Tariq Trotter is telling me about how he came to be Black Thought.
“I landed on Black Thought at around 15 or 16,” says the cofounder and front man of The Roots, recalling his time as a student at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in South Philadelphia.
“I was a visual arts major, I was painting and doing sculpture and graphics,” he says during a week off from The Roots’ Tonight Show gig when he’s making the rounds to talk about his newest project, 7 Years.
The audio memoir, released Thursday as part of Audible’s “Words + Music” series, is a masterful, movie-length spoken-word performance that arrives to remind hip-hop heads that when it comes to narrative-driven, deeply musical MCs, Black Thought is the GOAT.
“One day, I was thinking about how we arrive at the color black with pigment on the palette,” he says. “And the name sort of dawned on me. Black Thought is an idea. It’s a concept. It can be so many different things.”
“Black as obsidian, Black as oblivion, Black as the sky at midnight ante meridian,” he rhymed in a 2018 freestyle recorded at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab. “I am Black as a portrait with Diddy, Tupac and Biggie in / Black as the influence of the culture we living in.”
But on 7 Years — a nearly two-hour performance with a complementary score by British-born Philadelphia musician Anthony Tidd — the first name seen above the title is Tariq Trotter.
“That’s because the story is being told from such a personal perspective,” he says. “It’s very intimate. If I were doing a one-man show, this is something close to what it would feel like.”
The Audible “Words + Music” episodes are more polished than most music podcasts, offering compelling narratives by marquee names. Along with 7 Years, recent entries are by Sting, Sleater-Kinney, Gary Clark Jr., Billie Joe Armstrong, and Yo-Yo Ma. They are available for no extra charge to Audible subscribers.
“It’s exciting for me to work in any emerging field,” Trotter says. “I’ve always been into podcasts. I listen to a lot of NPR. Storytelling can be transportative.”
The 7 Years audio memoir, which includes new recorded performance of three Streams of Thought songs, takes its title from an idea that, its auteur admits, “I’m clinging to, for some sense of control.”
“The theory is that every seven to 10 years we become entirely new people. Our bodies become totally new bodies due to cell regeneration,” he says at the start. “So every seven years, I set my goals and work to make active shifts in my life.”
He puts particular emphasis on ages 7 to 14 (his Philly childhood), 21 to 28 (the rise of The Roots — originally the Square Roots — alongside CAPA classmate Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson), and then 35 to 42 (as their world expands after becoming Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night band in 2009).
Right as 7 Years gets rolling, Trotter makes one thing clear. “Background context: I’m from Philadelphia. Philly is still home.” He skips a New Year’s Eve show in New York in 1999 because “if it was the end of the world, I at least wanted to be in the city closest to my heart.”
And 7 Years is very much a Philadelphia story, especially in its early stages. Trotter’s father, Thomas, died before he was 2, “murdered, executed really, in the Germantown section of Philly. It’s an event deeply shrouded in mystery.” His mother, Cassandra, was also murdered when he was in high school after “she finally succumbed to her addiction” to crack cocaine.
Trotter credits his mother with nurturing the observational skills that have made him such a compelling storyteller. Growing up, she had taught him “something big was happening in the streets. In my culture. In my world. And I was a kid that really soaked up the world around me.”
“I was that way I was because I had to be,” he says on the phone. “Like they say, be whoever you need to be, but don’t forget who you are. For survival’s sake, I’ve had many different identities. I’ve played different roles.”
When hip-hop came into his life, he would joyously look down from a rooftop, watching parties at the 7th and Snyder rec center. “For the first few years, I would just observe, but eventually I built up the confidence to try,” he says in 7 Years, which includes a 2021 performance of a rap written when he was 9, when he went “by the name of Cool Double T.”
Trotter talks in 7 Years about the impact that Afrika Bambaataa, Run-DMC, and Fela Kuti made on his life, but the key figure he gives credit to is Richard Nichols, the Roots’ manager, who died in 2014.
The band met the deep-thinking Nichols, then a jazz DJ, at a gig at the Chestnut Cabaret in 1992. “If I was the spirit of the Roots and Ahmir was the soul, Rich was the brains,” he says. Summer of Soul, Questlove’s acclaimed debut as a movie director, is dedicated to Nichols.
In 7 Years, Trotter says, “I had success, and then was flagrantly reminded that I was seen as less than because I was still a Black man that existed in a racist society.”
He tells of two incidents that could have ended his career because “the criminal justice system was designed like a roach motel. They check in but they never check out.”
In 1997, a gun legally registered in Pennsylvania was found in his backpack at a venue in New York. After an arrest and a long, expensive legal battle, the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. The experience taught him “what a little bit of money could do, .... you’re far less touchable than you are if you’re poor.”
Fifteen years later, the band was arriving back in America from the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, where they’d played with Bruce Springsteen, when he was arrested at the airport for an outstanding warrant for a ticket he received (and paid) while a student at Millersville University in the early 1990s.
“Only 24 hours after hearing ‘U-S-A!’ chants, I came home to America and it’s like, ‘You’re still a n—,’ ” he says in 7 Years.
“It’s part of my story I feel its necessary to tell,” he says on the phone. “You don’t stop dealing with all that Black people have had to deal with in this country because you’re famous or you’ve attained a certain level of celebrity.”
Trotter’s Seven Years is one of a string of new works in which he has been expanding his reach as an artist.
Last month, he acted alongside Ethan Hawke, John Leguizamo, and Wallace Shawn in a Zoom production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. And Black No More, a musical he cowrote with 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley based on George S. Schuyler’s 1931 satirical novel, is set to open Off-Broadway in February.
The show, with choreography by Bill T. Jones, also features Trotter in a costarring role. He plans to head to the theater nightly, after Fallon tapings. “In a perfect world, that’s the idea.”
He says he’s “not bummed” about missing the Roots Picnic this year, ”because we’ve got so much other stuff going on. We felt it was smarter to ride this year out, and come back in ’22 bigger and better.”
He’s turning 49 in October. So what’s the next seven-year phase?
“Elder statesmanship,” he says. “I feel like I still have a lot more to learn, and a lot to give. But I’m not just going to keep giving and giving and giving. You got to know when to call it quits.
“So I’d rather go out and have people say, ‘Wow, it’s crazy. This guy is somehow better in many ways than he was 20 years ago.’
“Better that,” he says with a laugh, “than be able to pinpoint when I began my decline.”