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Tariq 'Black Thought' Trotter on his impact on hip-hop and new memoir, 'The Upcycled Self'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: The Roots are known as one of hip-hop's most important and influential groups. They're also well-known as the house band of "The Tonight Show."

And their lead emcee, Tariq Trotter, better known by his stage name, Black Thought, has been called one of the most skilled and prolific rappers of our time.

Now, during this 50th anniversary year of hip-hop, the Grammy winner tells his own story in a new memoir and sat down with Jeffrey Brown recently for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Tariq Trotter, Musician: Yes, and then this is my block. Like, this is where I essentially grew up. So…

Jeffrey Brown: A drive through south Philadelphia with native son Tariq Trotter.

Tariq Trotter: It's a place where you have to persevere, you know what I'm saying, to get anywhere. It's the sort of place that eats folks alive.

Jeffrey Brown: But it also came with its own energy. Trotter recalled his time as a youngster selling shopping bags.

Tariq Trotter: So I was the one of the kids who walked up and down this street saying, shopping bags, got shopping bags here, shopping bags. Fifty cents, shopping bags. Get your shopping bags, shopping bags over here.

Jeffrey Brown: You were always working.

Tariq Trotter: I was.

Jeffrey Brown: Under his stage name, Black Thought, Trotter would write and rap his way to world stages as co-founder of The Roots, a band known for its instrumentation, live performance, and grounding in jazz and other genres.

Now, in "The Upcycled Self: A Memoir on the Art of Becoming Who We Are," he takes us back to the experiences and contradictions of his early years, deep love from family, yet hardness, violence and loss all around, the house he accidentally burned down as a young child, friends and family destroyed amid the crack epidemic of the 1980s, most of all, his mother, lost to addiction and then murdered.

But this is also a story of resilience and triumph that came through art, most of all, the art of hip-hop.

Tariq Trotter: Hip-hop is making something out of nothing. Hip-hop is — I talk about the upcycle in this book. Hip-hop is that, is the upcycle. It's using — it's putting the pieces of a thing, right, that are salvageable to use.

Jeffrey Brown: And the upcycled self-means sort of taking what's around you and what?

Tariq Trotter: Taking, I mean, not only what is around you, but dealing with that which lies within. It's about a world view, a way of moving through this space that at one point in time was life or death, right?

And it's about understanding the difference between that which needs to be abandoned and that which needs to be put to a different use.

And this is beautiful work.

Jeffrey Brown: Visual art seeing and making it came first and then music.

Tariq Trotter: I was looking for just a place to — where I had the freedom to continue to be creative.

Jeffrey Brown: A seminal period was the two years he spent at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, known as CAPA, where he took us to watch band rehearsal and then encouraged current students.

Tariq Trotter: It's not always comfortable to lean into your talents and to lean into your graces, but it's sort of our responsibility as artists.

Jeffrey Brown: CAPA, then in a different location, is where he met Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, a brilliant percussionist and student of music of all kinds who befriended and influenced Trotter. They first called their band The Square Roots, then The Roots.

You write: "Art saved me."

Tariq Trotter: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: So, saved you from what and how did it save you?

Tariq Trotter: Art saved me from becoming a statistic, as so many of my friends and family members and neighbors and just so many of my contemporaries had and have become.

From the first glimpse, right, from my first, my earliest exposure to art and to the arts, I was sort of hooked, and it became my escapism, and it became the fuel for my imagination and the way that I saw the world.

Jeffrey Brown: And, for you, I mean, this is what you describe — it is so striking — the use of the discovery and then use of words and language and then rhyming.

Tariq Trotter: Yes. Yes.

I initially found words in the encyclopedias. We had the full on, the sets of Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book Encyclopedias and stuff. That was the Internet long…

Jeffrey Brown: Were you flipping through the pages?


Tariq Trotter: Absolutely. That was the Internet, long before the Internet. It was transportive. It was transcendent and transformative for me.

You have become a symbol in the spirit life. Rest in power, rest in paradise.

Jeffrey Brown: As Black Thought, Trotter became known as a master wordsmith, building phrases and rhymes into powerful storytelling, especially of Black identity and experience.

In 2017, he delivered a now legendary 10-minute solo freestyle performance on Funkmaster Flex's Hot 97 radio show, a verbal acrobatic mix of references, metaphors, personal and political punch.

Tariq Trotter: I'm pulling everything from everywhere, every experience, every relationship, every moment of one's life.

When it's good, you're — at best, you should be able to channel that energy.

Jeffrey Brown: Pulling words, images, histories from everywhere.

Tariq Trotter: I feel like one of the purposes that I serve as an emcee is as a historian. It doesn't seem like I'm coming from a place with the intention of teaching, but…

Jeffrey Brown: But you are.

Tariq Trotter: But I am.

Jeffrey Brown: So, entertain, but also teach.

Tariq Trotter: Educate.

Jeffrey Brown: Educate.

Tariq Trotter: Yes, yes, and it's not easy, but that's what I do. That's why I'm Black Thought.

Jeffrey Brown: In recent years, Trotter has expanded his palette, including a series of solo recordings titled "Streams of Thought."

Tariq Trotter: See right where the man coming from.

Jeffrey Brown: And as an actor appearing in the HBO series "The Deuce" and in the off-Broadway musical "Black No More," for which he also wrote music and lyrics. The hope is to bring it to Broadway.

Now 50, Trotter looks back and ahead with a keen sense of legacy for himself and his art form.

Tariq Trotter: It's important to me just to continue to tell my story, our stories. That's part of my responsibilities, to continue to elevate this craft to that level of high art, whether it's my own art, my own contribution that is recognized as such, or whether it's just my contribution is in having the culture recognized as such.

I feel that is part of — you know, that's my mission.

Jeffrey Brown: Next up for Tariq Trotter, AKA Black Thought, a new Roots album, plus the latest in his solo recordings.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Philadelphia.

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