Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter discusses the band’s upcoming performance, new album, and artistic responsibility
Famed hip hop, soul, and jazz band The Roots are known for their musicianship, dependable quality, and ability to translate their sounds through a variety of different mediums. From Grammy-winning albums to playing almost nightly on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the eleven-piece, Philadelphia-originated group always finds ways to add new dimensions to their work.
Now The Roots have partnered with Amazon Music for a special performance entitled “A Night of Symphonic Hip Hop.” On October 17th, the band will perform in Dallas, TX, while backed by The Dallas Pops full symphony orchestra as the event is broadcast online on Amazon Music’s Twitch channel.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter to discuss their upcoming performance, the band’s forthcoming album, and the responsibility of artists who have a platform.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to do a live performance with The Dallas Pops full symphony orchestra for “A Night of Symphonic Hip Hop” amid your continual appearances on The Tonight Show. You’re also working on a new album. Just to start how is the mood in camp?
Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter: We are definitely excited, feeling great.
CF: How did the opportunity to play “A Night of Symphonic Hip Hop” come about?
BT: We had an idea amongst ourselves, the chief creative team, which would be Questlove, myself, and our manager, Shawn Gee. We’re trying to think of new ways in which to present the band. We’ve kind of over the years always been the masters of reinvention, and there have been a few occasions when we worked with choirs or large string sections or brass sections, and it always just gives a dimension to the body of work.
Questlove and I, a few years ago, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, actually had a chance to work with an orchestra. We played Carnegie Hall, but we also did the same event out in L.A. at the Hollywood Bowl, and it was an orchestral interpretation of Langston Hughes’ poem “Ask Your Mama”, and it was nominated for some awards, we did a live recording.
We thought it would be great to present The Roots album in that light. It won’t be our first time working with an orchestra, but it will definitely be one of the largest orchestral things that we’ve done. It is always good to breathe new life into our preexisting material. It gives a different excitement about the art.
CF: How do you prepare differently for a show like this, and what makes it different from other concerts?
BT: I mean it’s different from other concerts, but still not different. It’s not so different in that there has to be a synergy between the people on stage and the audience, and as long as that’s there, that’s the making of a great performance. You have to go into it with the intention of making it a tailor-made, once-in-a-lifetime experience. You set the bar really high, keep the bar really high, rehearsal is key, and just come out and kill the performance.
CF: It feels like sort of the opposite of what you do almost nightly on The Tonight Show. Can you tell us about that experience and how it allows you to create in a more immediate and different way, while this will be a more rehearsal-based, huge project?
BT: The way we work on The Tonight Show, there’s definitely a different sense of urgency to the compositions that we put together. I feel like over the past eight years or so since we’ve been there, we’ve kind of mastered working under serious time constraints and sort of injecting a sense of humor into the musicality.
What we do in the studio, working on an album, and what we would do in a performance like this, it is kinda the polar opposite. One kind of prepares you for the other. Whenever you step outside your comfort zone, and step outside the box, so to speak, you come back to what it is you do more routinely. It gives a dimension to it. It’s a different sort of depth.
Like early on in my career I would go on with a bunch of jazz artists just as a hired gun and just traveling on tour as a rapper, not necessarily Black Thought of the Roots, but just like as a hired vocalist, and perform with musicians who play in all these different meters and utilize different instrumentation than I was used to working with with The Roots. When I came back to working with the Roots, it always felt like a breath of fresh air.
CF: You are on a nightly talk show that also deals with daily news, and you are known for your politically aware lyrics. How do you view the voice of the artist in today’s society?
BT: I feel like the voice of the artist and the arts now is more important and more meaningful than ever. That’s just the way that the arts have kind of evolved. I feel like those of us who are in the public eye and those who are in a position to create, it’s more important than ever to be conscious of making some sort of a social commentary, especially those of us who are the elder statesmen.
CF: We alluded to it earlier, but you guys are working on a new album. We’re not sure when it’s coming out, but can you give us any update on that? Where are you in the writing and recording process?
BT: We’re relatively far along in the writing and recording process, and it’s going really well. We still don’t have a date. It’s going to be coming out pretty soon.
CF: Is there anything we should expect to hear that’s different? Any special guests?
BT: There’s not much that I can really say, but yes, there will be some special guests, and there will be very much that is different. But it’s going to be a return to the Roots of old, in many ways, as well.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
BT: Recently, definitely in the past couple years, having the opportunity to work on Hamilton – on the Original Cast Recording and on The Hamilton Mixtape album – and all the accolades that came along with that. Seeing my peers like Common and Robert Glasper and John Legend win Golden Globes and Emmys and Oscars, it’s just been a really humbling reminder of the potential of what it is that we do. It’s definitely been grounding for me in that the sky is the limit as an MC and as a wordsmith and as a musician. This just kind of reinforces a drive within me to achieve, and to be great.