We’ve Got A File On You: Black Thought
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Almost 30 years ago, the Roots released their debut album Organix. Over the next several decades, the hip-hop crew would morph and evolve and wind up with all sorts of unique chapters and plot twists in their story. From the earliest days, when they were barely on the rap universe’s radar, they went on to be central figures in the late ’90s/early ’00s Soulquarians moment, luminaries amongst a crucial era of neo-soul and underground rap. Along the way, they traveled between worlds and were often embraced by rock fans as much as hip-hop fans; perhaps that set the stage for the second half of the Roots’ discography, a series of dark and dense and genre-imploding albums that began with 2006’s Game Theory and continued to 2014’s …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. And then, somehow, they also became the greatest late-night TV house band there ever was.
Throughout, Black Thought — the man born Tariq Trotter — was at the helm, steadily proving himself as one of the great MCs, an all-time master of the art form. He hasn’t always entirely gotten the credit he was due, perhaps as the Roots themselves were somewhat taken for granted even at the height of their creativity and output. It’s weird to think of it this way considering these guys are on TV all the time, but it feels as if Black Thought has gone through something of a resurgence in recent years. In the last couple years, he made waves on the internet with a now-iconic freestyle and then embarked on a series of solo projects called Streams Of Thought, in which he joins a single producer for an EP-length collection. The latest of those — Streams Of Thought, Vol. 3: Cain And Able, which, to be honest, is really more of an album than an EP — arrives today.
This time around, Trotter teamed up with Sean C, and the results are often excellent. Early singles “Thought Vs. Everybody” and “Good Morning” were sharp reminders of Black Thought’s prowess; the latter also featured Pusha T and Killer Mike. That made for a pretty impressive team-up, but most of Streams Of Thought Vol. 3 is a showcase for the synergy between Sean C and Black Thought. Sean C provides classicist, hardened beats, and Black Thought proceeds to tear them apart with the same sinuous flow he’s perfected over the decades. From the moment “State Prisoner” snaps to life through to other highlights like “Quiet Trip” and “Steak Um,” it’s great to be back in Black Thought’s presence.
Apparently Black Thought’s recent solo outings are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of music to come, but at the same time he’s kept busy in a whole lot of other avenues. Over the years, he’s started appearing in TV shows and films. He and the Roots helped exec produce the Hamilton mixtape and soundtrack. Their stint on The Tonight Show has led to all kinds of unique opportunities and bizarre moments. (Obviously there are a ton of memorable performances with the Roots and other artists, but as far as skits go, Black Thought’s new-ish Irk List is underrated and often quite funny.) Ahead of Streams Of Thought, Vol. 3’s arrival, we caught up with Trotter about his new work, and all the different places he’s wound up along the way in and out of the Roots.
“Good Morning” With Pusha T, Killer Mike, And Swizz Beatz (2020)
STEREOGUM: You, Killer Mike, Pusha — it’s three people who are virtuosic in their own ways. It’s almost a bit of fan fiction, this particular lineup. How did this come together?
BLACK THOUGHT: Me and Sean C were in the studio, working on some other music. We work relatively quickly together. He’ll come up with a beat and I’ll try to have a decent verse to this song written by the time the track begins to take shape. Some things that have become almost legendary with Sean C and I have come to be in 20-40 minutes. It was one of those sessions. I don’t know if we had just got done recording “Magnificent” or “Thought Vs. Everybody,” but it was something we wrote and recorded relatively quickly — we got that out of the way, and then it was like, “What else ya got?” He was scrolling through some ideas he already had, and he very quickly breezed by a barebones, very skeletal incarnation of “Good Morning.”
He tried to skip by it, because it already had ad-libs from Swizz Beatz on it, and Sean thought, “Ah, maybe I’ll do something with this one day but I don’t think this is what we need for our project.” Because if the idea for Streams Of Thought is for me to be pairing myself with one producer at a time, it might be misunderstood by the listener to have been a Swizz Beatz production, because usually anything you hear him on, he produced. But it caught my eye, so to speak. I said, “Go back to that thing you skipped over.” That was the one that began to write itself. I could see on his face, “Damn, he’s gonna do a song on this joint.” That’s just the way the universe would have it. I put a verse to it, the verse was fire. I actually wrote quite a few verses to “Good Morning,” from its inception to it coming out. We had two different options for me, and we wound up replacing one of my verses with a Pusha verse Sean just had.
He was like, “How do you feel about Pusha jumping on this joint?” I was like, “Oh, you know, that’s my man, we’ve got a good rapport.” I don’t like working with strangers, just being paired up with somebody I don’t know. But with Pusha T and Clipse, we toured together. We’ve done lots of stuff together, we have just never jumped on a record. It was just a no-brainer. I told him, “Yeah, if you can get the verse from him, let’s do it.” He got the verse, and I loved it, it was stellar. But we there was still some time to pass until we came out with Streams Of Thought Vol. 3, and during that time I jumped on a record with Benny The Butcher.
When I did that, I heard some of the songs he had on his album, and I saw he had a Pusha T feature. It was the verse from my record that was yet to come out, but Benny’s song was coming out within a matter of days. So I was like, “Damn, Push gave the verse away.” I know how it feels to be an artist and write something you know is dope or representative of where you need to be lyrically at this point in your career — you don’t want it to fall on deaf ears. If you do something you feel might not see the light of day, or the artist is shelving the project, any uncertainty, you’re going to go with the “This is for sure coming out, let me use my verse with this.”
I’ve been in that same situation, so I completely understood, there was no love lost on that Benny record — which was, you know, a legendary album. It made perfect sense for him to jump on that record, which is why I jumped on that Benny record. We got him to write another verse and he did it. But quite honestly, the second verse that he did, though it felt more timely — it spoke more to what’s going on right now, he made mention of the pandemic — in another way it felt less complete for me. Listening to the record, I then said, “You know who else I can hear on this?” It was Mike. Mike is another artist who I had the same sort of relationship with, having toured together and performed together on quite a few different occasions and having even in recent years spoke at the Tonight Show about us finally needing to jump on a song together. It had yet to take place. It was just a matter of me reaching out and saying, “This is that call.”
His energy, that meeting of minds, it made the song feel complete. For the fans, it was the best of not only both worlds but of a trifecta of experiences. It’s three folks you love to hear kill a feature all featured together, you know what I mean? It was like a superhero origin story. It just gave a broader reach for that record, and then on top of that it was produced by Sean C and on top of that, Swizz Beatz is doing the chorus. Folks couldn’t even wrap their head around it. “Wait, it’s you and Sean C, featuring Pusha T, and Killer Mike, and Swizz Beatz? What planet does that exist on?”
Talib Kweli’s “Guerilla Monsoon Rap” With Kanye West And Pharoahe Monch (2002)
STEREOGUM: It’s funny you said the thing about you being known for features. You have a ton along the way, but one I wanted to go back to was “Guerilla Monsoon Rap” from Talib Kweli’s debut album, Quality. That’s also a very early Kanye production.
BLACK THOUGHT: Kanye was very much the kid who would hang out in the studio. I would always tell people I would arrive at the studio for a session — and I’m never late, so I would always be on time or early — and I would get there and Kanye would already be there in my session. I’d be like, “What are you doing here?” He was just hungry. He was about the business of showing people his potential as an artist and what he had already in the clip. There were songs on Kanye’s first album that I heard years before they came out, and I said, “This is a timeless classic.” This is a song where, no matter when you put it out, it’s going to hit.
I saw him evolve from someone who just made beats — and I don’t say “just made beats” to take anything away from his production — but I saw him evolve from someone who was a producer of tracks to someone who was also an MC. I saw him follow in the footsteps of who I feel, to this day, was the greatest rapper/producer, J Dilla. J Dilla, he could sing and rap and play instruments just as well as he could program beats. I watched Kanye in real time evolve, following almost that same blueprint.
I remember that session like it was yesterday. A bunch of songs that really took me by storm, that I was really impressed by — like the earliest versions of “Jesus Walks” and “Hey Mama.” I heard [those songs] I think at the end of that “Guerilla Monsoon Rap” session. It was the usual cast of characters. With me, Kweli, and Pharoahe in the lab. 88-Keys would always be around, Kanye would always be around. They were fixtures in the studio. Kanye would sometimes literally be a fly on the wall, and you could see his spongelike nature, just constantly learning and soaking up what was being said, what was being done. What I appreciate about the way he did it, was he made it his own. He was never a biter. He soaked up everything everyone did, but he put his own spin on it.
But yeah, that record, in retrospect, it was a lot like “Good Morning.” It’s unbelievable, it’s a dream team. A Kanye track with Kanye doing the chorus, and Pharoahe Monch and Talib Kweli and Black Thought!? You know what I mean? On the day, it didn’t feel like lightning in a bottle, but it was.
The Roots’ Game Theory (2006)
STEREOGUM: This was a darker album that felt very informed by the times, and then in turn kicked off a streak of pretty heavy, intense albums. Now that I look back on it, I almost think of Game Theory as a pivot in the middle of the Roots’ arc.
BLACK THOUGHT: I definitely look at Game Theory as a pivot. Game Theory was the act of things falling apart. Things Fall Apart was things coming together for us. But Game Theory almost represents a failure of so many different systems. Game Theory was the beginning of our albums becoming more conceptual, more focused with regards to subject matter. Even more political. More officially produced. We were able to take out the filler and articulate a vision.
STEREOGUM: I remember Questlove tweeting something around the time Trump got elected, like “We were finally about to do a party record again, but now we have to rethink that.” It seemed there’d be another bleak Roots album for bleak times. But now it’s been a pretty long stretch after that prolific streak of albums, about six years. There’s been talk of this new album End Game and all these songs for it. Do you feel like it’s a new era?
BLACK THOUGHT: I feel like it’s a new era in that we have lost Richard Nichols, who was very much the brains of this operation. He represents an element of the Roots’ creative process that can never be replaced. There’s something to be said about this being our first Roots project that we’re going to put out without him at the helm. It’s a new beginning, in that way. Has the subject matter changed? No. Are we releasing a party album? No. But I feel like the songs we’re selecting from, I think it’s a return to something, sonically, that feels familiar. The songs that we have for End Game feel Roots-y, if that makes any sense. And the features we have thus far. It’s what you would expect. I’m not going to spoil any of the guest appearances, but it’s who you would expect. But the material is timely, and timeless.
The Roots Teaming Up With Jim James/Monsters Of Folk For “Dear God 2.0″ (2010)
STEREOGUM: I remember part of the story with How I Got Over was it coming out of the Roots being on Fallon’s show and interacting with all these different artists. Jim James is on there, Joanna Newsom is sampled on there.
BLACK THOUGHT: That’s exactly the case, that’s what it was about. We came to the realization that we were living creative gold, just being afforded the opportunity to come into work every day and interact with all these different artists, many of whom we’ve crossed paths with in our career as touring musicians. But this gave us an opportunity to hunker down and work on something specific one beat at a time with all this different creative energy. It was a wonderful time to be alive and to call this your day job. We were getting tighter as a band, in that we were spending more time together and playing music than ever before.
Even when we were touring, we would spend stage time together, but not days on end in a room coming up with ideas and recording them and playing stuff. There was a different sort of muscle memory being created as a unit that made us a better band, better musicians, better songwriters. Being able to interact with other artists who were on a comparable level creatively — because, I mean, they’re here on The Tonight Show. Which, for all intents and purposes, has always been a gate. The Tonight Show has made or broken many a musician or performer. It’s a historic metric stick. So being able to interact with artists on that level, it was a no-brainer.
The story behind the song “Dear God” specifically — the first thing that stood out to me was the drums, which reminded me of “Is There Any Love” by Trevor Dandy, which has always been a dope record to me. So I was like, “Wow, [Monsters Of Folk] did something where they used that drumbeat.” I always wanted to do something over that beat. It was a little bit of, “Wow, they got to it first. This song is dope! I can’t be mad.” But then it was, “Maybe we can do a different version.” Use their original, then it’ll be “Dear God 2.0.”
That presented a challenge, the same we faced with something like “The Seed 2.0,” which is that it was already such a brilliant, masterful work of art where it’s like, “Well if I do this and I fuck it up, I’ll never forgive myself.” And the artists will never forgive us probably. [Laughs] How do you approach it from the perspective of only adding onto it and making it better? Once the lyrics started to come to me, it made perfect sense — to all of us, to Monsters Of Folk as well. They were like, “Damn, we wish this was the version we came out with when we put this shit out.” That’s one of my favorite Roots songs, and one of my favorite performances as a lyricist. It occupies a special place in my heart.
STEREOGUM: There had also been talk that you were going to do a solo record with Jim James. And with Tunde Adebimpe. Then there was also Dangerous Thoughts with Danger Mouse. Now there’s these Streams Of Thought collections. Are these other solo endeavors abandoned?
BLACK THOUGHT: I don’t like to abandon anything. I like to finish a project, but when it’s time. I don’t like to rush anything — I like the songs to write themselves, to manifest in an organic manner. That being said, I was just thinking about this recently, the last time Jim was on The Tonight Show. I definitely want to revisit that idea of doing stuff together, because we had some cool ideas. I intend to still do that record with him and I intend to still work with Tunde. The stuff that he and I got going, I think it was dope. But it’s not always time for some shit when you think it’s time for it.
With regards to the Danger Mouse album, it is time for that. Even though we started it some 13-14 years ago, it’s done now. We revisited it over the past year and some change, and it’s pretty stellar. Dangerous Thoughts, it’s one of my proudest moments. Now it represents a return for him to hip-hop, and for people who are cut from our cloth and from our generation and who are into the same sorta stuff, I feel like it’s going to be super inspiring. Dangerous Thoughts is coming. I thought about including it in the Streams Of Thought series but it isn’t. It’s the completion of something that began long before Streams Of Thought began.
Becoming Jimmy Fallon’s House Band (2009-Present), Joining Bruce Springsteen Onstage At Roskilde (2012)
STEREOGUM: It’s been a long time now that you’ve been Fallon’s house band, first for Late Night and then when he transitioned to The Tonight Show. I think one of my favorite performances on the show was an early one, when Bruce Springsteen came on. You guys backed him up on this insane version of “The E Street Shuffle.” Then the Roots wound up joining him at Roskilde. I know you guys have played with so many people over the years now, but do moments like that stand out? Are there other artists where it’s been daunting?
BLACK THOUGHT: Those are career highs for me, sharing the stage with artists like Springsteen and Stevie Wonder and Clyde Stubblefield. The list goes on and on, man. Folks who I may have otherwise never gotten a chance to work with, the show has afforded me the opportunity to share the stage with them. There are people I worked with before and just performing with them on The Tonight Show in a different capacity has meant a lot to me, like Public Enemy.
But an overall career high for me was that Roskilde festival with Springsteen, just because of what it meant for the Roots and me personally. We’d been playing the Roskilde festival from the early ’90s when we were hardly on the festival grounds. We were in the tent outside of the tent outside of the tent with credentials that didn’t even get us into the festival. Over the years, we worked our way in: Every level of performance at that festival, we worked every angle. We’ve arrived, we have a seat at the table, now we’re on the third stage; oh, it’s second stage this year. Then we made it to the mainstage, essentially co-headlining with Bruce Springsteen with the E Street Band.
We killed our performance. So much so, there was no way they could go on without bringing us back out. Even if we didn’t have the relationship of having just performed in recent months on The Tonight Show. Because when we performed on The Tonight Show, that changed the way Springsteen and his band rocked forever more. He told his band after that, “When we do ‘The E Street Shuffle,’ play that shit like the Roots did.” He’s been candid about that. When we did that [Roskilde] performance it was beyond being a hard act to follow — it was almost impossible to follow without showing that solidarity of a co-headlining sort of thing.
When they were going out, Questlove had already left — he had to go on and DJ at another gig. Springsteen and those guys came into our dressing room and said they wanted to bring us back out. We were like, “Ahhh, we’re good, we left it all on the fucking stage. We saw you guys on the side of the stage, we got your approval, we’re done. Also, Questlove is gone and we sent all our instruments away and our in-ears are gone, there’s no sousaphone, we couldn’t even do it if we wanted to.” He said, “Give me 10 minutes.”
He came back, and he said [Springsteen impression] “I got you guys in-ears, I got you a sousaphone, I got percussion…” He had found all this extra equipment because, you know, he’s fucking Bruce Springsteen. Where there’s a will there’s a way. We couldn’t say no. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We came back out and we killed it man. It was an out of body experience. I was onstage — you look at it on YouTube, you see Kirk and I, we get to share the mic with Springsteen the way he shares his mic with Little Stevie. You know when you ask people, “How’s it going?” and they say, “You know, living the dream.” That was living the dream for us. That was a career high that I have yet to reach again.
The Deuce (2017)
STEREOGUM: You’ve acted a bit through the years. I really loved The Deuce, which was a show in which you kind of got to dig into a character for a longer period of time, in this period piece. What was your experience like on that set?
BLACK THOUGHT: It was very much like being swept up, stepping into the ’70s. I remember the ’70s, I was born in 1973. The Deuce takes place around that era. I’ve always had a romantic — you know, I romanticize the pimps and hoes and gangstas, that’s what I grew up around and that’s what I was exposed to at a young age. My first impression of New York would be trips where we would just drive up to New York and not even get out of the vehicle. We’d drive up, come out of the tunnel, drive down 42nd Street and look at all the pimps and gangstas and absorb the streets and sights and sounds and smells, then get back in the tunnel and drive back to Philly.
It was just dope to be able to get to do that sort of period piece. Anything where I’m really able to sink my teeth into as an actor is welcome. I love any opportunity to do something, period, but anything where I’m not a musician — any opportunity to display a different dimension of my personal character, is welcome. If you want me to do something and then it’s like, “OK, and then he spits a rhyme,” it’s like, “Ehhh, I’ve done that a few fucking thousand times.” It’s not going to have the same appeal to me as having to shave off my beard into some weird ’70s-looking chops and put on period wardrobe. That’s why I act, that’s what I wanted to do. Not the stuff where he freestyles, or there’s this dude and he’s an aging rapper; it’s a little hard for me to get my thespian on [in those situations].
The Deuce was one of my favorite experiences as an actor and I feel like some of my best work. The company I was able to share, so many brilliant actors who sort of validated my performance. You know, The Deuce begins with me, my performance. I felt like that spoke volumes too. Alright, I’m a real actor. I’m not an actor/rapper or someone who’s trying to do a thing and they’re giving me this opportunity because their fans of my music. This is a real role and I’m doing it. It was sad to have to end it when it did, but it boiled down to: I also have a day job. I have a day job that’s very demanding.
STEREOGUM: Wait, is that why Reggie was suddenly killed? Because it was hard to line up the schedules of The Tonight Show and The Deuce?
BLACK THOUGHT: Oh, yeah, oh yeah. I mean, somebody had to get it. But they’re in the writers’ room figuring out who’s gonna get popped, it might as well be the person where we have to change the whole fucking production every day just to get his shots in anyway, you know what I mean? They’re not used to an actor showing up to work and being like, “No matter what happens, no matter where we are on the shooting schedule, I have to leave at two o’clock this afternoon. I can’t be late for work.”
Bamboozled (2000) And Brooklyn Babylon (2001)
STEREOGUM: It’s funny you say that about the roles and wanting to get as far as possible from your real life, because when this started for you it did kind of relate to your life as a musician right? Like in Bamboozled, the Roots are in it as a band, and then in Brooklyn Babylon there’s some Roots cross-pollination as well.
BLACK THOUGHT: Brooklyn Babylon was my first acting role. We shot it in ’99. It was a huge undertaking, it was the lead role. It was a learning experience. My only criticism of it is I wish I wasn’t playing a rapper. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Is that how you got the acting bug? Or this was always something you were interested in?
BLACK THOUGHT: Any real artist has a desire to work in different mediums. Like, I began as a visual artist and, quite frankly, by high school I became jaded. I was tired of being a visual artist. Not so tired that I didn’t want to go to a high school for the creative and performing arts, but so much so that by the time I’d gotten there and went through the interview and audition process and made it, I saw this other bright shiny thing down the hall. Which was music. Then after a few years of being a musician, it’s like, “Well, it’d be dope to hang outside this drama class.” When an opportunity presented itself where I could do a real movie, with real distribution, and I could play a lead role — yeah, that was all the bug I needed.
Get On Up (2014)
STEREOGUM: This is another music thing, but you’re not playing a rapper. The other thing, obviously, is Chadwick Boseman was in the lead role.
BLACK THOUGHT: For me, Get On Up definitely represented a turning point. I was able to embrace a different level of acting. It was a period piece. I’m a huge James Brown fan, and me and Questlove have always been. So many times you see people do the biopic and you wish they hadn’t told the story. This was like, they were doing it the right way, they were shooting in the real places. Chadwick Boseman, he had already emerged as our go-to actor for the Black biopic. He had already proven himself to be a tour-de-force in that way. It was a no-brainer, man, I was really excited.
I remember wanting to take time off from Tonight Show to go down to Mississippi and do this film. This was when we were transitioning from Late Night to Tonight Show. As the Roots, we had a huge workload at that time. They didn’t want to say no, but they basically said everything but no. They said, like, “Ehhh, I don’t know if it’s such a good idea… maybe something more convenient will present itself.” Since they didn’t say no, I figured, they didn’t say no. I would rather ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. I’m gonna take that as you saying I should just do it. So that’s what I did.
It was tough. It was a commute. On any day I had to work, I had to travel the night before. I’d do The Tonight Show, then go to Newark Airport and fly down to New Orleans, and then take a three hour drive from New Orleans to Natchez, Mississippi, where we were shooting. We would film in Natchez and sometimes we would stay at old hotels or former slave plantations. Those parts of Mississippi, they’re not easy to get to. They’re out of the way. And there’s an energy there. The former slave market. I would ride past it going to and from work. Emmett Till. So much history that took place down in this part of Mississippi. It was a heavy set. It was not an easy job to commute to and from, and to leave work and then go and be silly. It was heavy, there were spirits at play. The ghosts of Mississippi were in full effect.
I remember they were shooting through Thanksgiving. I remember thinking, “Shit, that’s the one day I can’t work, we’re in the parade with Jimmy Fallon the next day.” When you’re working on two productions, one wants their 12 hours — everybody wants their time. Whatever, you signed a contract, figure it out. So I said, “Let’s try to get the whole shot in the night before Thanksgiving and I’ll figure out how to get back to New York.” We were about to begin The Tonight Show. Not only were we in the Thanksgiving Parade but we had to film the opening of The Tonight Show, the sequence that was directed by Spike Lee. I had all this work to do in New York, but the night before I was in Natchez, Mississippi, which may as well have been on the moon. I had to charter a plane, like out of my own pocket, from Jackson, Mississippi. I had to drive from Natchez to Jackson, and then it was just me and my acting coach on this plane that only had enough room for the pilot and maybe four passengers. But I had to keep my cool, because I didn’t want him to panic.
I had to learn to play saxophone for that film. I couldn’t fake it. So I took lessons with Ron Blake, who is in the band at SNL. But that’s the sort of acting I want to do. I want something I’m going to have to immerse myself in. That was the sort of role it was. We were in Mississippi, and in the film it was summertime, but for some reason it was colder in Mississippi than it was in New York City. It was like 32 degrees and we’re shooting scenes poolside. [Laughs] It was real-deal acting. It gave me a super deep appreciation for Chadwick’s professionalism. I never heard him complain, I never saw him do anything like a prima donna. He was just the utmost professional, brilliant craftsman. He executed that role in an amazing way, he really brought that character to life. Those moves. He rehearsed non-stop.
We got close during the shooting process, and we would go and have drinks or food after we wrapped. It was a dope experience. He was a huge Roots fan. He had seen us live dozens of times, he had his whole crew from his time at Howard, Kamilah Forbes and Ta-Nehisi Coates. They were all in school at the same time, the artsy kids, and they would go see the Roots when we were this band nobody really knew about. It’s just very sad to have lost him. I remember how excited he was when he got the role of Black Panther. I remember when he was going on those auditions, “I didn’t get it yet but it’s looking good. If I get this role I’m going to have to do this level of training.” We kept in contact, and when he got that role it’s something he knew would become his life’s work. It was another tragic loss this year.
Going Viral With The Funkmaster Flex Freestyle (2017)
STEREOGUM: This sort of broke the internet when it happened. It seemed revelatory to some people, like they didn’t expect this or something — afterwards there was that usual conversation, “He’s one of the most underrated MCs,” that kind of thing. Is that weird to navigate, like knowing there are people who know what you do and then to have that other conversation, like you’ve been taken for granted? When you went in, did you know this was going to get people’s attention?
BLACK THOUGHT: When I went and did that, it didn’t feel like it was going to get any more attention than anything else I had done up until that point. I just went and did what I always do. I always perform at my best. I bring the same level of intensity to whatever it is I do. There were people who were like, “That’s nothing new, I’ve seen that a bunch of times, I’m a lifelong fan, this other thing he did that we didn’t record was better.” But then there were people where it was revelatory, it was discovery. Like, “Oh, shit, this exists? This is a thing?”
I feel like it had to do a lot with what the climate had become with the onset and popularity of streaming and how folks receive music. We were just at a different point as a culture at the end of 2017, to where some element of the foundation — we were losing sight of it. I feel like that freestyle served as a reminder for some people, what we do it for and what it’s about. What this hip hop shit is about. Why those of us who are a certain age, cut from a certain cloth, why we have always loved it and why we continue to love and support the culture. Lots of people, they were like, “Man, I’m over this shit, I hate hip-hop, I don’t like it anymore. I want to savor my memories of when I felt it was something that was more worthy of my attention.” I don’t particularly feel that way. I feel like what it has evolved to, what it has become, is something far more broad.
There are all these different nuances now in the culture that create space for things to coexist. For every KRS-One there was always a Kool Keith, for every Rakim there was always a Greg Nice. That’s not to take anything away from what anyone was doing. You can just master your own shit, just rock and kill shit in your lane. I’ve always appreciated it all. I appreciate what young people are doing. People say, “Hey, mumble rap, how you feel about that? How you feel about trap?” or whatever. I love it all. I understand where it all came from. But I’m not going to let it influence me in a way where I lose sight of what I do. I’m not going to let it be a negative influence on my craft, it can only influence me in a positive way. I’m not going to completely abandon my shit, because my shit gave birth to this other thing that gave birth to this other thing that begat what it is that you’re doing. As long as you maintain sight of the ground from which it came, I feel like that’s half the battle.
But I did that freestyle… I think it was a Thursday, maybe after taping two episodes of The Tonight Show. It was freezing cold in New York City, I got off work and just wanted to go straight home. I didn’t feel like doing that shit at all, I’m just going in and getting it done and I’m not doing two takes. That’s it. That’s what I did. I’m not using headphones, I’m not here doing a commercial for CÎROC or any of that shit. I want to get to this rap shit we’ve been talking about doing for so long. I kept my in-ears from work. These will work fine. And yeah, it was history in the making.
What that freestyle did, it served as a gentle reminder for some and for some a rude awakening. For me, it was like, “Yo, I told you.” This is what I do. I guess they say, if you don’t believe in yourself no one else is going to believe in you. I believe in myself, man. I have a certain skill set. I do this well. I’ve spent 30 years rapping. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who’s going to outdo my shit. I feel like the freestyle served as living proof for a lot of people. One: Hip-hop is not dead. And what I’ve been saying all along: If I’m not the best, I’m definitely one of the best. It wound up becoming my seminal performance.
Streams Of Thought Vol. 3: Cain And Able is out now.