It’s safe to say that hip-hop is in its memoir era. Many of the genre’s most prominent figures are starting to enter the age range where they can look back with not just nostalgia, but wisdom to share. Although hip-hop is such an autobiographical musical form, it turns out that many of these figures, from Common to Fat Joe to Jeezy to Lil Kim and more, have a lot more stories to tell than the ones they’ve already shared in their music and interviews over the past 20-30 years.
That goes double for Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, the frontman of The Roots, and bar for bar the best rapper of all time. Though he’s been a fixture of the music business for 30-plus years at this point, the truth is, we don’t really know much about him. He’s rap’s foremost wordsmith and storyteller, but so little of his output at this point has been about himself, that as he points out over an expansive and illuminating Zoom call, even longtime fans feel he’s a bit of a mystery.
He sheds light on that mystery with his new book, The Upcycled Self: A Memoir On The Art of Becoming Who We Are, out now via Penguin Random House. Starting with a traumatic, world-changing fire he caused when he was just six years old, and encompassing his childhood in South Philly, from rock fights with friends to surprising anecdotes of dabbling with petty crime to meeting and mind-melding with Amir “Questlove” Thompson, the book unveils new facets of the titanic rap icon, humanizing him in the process.
It’s a beautiful and worthwhile read, and in a wide-ranging conversation discussing the book, he reveals the intentionality behind that sentiment, praises his co-author, Jasmine Martin, and gets as nerdy about Ken Burns as I get about The Roots.
First of all, congratulations on your Grammy nomination. I actually really quickly looked up, I believe this is the first time you’ve been nominated as yourself for the music, not executive producing. How does that feel? You’re three decades into your career, and it’s your first Grammy nomination as Black Thought the rapper, not a member of The Roots, or executive producer of the Hamilton soundtrack?
It’s dope, man. It’s a huge honor. I’m real excited. And just a pleasant surprise, man. You don’t go into these things expecting anything, right? That’s not what I do it for. It’s not for the accolades. It’s not for someone to say, “Oh, yo, that’s dope.” And it’s not for an award. I make music for someone to say, “Hey, this helped me get through a thing, or address a thing. This made me better. I’ve been made better, after experiencing this art.” Everything else is cake, man. If somebody says, “Oh, yo, I want to give you a trophy too,” that’s dope.
It’s funny that you should mention that you wanted it to be something that helped because we’re talking about the book, and we’re talking about The Upcycled Self. This book did two things. One, it recontextualized some of your art for me. But two, it also … I had never thought of Black Thought in terms of baby Black Thought. Like young, childlike Black Thought. And the descriptions you give of yourself and Amir, I realized mirrored me in a lot more ways. Now, you’ve recontextualized me for me. And also, it was meaningful because, in a roundabout way, you’re the reason I even have this job.
I’m sending you an invoice.
So for example, in your Funk Flex freestyle, the line, “Things we lost in the fire.” Double entendre. But in the book, you talk about burning your family home down playing with matches. But now I know, oh, that’s incredible. What other lines, or what other moments do you think this will be able to put into a new perspective or a new life for long-term fans who’ve been on it since Illadelph Halflife, or Do You Want More?!!!??!, or Things Fall Apart?
I think every moment. Because that’s sort of the intention. They say to be intentional about what it is that you’re doing. And in this endeavor, the intention was to grant access in that way. It’s not to abandon a new fan or a newcomer or someone who just has stumbled upon The Roots or arrived upon Black Thought. They’re welcome too, and this is for them too.
But I would meet folks who say, “Yo, I’ve been rocking with you for 30 years at this point, and I still feel like I don’t know you. How is it that I know so many of your lyrics, you know what I mean? I can quote music, I can quote your whole body of work, but there’s a disconnect in that I don’t still know who the man behind the music is. I’m not as familiar as I should be, or would be in any other dynamic with the artist.”
And I mean, after the 10th, 11th, 20th time, you hear that, you start to think, okay, maybe there’s something in there. That it’s something that I can address. It became an opportunity for me to essentially humanize myself. There are people who are such huge fans of The Roots, and of my writing, who rocked with us for such a long time.
What we do as MCs has always been about building ourselves up — sometimes to a fault. So it’s always been about bigging up ourselves, and bigging up our block, and bigging up our community. And after a point, after all of the build, you have this figure, this legend, this brand, whatever, can reach proportions where it’s larger than life. And I don’t know that that is always the best thing. I think it’s more effective and beneficial to us all to show the other nuance, to show the other side of the coin. For every Dr. King, every Malcolm X, every larger-than-life figure — they’re still people. They’re still these persons, and we’re all flawed. And I think that’s the real work.
Two chapters stood out for me: the Cassie chapter and the Luqmann chapter. How did you decide to use your family members’ third-party perspectives to come back around and give you more context on them? Because I feel like that context on them does kind of help to inform your story as well.
That tool is part of the brilliance of my co-author, Jasmine Martin. It’s so seamless, and so it comes from a really real place. This is a woman who’s never met my mother, obviously. She has had the opportunity maybe once to interact with my Uncle Luqmann. I think she may have interviewed him for something else some years ago.
But yeah, I think that was the brilliance of what she was able to bring into this process is that perspective and those glimpses. In those asides, that’s where I was moved to the most emotion. That’s when I tear up, because it’s a chance to, especially in my mother’s case, it’s a chance to hear from what feels like firsthand her take on where I am in life.
I wonder how you have the time to do all that you do. Because when I started listing the things that I know you for and that I’ve been like, oh, watching you do this, and then now you’re doing TV, now you’re doing this, I watched Brooklyn Babylon 87 times when I was 15. What’s the next thing for you? How do you keep fulfilling that creative drive?
For me at this point, it has to present a challenge. I’m most engaged when I’m rising to a challenge and having to do any job that I can’t do on autopilot. It’s something that is beyond another notch in the belt. It’s a spiritual sort of thing that happens through achievement, through the realization of a goal. Especially when it’s something that feels impossible or completely unachievable.
That’s where I live right now, and those are the projects that are most exciting for me to take on. Those are the projects that I feel benefit both me and the beholder, receiver, listener, and viewer the most. So what happens next in this journey I think is “onward and upward.” I don’t think anything is ever going to change. I’m not going to, now at 50 plus, I’m not going to start telling a different story. It’s that I think I’m just becoming wiser, more experienced, more skilled, and more efficient in telling the same story and focusing on the parts of my story that people are going to resonate with the most.
I always ask this question in all my interviews because I have to ask a lot of the same questions, biographical questions, things like that. What is something that you’ve always wanted to talk about? If you had the chance to ask yourself the question, what would you want to talk about the most? And what would you want to say?
People always ask me, how much do you read? Where do you get the … what fuels the proverbial creative fire? I mean, how are you able to cover such an expansive amount of content in such a short period of time? Where does the motivation for these bursts come from? And though I obviously read a lot, I’m an advocate for reading, a literacy advocate… people always think the inspiration comes from something more scholastic.
But honestly, it’s not that I watch a lot of TV, but I’m a big documentary buff. I’m a huge fan of the Ken Burns of the world. Anything that he touches, directs, or produces, I’m rocking with that. Right now, I’m in the middle of The American Buffalo, which I didn’t even know that joint was out. My daughter, who’s a high school senior, came home like, “We watched a super boring documentary today in school, but I knew it was something that you would be into.” I said, “What was it?” And she said, “Something about the buffalo.” And I was like, “Oh, wow. I thought it was this other Ken Burns doc called The West,” which there’s a segment that concentrates on the buffalo. I didn’t know he did a whole joint, a three-part thing that was just on the American Buffalo. So then I had to dig that joint up.
Do you still keep a written-down shitlist in an encyclopedia of all the people who get on your nerves?
Not in an encyclopedia. It’s in my phone, though. I got lots of stuff. All I got to do is go to my notes and type in “irk” and it all comes up.