The Roots’ Black Thought Announces Solo Deal With Republic, Remembers Malik B and Talks More ‘Natural’ ‘Tonight Show’ (EXCLUSIVE)

The Roots’ mouthpiece and Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” sidekick prepares to drop a new single and album and discusses projects for HBO and Off Broadway.

rapper Black Thought
Joshua Woods

Rapper and writer Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter has been a socially conscious lyrical presence in hip-hop since co-founding the Roots in 1987, an actor on film and stage, and a part of NBC’s Jimmy Fallon shows since 2009. Despite fans’ clamoring, what the incendiary Thought/Trotter had never been, until recently, was a solo artist.

In 2018, he went solo with the “Streams of Thought, Vol. 1″ EP on the independent Human Re Sources label. Since then, Thought has utilized a different producer with each effort and made looser-limbed music that stuck to his conscious politicized lyrical roots, but without his main collective’s live instrumental vibe. Under the radar until now, a third “Streams of Thought” project was to be released on July 31 — that is, until the untimely passing shortly before that of the Roots’ second rapper,  Malik B.

the passing of Malik B (who left the group at the close of the ’90s) allowed Black Thought a moment to reconsider his solo music’s future, while ramping up additional projects with HBO (“Between the World and Me,” co-starring Oprah Winfrey) and his co-authoring and starring in the Harlem Renaissance drama, “Black No More” for Off Broadway’s The New Group. Into that void came Sam Taylor, the EVP A&R of Republic Records, who signed Black Thought to his first major label solo deal.

“Black Thought is one of the greatest MCs of all time, hands down,” says Taylor. “I’m honored that he decided to join the Republic family and we are really excited to be able to work with him, Sean C and the rest of their amazing team.”

Produced by Sean C (of the producer duo Sean C and LV), the bold, bright “Streams of Thought Vol. 3” album will be slotted for release in the coming months, preceded by the single “Good Morning,” featuring Killer Mike, Pusha T and Swizz Beatz, on August 28.

Variety has the exclusive on this announcement as well as this extensively interview with the continuously moving Trotter.

VARIETY: A lot has happened since your last big announcement, that of the Off-Broadway production of “Black No More,” with John Ridley and Bill T. Jones for the 2020-21 season. How have you weathered the storm of BLM and the pandemic?
BLACK THOUGHT: Really well. This year has presented mixed challenges. Personally, I have been in a really creative space since the top of the year. Times of uncertainty – these are the moments in which the artist is needed most. That’s our time to put out art, not only to reflect the time and comment on what’s going on in the world, but to give hope and be more of a visionary in regard to the future. Everyone doesn’t embrace that responsibility. It’s subjective.

Would it be safe to guess some of the music you have planned for ”Streams of Thought Vol, 3” was recorded before the present-day BLM protests?
True. This collection is on par with previous volumes and later volumes of “Streams of Thought” as to what I talk about, what I speak to… I cover a broad range of subject matter, but it’s always coming from the same place. It’s reflective of the moment, but not solely in the moment. It might sound ambitious to want to create a timeless classic, but that is always in my muscle memory, a challenge I rise to with different producers every time out. Some of this stuff was recorded before March and since that time become more timely.

Your writing has forever dealt with the politics, the multiculturalism and the sociology of being Black in America. How has BLM changed the trajectory of your lyrical output, be it solo or with the Roots?
I think the Black Lives Movement, and what it has come to mean to people, only better prepares the world to receive what I’m saying. Now more than ever, music, art and energy that reflects the mission statement of that movement will be better received. I’ve always made the same sociopolitical commentary. Now, there is a different urgency, which is a very good thing.

Let’s jump around for a moment. You just signed to do a staged version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” for HBO. You were involved its live theatrical staging in 2018 at the Apollo Theater. Where, when and how does this move considering C-19?
We’re going into production almost immediately, and it will be shot in accordance with the new social distancing guidelines. I think it will be equally powerful in the virtual world as it was before Covid-19 times. We’ve done it before with different cast configurations. Through those, I have grown closer to of Ta-Nehisi. I consider him a friend and a brother. This show is timely, and people will be blessed to receive this material.

You’re actually a veteran of socially distanced filming with what you do as part of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” The Roots and Fallon did the show quarantined at home until you got back into NBC Studios in July. How does that feel?
It definitely feels different to work without an audience, and to work from a distance — to go from a staff of 200-plus people to less than 50. It’s a huge difference in dynamics that took some getting used to. Still does. But that show is about the energy that you get when The Roots and Jimmy are in the room together. There is a levity to the proceedings. Plus, just with the fact that we’re not all buttoned up, that there is less formality, some of the pretense is removed from the equation. That’s good, even disarming, in a way. The show now is more honest, natural.

Lazy loaded image
Roots member Black Thought

Anything you can say about “Black No More,” given that there’s little idea yet of when Broadway or Off Broadway are coming back?
All of the crew and cast are together since the last time we spoke. It will take place when the Broadway/Off Broadway circuit reopens. In the meantime, the New Group is doing pretty much a virtual season of shows — one of those shows in which I am cast. I don’t know if I can speak on it yet. For Scott Elliot (who runs the New Group and is directing “Black No More”) and the rest of us, “Black No More” is a passion project. It’s not been a short road to get the show in the shape it’s become. It’s been years of inception. Whenever the universe allows the show to open, we’ll just be that much more tight.

To talk about Malik B… this is tough. You started off close, and stayed friends and occasionally collaborators even after he left the Roots. First thought on what Malik was to you?
Malik to me was a brother within a band of brothers. At the point at which he and I met and started to collaborate, he helped me to keep my head in the game. There was a moment early on when I went away to school, a time when I was farthest from Ahmir (Thompson), who, up until that point, was the only other person that I had known as a partner. Malik helped keep the Roots together, because once he became part of the equation, he added a completely different dynamic, a new dimension to us as a unit. When he and I left school to reestablish the connection with Ahmir and Philly, I felt as if we were ready for the world. Malik represented a missing piece of the puzzle. What I’ll remember about him most is how he made people feel. There will be valleys and peaks in a person’s life, but he remained the same person on a “heart” level. Maybe it had something to do with his upbringing, his dedication to Islam or the time he spent in Saudi Arabia as a young person where his parents were educators — Malik was always a class act. He made you feel as if you were the only person in the room.

You were supposed to release “Streams of Thought Vol. 3” on July 31. Come midnight, though — mere days after Malik’s passing — you sent out an Instagram with a “sorry” and a promise of a big announcement. Was that about Malik? Or was that about the deal and what was happening with Republic?
We could’ve very well put the record out at midnight, but we were just receiving the information of Malik’s untimely passing and wanted to take a moment of pause to observe such a moment of loss. We took a minute to recalibrate and recalculate. In that time, as the universe would have it, a new partnership was formed and I was able to get on board with Republic. Had I done the record on the 31st, who know if this would’ve happened with Republic. We were originally partnered with N-Groove, who brought the music up to this place. Sam Taylor at Republic is relatively new there and has a great ear; we share a similar vision, and we thought it would be great for us and them. It’s all upstream when you consider that the Roots (whose catalog is on Def Jam) and I are both under the Universal umbrella. It’s a blessing for all: the Black Thought brand, the “Streams of Thought” franchise, and for Universal/Republic.

You’ve been in this business for decades, and have been asked repeatedly about making solo music. Why Republic? 
It’s all the same room and the same table, but they occupy a different space at that table. There’s a different level of power. With that, there’s a different relevance of artistry I’m able to offer them — as a legacy artist, as a sociopolitical artist. It’s the same as to what we were going to do with N-Grove, but the opportunity came about to do so on a larger scale.

There’s been chatter about a Black Thought solo project for eons. What did keep you from making or releasing music apart from the Roots before “Streams of Thought?”
Before “Streams of Thought”… It’s weird. I think it’s all perception. The way that the music is received and perceived is often based on the way in which it is presented. The Roots has always been presented as a creative collective, so it’s been received as such — even on records where I was the only voice. It’s understood to be more of a team effort. After the records where Malik was featured more prominently, in my mind, they were essentially solo records. I was the main voice on many of the Roots’ records and essentially the only voice for years and years onstage. The Roots’ material, in my mind, has been solo for quite some time. For Roots fans, though, a Black Thought solo effort would have to come with a different producer. Now, hearing me with a different soundscape and a producer other than the live instrumentation that people have grown accustomed to as the Roots, that’s what constitutes a solo effort.

That was a bold statement. You did, however, at one point announce a solo album, like for 2001.
I did. It was going to be called “Masterpiece Theatre,” and was well into the recording process, but it didn’t work out. At that time, it wasn’t going to be counted toward what the Roots was submitting regarding our contractual agreement. We needed to get a Roots album done, so I 86-ed “Masterpiece Theatre” and focused on a Roots album, which would have been “Phrenology.” But, again, we put out some Roots albums that I feel are just as much of a solo effort than anything. It’s all perception.

Your official solo records, like the new “Streams of Thought,” swing differently than the Roots and place your voice higher in the mix.
I agree. On my newer stuff, my voice sits differently from where it sits with The Roots. It’s mixed differently than it ever was mixed with the Roots’ material. I always looked at my voice as an instrument. In the grand scale of the Roots’ musicality, maybe over the years in the pockets where my voice sat, it’s been less likely to cut through, if that makes sense. In my recent solo recordings, it sits up in the mix. more out front, which makes my lyrics resonate in a different way. All things in due time. I wouldn’t be able to so seamlessly alternate from project to project or compartmentalize that which I do if I hadn’t been working in a Roots capacity. It took everything that I have done until this point to get me to this point.

Why is “Good Morning” the perfect track in which to introduce yourself and your new relationship with Republic?
It is a reintroduction. It speaks to an awakening. Plus, it’s a stellar lineup of features on one record – the level of dimension and different energy you get in one densely packed moment is unprecedented for the Roots and Black Thought up to this point. The energy of the production, whatever iconic thing it is that Swizz (Beatz) does elevating the chorus, juxtaposed with what Pusha T and Killer Mike bring to the equation… I felt as if it was a no-brainer.

You have always felt like a loner within the hip-hop continuum. You don’t do features. Your name is never associated with other rappers. You seem away and above the pack. “Good Morning,” then, makes you a part of a brotherhood, putting your name alongside other name rappers.
I absolutely agree. It’s a good look. On any given day, the space that I occupy in the world is somewhere between a Killer Mike and a Pusha T, between an activist and a street hero, a man of the people and a man of the streets — that’s my origin story. I feel like both of their energies represent my own creative bipolarity. It’s always good, too, to be seen in the same light as my peers. Just to speak to your feeling of me being above the pack — I concur. There are many parallels between me and other MCs from the same graduating class, the same era. It’s good to be received in that same light. I don’t feel as if everyone is worthy of a collaboration. Everyone doesn’t get to fight with the champion. Everyone doesn’t get a shot at that title. With Mike, Pusha, Swizz — who doesn’t produce, but is on it — and producer Sean C on the track with me, there is an equal level of sportsmanship and musicianship. That level of collaboration is always welcome.

Now that you’ve gone and done the solo thing and product is out, what can you say about the Roots’ six-years-in-the-waiting new album, “End Game”?
The Roots’ album… I hate to toot my own horn, but it is so phenomenal, and on par with what you’d expect from a Roots recording project. It’s completely different from any of the “Streams of Thought” material, and the usual cast of characters that you would expect to collaborate with are in attendance. It’s a huge blessing, and relief, to be able to remain as creative as I have during all this, and work super-specifically to each product, recording them often at the same time. It’s been a real plate-spinning balancing act, without compromising the integrity and intensity of either project.