Hip-Hop 101
An interview with Black Thought
By Christine Harvie and Richard Abowitz

From Gadfly February 1999

"Hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable," says a voice on the Roots' fourth album, Things Fall Apart (MCA). As their name suggests, the Roots have worked against this view since they started out in 1987 playing covers of classic hip-hop and rap at talent shows and on the streets of their native Philadelphia. In recent years, the Roots have— promoted their view of rap history in their live shows by covering artists like Run-DMC, Doug E. Fresh and Eric B. and Rakim: they call it Hip-Hop 101.

In their own songs, the Roots combine instrumental prowess with improvisational skill instead of relying on borrowed samples. This mix of jazzy riffs with Black Thought's rhymes results in mid-tempo songs which—while carefully modulated—always seem about to explode. Gadfly spoke to Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) after a marathon studio session to finish final mixes on Things Fall Apart.

How has the sound changed between Illadelphia Halflife and Things Fall Apart?

The sound hasn't really changed as much as it has broadened. It's become more refined, and it's more universal.

What do you mean by the phrase "organic hip‑hop jazz"?

When I say organic, and when I say jazz, I just mean music, like hip-hop music, in its rawest form: no additives, no preservatives, grown from the foundation naturally.

When you tour on this record, are you going to do Hip‑Hop 101 again?

A little. We do a taste of that now, but many other bands have run with it. It served its purpose.

How has coming from Philadelphia influenced your sound? Did you know Schooly D or any of the old Philly hardcore bands?

No, I never knew any of those guys until we were already on. The one way Philly helped my sound is that it wasn't music central. There wasn't really a strong scene there, and so we had to be doubly skilled. We had to be extra dope with the lyrics and extra advanced musically in order to make some noise, because we were coming from Philly.

What sort of music influences you now? What are you listening to?

I'm listening to Stan Getz and to a bunch of the new drum and bass shit that people are doing.

Do you see the future of hip‑hop moving toward drum and bass?

No, I don't really see that. I see drum and bass as its own genre; it's a break beat, speeded up and chopped up. In hip‑hop, a break beat should never be chopped up. It's all relative to the way you prepare it—the way you prepare the meal is how it's going to taste. Hip-hop is hip-hop, drum and bass is drum and bass.

You don't use sampling on your albums. Why?

We have used sampling on every record. But no record that we put out has been predominantly samples. Most of the time we are sampling ourselves. We will come up with an original move, play it, sample it and then loop it. The fact that we are able to play our own music brings a different flavor into the mix, kind of like the Beastie Boys do their shit, you know what I mean?

So you tape yourselves jamming and then pick something out of that you like, loop it and make a song out of it.

Exactly. When we do samples, we are sampling ourselves. That's how we are still able to say we are 100% live.

You also put a heavy emphasis on your live shows. Would you consider doing a live album?

I definitely would and will do a live album and/or a live feature like a film short. Hip‑hop was founded in live performance. They was rocking over other people's records, live at a party.

Would you do a show that was completely freestyle?

Would I? I've done millions of shows that have the free style.

Do your lyrics come out of your biography?

A great deal of them do. It comes from information that I'm taking in on a day-to-day basis. Not really anything I have been conditioned with, but I could walk down the street and look at everything and just rhyme about that. Look at people's interactions, look at different inanimate objects, look at the flow of traffic, the sound of the street, all of that; once you get out there, it's fun.

How about a character like Alana from "The Hypnotic."

Alana is a fictitious character. I'm sure she was inspired by some real person, but I can't really recall it. It's part of musicianship—my being a lyricist—to be able to come up with a story about one person, or any particular group of people, what took place, and it should come off like an actual event. Any story that I write about a person, I make up out of my head. I don't really write rhymes dealing with relationships—like "Silent Treatment," "The Hypnotic," and on this album, the song "You Got Me"—about my true life experiences.

Things Fall Apart. Could you talk a little about why you chose that title?

Things Fall Apart represents the state of music in general right now and how things are stagnant. No, I take that back, I wouldn't say things are stagnant. Things are moving swiftly, but it's in the wrong direction.

What do you mean?

Let's just deal with hip‑hop: that's my demographic. I make hip‑hop first and foremost. The shit that's coming out that people are calling hip‑hop, music purists wouldn't consider hip‑hop music at all, because a lot of it goes against all ethics of the original art form. First and foremost, hip-hop is about being original. Ninety percent of this shit that I hear on the radio, or at a club, or thumping out of people's cars is some unoriginal shit: formulated, and just recycled and recycled. Nobody is making any more original music, to the point where we are exhausting all of our resources. Everything you hear, you immediately know who originally made the music, you immediately realize that the original record that the music came from was far better. It's a step down, and that's not adding on, that's not bringing shit to the table. The principles of hip‑hop mean adding on like this: I got this dope style that nobody ever used before, or I thought of this shit and I thought of this rhyme, or I thought of how to break the syllables down this way. That is what hip‑hop is about, and that has long been lost. It's about motherfuckers bringing that shit back. So that is what I'm talking about.

Things Fall Apart is going to have five different album covers. Can you talk about the covers that you have chosen to use?

We selected five images that we thought in a nutshell comprised the times. On none of the covers do you see the group pictured. Each image has a million different things to say of its own.

One is the bombing at Hiroshima?


Another is the LAPD beating people, another is a poker player who has been shot to death, another a church destroyed by arson, and then there is a starving child. You obviously see the world as in a crisis place right now.

Oh, without doubt, without doubt. I think anyone who is able to go on in this day and time as if the world is not in a state of crisis is living under some delusion. That's just reality.

You make positive references to smoking marijuana and then make negative references to Ecstasy, cocaine and other drugs. Do you see a difference?

Smoking blunts has contributed to the downfall of the city and the world as well. I think it's all relative. The reason I come off like that is because I smoke herb and I don't do any other drugs. I just deal with the real. I smoke a lot of herb. I won't tell any children or anybody else to smoke herb. I don't promote it like that. But that is just where I'm coming from, that's what I do. So in my music when I'm speaking about how I live, I'm not going to front.

You talk a lot about dropping your lyrical signs and leaving your legacy for humanity. What exactly is the legacy that you want to leave?

The legacy that I really am interested in leaving is a rich musical history. First and foremost, I want to be known as a musician. Just as long as my shit to some people is their favorite shit, then I feel like my legacy is cool. I'll be peace if I can have it like that.