thought’s writing have grown increasingly darker, with albums like Phrenology and Rising Down, as well as 2014’s ambitious concept album …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, each project delving into themes of violence, confusion, and mortality. 

Since 2009, Black Thought has been a fixture on late-night television, serving with his fellow Roots as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (2009–2014), and, beginning in 2014, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. In recent years, Black Thought’s solo artistry has become considerably more prominent. He’s now a well-regarded actor, appearing in Get on Up (2014), Tate Taylor’s James Brown biopic; HBO’s The Deuce (cocreated by David Simon) and Random Acts of Flyness; and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, among other projects. In May 2021, he played Pozzo in an adaptation of Waiting for Godot alongside Ethan Hawke, John Leguizamo, and Wallace Shawn. In December 2017, he went viral for another kind of performance. His nearly ten-minute freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 radio show broke the internet, and has, as of this writing, garnered more than fourteen million views on YouTube. A marvel of stamina and imaginative wordplay, the performance weaves social commentary, literary references, and intricate punch lines into a stunning display of rhyming prowess: 

Got my crown tilted, my gown quilted, silk with cashmere.

Burnin’ Rome down in a minute, built it last year.

Newsflash, I dodged the bullet that killed the cashier.

My homie told me to come with him to the masjid.

Them brothers said, “Don’t go from written bars filled with rage

to prime-time television and your gilded cage,

then forget there’s people in the world still enslaved.”

I barb-wired my wrist and let it fill the page.

Gunfire and flares, sirens glare.

I’m in an iron chair where people who care don’t get the lion’s share.

His Streams of Thought series of albums and EPs, the first of which was released in 2018, is his latest solo music project. Black Thought’s full body of work showcases his mastery of language outside the context of his band and proves he is one the best emcees to ever touch the mic. I spoke with Black Thought, who turned fifty in October 2021, about his childhood in Philly, his writing process, and 7 Years, the audio memoir in which he tells his life story in seven-year increments.

—John Morrison

I. THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH 

THE BELIEVER: What propels you to write a verse? How do you typically start?

BLACK THOUGHT: I like to mix it up so it doesn’t always feel like it’s coming from the same place. I could be reading something in a book and somebody could say something tricky, or powerful, or compelling. I’ll jot it down, or I’ll fold the page over, make a dog-ear, whatever. Or I could be listening to some classic music and it can inspire me in a certain way; the songs might say something I find intriguing, or something I feel hasn’t been said in a long time that I need to bring back. In conversation, I’m definitely one to take notes with people. I’m at my desk having a conversation with somebody sitting there on the sofa, and it’s almost like I’m the psychiatrist. I’m just jotting down notes, thoughts, and ideas that were inspired by our conversation.

BLVR: OK, so you’re pulling from the world, really. Spilling it all into this singular thing you do.

BT: At its best, I’m able to create, to take the listener on a journey, you know what I mean? That’s gonna, again, conjure those images. And it’s going to feel like it begins and ends and arcs in specific places. I try to remain conscious of that stuff. And I think that’s something that was instilled in us by [late Roots manager] Richard Nichols [1]: the work ethic and a certain discipline in writing verses. I try not to be too preachy or come off as too lyrical, but as a writer, a lot of the real disciplines were instilled within us by Rich. Stuff that we would sort of think is dope, like, “Yo, I killed it, check this out,” and he’d be like, “What? What are you talking about? This doesn’t connect to that, and this thing should be inside.” He had so many different references, and it was always inspiring to rock with him, you know? I would leave those sessions and then go cop a book. [Laughs]

BLVR: How has the process of writing evolved for you over the years? What’s different about your approach and what’s stayed the same?

BT: I think I’m a creature of habit, so most things have remained the same. I have so much going on in my life at this point. I used to go into the studio, and I had the time, and the budget, to just sit in there for hours and listen to music, create music, produce stuff for hours—twelve, eighteen, twenty hours a day—until the right thing presented itself, and the right song sort of wrote itself. So I’ve had to adjust. I think we’ve all had to adjust the ways in which we work, just to be more self-sufficient and to be able to work from home and to create whatever the quality of content that your brand is already associated with. You don’t want the stuff you do to somehow take a dip. You want to maintain the integrity of your brand. So I think we’ve all had to deal with that. How do I do that from a home studio? Or how do I do that now that there are no studios or labels? I mean, it’s just different. It’s a different point in time. 

BLVR: It has to be interesting, navigating all those changes you’re talking about. Throughout the Roots’ career, y’all have been recording, experimenting, and crafting these big, album-length works of art in the studio, and having a label support y’all. That whole infrastructure is different now. That has to be a challenge for you.

BT: I mean, it’s always a challenge to sort of go with the flow, which it shouldn’t be, but it often is. It’s definitely not easy, but you just gotta make yourself familiar with the new way that things are taking place. In recent years, I think we all have been receiving information and content in different ways. So the idea is to take advantage of that, but in an organic way; you can’t just jump on some wave, either, you know what I mean? You can’t bastardize somebody else’s shit. You have to take informed risks, I guess. Calculated risks.

BLVR: You put so much into this craft, I get the sense you understand what you need to be doing, or what’s right for you.

BT: I trust my gut. But so many people before me have come and gone, and I’m pretty clear on what not to do. So I just try, you know? I’ve always wanted to maintain my craft. And if I reach a point where I feel like I’m not still getting better, and my music is no longer making me feel better, and it’s no longer making people feel better, and it’s no longer inspiring thought in the ways it has been, then maybe I’ll chill. That’s when I’ll fall back.

BLVR: I wanted to ask you about the concept of 7 Years, and why you opted for audio instead of the traditional written memoir.

BT: I prefer audio, because what Audible is doing is exploring new ways for us to receive our content. So I thought it would be dope—like, a nice challenge—to try and spread out in that space. As a vocalist, I do all sorts of things within the Roots and on The Tonight Show. And in the capacity of a public speaker, I do voice-over work. So something like this Audible project was on par with where I’m trying to take my brand. It just made sense to do something that is essentially new to me but that I’m also not so new to at the same time. I’m a huge fan of storytelling—NPR, podcasts, talk radio, The Moth, and stuff like that—so it made sense. It didn’t feel contrived.

BLVR: Why did you choose to tell your life story in seven-year increments?

BT: You know, it’s been said by science for a long time that, essentially, on a cellular level, we almost completely regenerate in seven-year periods. And that speaks to the sometimes-unexplainable feeling of how things go in cycles. I think this style of storytelling speaks to that journey. It happens not only on a cellular level but on a cosmic level. There are changes that take place in the universe, all around us in the atmosphere, but for some reason, [they happen] in these seven-year loops. And then the number seven has always been associated with a certain level of intrigue and holiness. 

BLVR: I want to ask about the theme of attention as it relates to your career. In December 2017, many hip-hop fans appreciated your artistry, but the public at large wasn’t really aware of it until that viral Hot 97 freestyle. What does it feel like to be receiving so much attention at this point in your career?

BT: I think attention, or the lack thereof, during one’s career has the potential to make or break one’s journey. And during the times when there was less attention on me, it was just what I wanted and needed. But what happens when you have something that propels you from one level of celebrity to another is that it’s almost like you get to reinvent yourself. So I’ve had these different moments of my career that were just a chance to reinvent myself and to step outside my comfort zone: that Funkmaster Flex freestyle we’re talking about is one, probably when we first started The Tonight Show is another one, when I began the Streams of Thought series is yet another, and there are probably a couple more examples of times when I reinvented myself and stepped outside the Roots. Now I’m doing theatrical stuff, writing and working on this Broadway musical. That’s another chance and another space within which to reinvent myself.

II. “THIS IS YOUR THING”

BLVR: Were you musical as a kid?

BT: I wasn’t super musical. I was always creative, though. I was artistic and engaged in the visual arts. At a young age, I picked that up. I was always a performer, and maybe I was more of a performer than I was musical in the beginning, in that I just loved to run out in full regalia and be received. My earliest musical influences are probably doo-wop and corner-boy music from the ’60s that originated in Philly and the surrounding areas. And then rock and roll. Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, James Brown, you know: people who could perform well made a crazy impression upon me. I think I was in a city choir or some sort of regional chorus when I was relatively young. I want to say I was maybe seven when my mom got me into that. And it was cool, as I recall, having a specific part, like, This is your thing. You have to do this thing in this way, only in these sorts of calculated spaces. I remember enjoying that.

BLVR: Do you think that early experience connected to what you would later do in a band? Was it the feeling of having an assignment and a role, and being part of a team, that appealed to you when you were young?

BT: It definitely did. Having an assignment or a specific part to play has always appealed to me. I think I have the spirit of a team player. I really understand the sacrifice and, to a certain extent, the selflessness of hard work. When I have something like a military order or mission, something that I’ve been given or that I’ve decided even within myself to carry out and accomplish, I move more fluidly.

BLVR: You know what to do. I’m very curious how you started rhyming. What was the first hip-hop song you ever heard? And what was the first one that made you want to rhyme?

BT: The first hip-hop song I ever heard was either “The Message” by Melle Mel [along with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five] or “[The] ‘Micstro’” by Radiänce. Do you remember that song? How old are you?

BLVR: [Laughs] I turned forty this year. But I grew up collecting records. I definitely have that record in the collection, and I know that was a big record for the generation before me here in Philly.

BT: Yeah, yeah, it was huge. So that record, I think, might have been the one that made me want to start rapping.

BLVR: What was it that kind of sparked a thing in you?

BT: There was something about the nonchalance and effortlessness of [DJ] RC’s delivery. There was something about the musicality of him performing with a live band. The music, the arrangement behind him, had a life. At some points it was hard to distinguish who was actually the accompaniment, you know what I mean? I thought that was dope. I thought that dance [between the music and voice] was dope. It didn’t sound like he was sweating. He was the definition of a master of ceremonies and exhibiting mic control. This was something that was new at that point in time. I mean, of course, there was “The Message,” which was huge, but my exposure to the emcee at parties and on most records up until then was [that they served] the sole purpose of bigging up the DJ. [“The Micstro”] was a record that wasn’t necessarily about the DJ, because there wasn’t a DJ; it was just a dude in a band and he was very descriptive and visual. His storytelling conjured up all these different images, and I thought, Wow, like, dude is He on some shit.

BLVR: Outside of listening to records, what were those experiences like, hearing emcees? In the context of you catching an emcee big up a DJ, was this happening at block parties?

BT: Absolutely at block parties, park jams, cassette tapes of other parties, and clubs in Philly, New York, and around the tristate [area] that I couldn’t get into. But I had these tapes to cherish. I used to go pull up outside After Midnight [a legendary Philly nightclub and important incubator for the city’s rap scene in the ’80s] as a little kid and just be posted up out there. Like: This is where it goes down. This is the room where it happens. And I got this cassette tape of Big Daddy Kane and LL [Cool J] performing inside there—like, yo, he was a kid too. How come they let him in? Dude, LL was, like, fifteen up in After Midnight, kicking arguably one of the most legendary verses that was the most influential in my career, and [those of] a lot of other rappers I know [2]. Special Ed is another one who was young, you know, fourteen, fifteen. There’s definitely something to be said about the vision of the youth. During that point in time, I was like a sponge. 

BLVR: Do you remember the first rhyme you wrote yourself?

BT: Yeah, it was a speed rap. Kind of like [Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s] “Superrappin.’” Or the best style reference I could give is J. J. Fad’s “Supersonic.” You remember that? 

BLVR: Absolutely.

BT: That’s how my first rap went. It was like, “Hippa-Hoppa, /
never stoppa, rocking all around the clock, it’s Double T, / you know it’s me, / I’m rocking on the m-i-c, / the moneymaker, booty-shaker, / party-rocker…” [delivered in a quick tempo with sixteenth-note accents on each syllable]. That was the thing we used to do. Real fast. And you would rap over joints like “Let’s Dance!” [sings Herman Kelly & Life’s “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat”]. So all the beats are so fast that you had to be nimble in a certain way; you had to be agile. You had to perfect your knowledge of space and time. But then it was just like what they say with acting or so many other things: Miles Davis used to say to his band, “I want you guys to play what’s between the notes written on the page,” you know what I’m saying? I’ve heard great writers talk about writing between the lines and allowing for that to speak. What happens as a young person immersed in that sort of culture is very comparable to the way it takes place in other mediums.

BLVR: It gave you a firm foundation going forward.

BT: Yeah, absolutely. Like what I was saying about the nonchalance, the effortlessness. Much consideration goes into appearing as if not much consideration went into—

BLVR: Like, it ain’t much to it. 

BT: Yeah, it’s something light. I do this: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. I think there’s something more impressive about that than somebody getting up there and huffing and puffing and hanging on for dear life around every curve, you know what I mean?

BLVR: Yeah. Especially in that ’80s era, so many of these figures were effortless in their craft but were also cool in their appearance. So it was like somebody you could look to and be like, “Damn.” Nobody wanted to be somebody that was like an everyman, maybe not until Run DMC came around.

BT: Yeah, Run DMC. That was like the dudes on the corner of the block. But I remember rappers were almost like superheroes in the way they spoke and the way they moved. And they came out… Niggas might have on a cape or some thigh-high boots all buffed out and shit, and cornrows. They used to mix it up. Brass knuckles and lace. The rappers were the furthest from the everyman until Run and them.

BLVR: When you started rhyming, were there other kids your age in your neighborhood doing it?

BT: Yeah, when I started rhyming, there were other kids in my neighborhood doing it, but most important to me, I was in competition with my cousin who was two years my senior, with whom I’ve always had sort of a friendly, competitive thing going. When you’re cousins, it’s just like you’re brothers and sisters. You have a pleasant rivalry. He was taller than me, a better athlete, and a basketball star. I was a better artist; I was just more creative. So we were sort of even. And then we both started rapping—I was nine; he was about eleven. And then by thirteen he had a record out. He was doing some local shows, and the song was on the radio. I don’t know if you remember Lady B and Mimi Brown [but he was on their shows]. And so that was huge. And that really became the fuel for the fire. I had to get to a point where I was sharper than my cousin.

III. OFF TOP

BLVR: Can you walk me through your battle with Malik B.? 

BT: I remember it was at a Millersville [3] party, circa ’90, ’91. The official semester hadn’t begun yet. It was a transitional period during which some kids who were going to be new students in the upcoming semester could arrive early, take part in different programs, get a job, figure shit out a couple months before the semester began. The whole campus wasn’t in attendance, but there was a nice amount of students at the party. I had heard about Malik from my cousin Shawn Gee, who’s now the Roots’ manager. He met Malik B. at college, and he considered him to be somebody who would become my nemesis. That really influenced the choice I made about what school I went to. Who picks their college based on being able to go and battle-rap with somebody? I played a new demo that Quest[love] and I had done for my cousin. Shawn was sort of my litmus. He was like, “I can’t front—you know, this shit’s good…” He wanted to front but he couldn’t. He said, “I know this dude. There’s no way you can touch him.” And he hyped it up in a way that really drew me in. 

Back then, Shawn used to follow me around kicking this one line of Malik’s. I don’t even know if this is how the line went, but he used to follow me around saying, “Something, something, something. I say As-salamu alaykum. I’m from South Side. I see your sneaks. I’ll take ’em.” He would just be in my face, like, “I see your sneaks. I’ll take em!” [Laughs] He was like, “Yo, you can’t fuck with the bul [4] Malik B.” I got to Millersville and immediately started asking people where Malik was. Eighty percent of the reason I went to that school was so I could battle [that] dude. He and I met, chopped it up a little bit. Sweet brother, you know? He had a real kind and honest disposition. We had a lot of similarities. He was from the Islamic community. We took to one another immediately, but then we were like, “Let’s take care of the task at hand.” And then we started rapping for at least three hours, maybe more. It was an all-night thing. Just him and me, for hours and hours and hours.

BLVR: Off top? [5]

BT: A lot of it was off top. Almost everything was off top back then, you know what I mean? Just because, lyrically, you were held to a different standard. You were expected to be proficient with the hammer off top. So that’s what we did. But you got to integrate your range. So we’d show different styles. We wound up digging into all the memory banks and exhausted ourselves. This was really almost a fight to the death. 

BLVR: Three hours. 

BT: Yeah, and some change. This was serious. 

BLVR: Did you feel like you won? 

BT: I felt like I won by a nose. I was just a little more diverse in my styles, and I was able to display just a bit more reach. I could do the street shit and rhyme like Kool G Rap and Nas and those dudes all day, but then I would get off into some of the more esoteric stuff or start doing some Jamaican shit, incorporating dancehall and singing. I feel like that’s what sort of put me over the top. I had to go back to the days of running into the living room with the cape on and win, because I’m a better performer.

BLVR: You had a little more versatility.

BT: Yeah, I got more oohs and aahs from the crowd, which—I mean, that’s a tactic. I’ve seen a lot of emcees use that style of battle. You had to have the crowd with you, no matter how dope what you was saying was or how cool you looked and all that. You had to take what the crowd wanted and felt into consideration. [Rapping] is mainly about having a crowd under your control and in the palm of your hand, right? So I’ve seen people win battles because they come out and they got the crowd with them. And no matter what the fuck they say, rapping all the dopest shit ever known to man, if that wasn’t what the audience was there for that day, they rocking with the dude that they rocking with. Take that classic battle, Busy Bee versus Kool Moe Dee back in the day [at the Harlem World club in New York City in 1981]. That’s an early example of crowd control, and it’s almost all improvised, even Kool Moe Dee’s shit. Kool Moe Dee was freestyling and he came off the top with some crazy shit that was in the moment and specific to what Busy Bee was doing. He said, “Put that bah bitty bah bullshit on hold.” You know, Busy Bee came out talking about “Bah bitty bah, buh dang a dang.” And that shit is ridiculous! [Laughs] But the audience was with it! So he won that battle. Now you ask a rapper’s rapper, they’d say, Yo, Kool Moe Dee killed him.

That’s like Busy Bee’s battle against Lil’ Rodney Cee in Wild Style. Busy Bee came out saying, “Money money money money!” Rodney Cee said, “Hey, sucka nigga, whoever you are…” [Laughs] Like, come on, yo, that nigga had bars… and lost. So those are teachable moments for me. And I was able to revisit that in my first battle with Malik. Because if it was only left up to the lyrics or who had the better bars, it’d have been a tie. 

It was a barn burner. I had to pull out all the stops. And that’s what fucked his head up and also what drew him. He was like, “Yo, I want to learn how to incorporate that angle, to be less restricted in what I’m doing.”

Malik and I had a similar relationship to what Questlove and I’ve always had, in that I would always put him on with the hip-hop shit, with the street stuff and what was going on in this space, and he would, you know, sort of show me from whence it came and put me on to the soul and the jazz and the musicality of different genres. We were able to learn from each other. Those are the best creative and business relationships. Those are the best relationships, period. 

BLVR: It’s an exchange.

BT: Yeah, when two people stand to learn something from one another and don’t fight it.

IV. WHAT HAPPENS AFTER

BLVR: Could you talk a little bit about those early days of the Roots? I know y’all were out on South Street playing. What was that whole period like back in Philly?

BT: Around the time we came back from Millersville, Malik transferred to Temple University. And then I transferred to Temple that next semester. I think being in the city can work. It can affect you in a bunch of different ways, but it motivated me to find my way out of that. I really felt like I was letting a lot of people down by having transferred to Temple, and then once I was home, it felt different. I wasn’t away at school. I didn’t feel the same responsibility to maintain my academic shit. I felt like we were about to get a deal, because we were doing a lot of shows, and it was buzzing, and we were going to Europe. So I was thinking, I’m probably gonna stop going to school, or I’m gonna take some time off, or whatever. And I felt like if I wasn’t going to do that, I had to be absolutely certain that whatever it was I chose to do instead was going to work. So many other people had a lot invested in my success, and in the completion of my studies that I felt like it was important to have a foolproof plan.

A lot of people I know went away for college, and then at some point later they transferred to a school closer to home. Then it’s like you just right back in the streets and dealing with some of the shit you were dealing with maybe as a young person in high school, but now you don’t even have that level of protection or guidance that we extend to young people, especially to school-age children. At least in the city, in the hood, like where I’m from, once people perceive you as being grown, shit. They’re like, “You grown, you figure it out.” So I tried my best not to let anybody down and not to fall back into the same stuff I was always taught to stay away from. Because it’s right there, it’s a layup away. You know what I’m saying.

BLVR: You come home from school, you back on the block, you in the mix— 

BT: On the weekend, you come home from school for a holiday, and one false move… you know what I mean? I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen people never make it back to school and never wake up again. All types of shit. So much crazy stuff has happened, so much trauma and tragedy, that I’m really not surprised by anything. It takes a lot for me to feel a way. I’m going to have emotions in response to things happening, but my emotions aren’t shock or surprise. I’m sure you can probably relate…

BLVR: Yeah, to a lot of this. [Laughs]

BT: But it’s also not normal. This is post-traumatic stress. This is what we deal with and what people all over the world really deal with, and it goes undiagnosed. So you just feel like, Why am I this way? Why do I move like this? It’s rare that we attribute PTSD to its true cause. 

BLVR: Do you think you write out of that? I know you write from lots of different angles and perspectives, but do you think that trauma is kind of a core part of your process, or at least plays some part in it?

BT: As is the case with many artists, the art, the process, is about working through and unpacking your shit. Photograph to photograph, drawing to drawing, dance movement to movement, character to character. Again, the medium is ever-evolving, but all the arts are about getting your shit out. And getting it out in a way that, if you’re lucky, is gonna create a path for someone else to work through their shit. You know what I mean? So I think I write from that space, because that’s where I’m at in life. I feel like I made it through much of my career without having to be very personal, because I’ve always played the supportive role. But that doesn’t necessarily help you get through some of the things you need to get through, and it doesn’t necessarily allow for you to use the art—whatever it is you create—to its maximum potential. 

BLVR: Instead of just rhyming about rhyming?

BT: Yeah. I realized I’d hit a wall, almost. I’d gone as far as I could go as a writer, as a musician, and then the people who have been my day-ones had sort of gone as far as they could go without us really getting into the shit. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Yo, I’ve been listening to your music for twenty years and I still feel like I don’t know anything about you.” And that was by design, but I realized that for both my sake and the listeners’ sake, it was time to work on some other stuff. So I started being more personal, intimate, and vulnerable, just to share with other people who are out there in the world, who may be facing some of the same obstacles in life or having some of the same thoughts I had as a younger person. I could speak to what happens after that, or to what the possibilities beyond that moment are.

BLVR: When you’re speaking about wanting to be more vulnerable in your writing and to explore different sides of yourself, are we talking about the stuff you’ve written for Streams of Thought? When did that new approach start to manifest itself in your work?

BT: I think it’s always manifested itself, just to different extents. There’s definitely something to be said about the process of the last three Roots albums, what we were all dealing with as a collective and how that showed itself in the work. Then I think that set a new bar and precedent for efficiency and cohesiveness with us, within a project. So it became about articulating as much as we’re able to, in as orderly and condensed and accessible a format as possible. All the while maintaining that… we can’t look like we trying too hard. 

In this moment, as a creative, my process is to leave it all on the page, on the stage, and on the table, because none of this shit is promised, man. If last year showed us anything, it’s that you can’t take anything for granted. We can’t sit back and bank on, OK, here’s my five-year plan, here’s my ten-year plan, I’m gonna do this at some point. It’s dope to have those goals and to be organized in that way. But we’ve lost so many people too soon, where so much that they were sitting on, so much that they had to offer, has gone undone and unsaid. So it’s something to be said about doing it now, while you can.

  1.  For more on Richard Nichols, please read Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s essay “A River Runs through It,” in The Believer’s Jan./Feb. 2015 issue.
  2. In 1985, LL Cool J’s performance at After Midnight was aired live on Lady B’s seminal Philly hip-hop radio show, Street Beat. The performance is notable because cassette copies were widely circulated, and LL incorporates lines from his future classics like “I’m Bad.” 
  3. Black Thought and Malik B. met at Millersville University, in southeastern Pennsylvania.
  4. Bul is Black Philadelphian slang for “guy.”
  5. Off top is a completely improvised freestyle with no prewritten lines.

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