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'Music was there for me when I needed it,' The Roots co-founder Tariq Trotter says

Black Thought of The Roots performs during Philly Fights Cancer on May 20, 2023.
Lisa Lake
Getty Images for Philly Fights C
Black Thought of The Roots performs during Philly Fights Cancer on May 20, 2023.

Tariq Trotter — known by his stage name Black Thought — didn't grow up thinking he'd become a musician. In fact, as a kid in North Philadelphia in the 1980s, the MC, a founding member of the rap group The Roots, wasn't sure he'd even make it to adulthood.

"Lots of us didn't think we could see ourselves making it past 25 or 30, just because we didn't know that many people who had," Trotter says. "The drug epidemic in the '80s took a whole generation of people out."

Trotter was in high school when he experienced one of the biggest tragedies of his life: the murder of his mother. In the aftermath, his friend and creative partner Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson became an anchor.

"Music was there for me when I needed it to be, and Ahmir and his family was there for me," Trotter says. "I was very much at a crossroads. I could have processed that trauma and the experience in the loss in a different way, and just been at a very different place today."

Trotter and Thompson formed The Roots as students at Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and the group emerged as rap innovators with arrangements that mixed in live jazz. The group became the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in 2009, and has been the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon since 2014.

The Grammy Award-winner says his mom would have been proud of his music career: "She was really supportive. ... It's something that she would have loved to have seen through to fruition."

In the new memoir, The Upcycled Self, Trotter reflects on his childhood, his decades-long friendship with Thompson and his life as a musician and artist.

Interview highlights

On a physical altercation he had with Questlove in the late 1990s

/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

We had a brief sort of scuffle, kerfuffle, a little 30-second altercation when we were young and just starting out. We were displaced, living in London and there was just lots of angst and anxiety ... with all the energy associated with anyone's first time putting out a record. ... So, yeah, just the perfect storm of events. It led to us coming to blows right quick. And it was the sort of thing that I'd forgotten about it before we left the place [where] it had taken place. But I think it's the sort of thing that it stuck with him in a different way. Is it a grudge that he's held? I don't think so. But I definitely don't think it's something that he has ever forgotten.

On how being the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon helped rekindle their friendship

At the point at which we met Jimmy, we had hit a stride of consistently [doing] 200+ shows per year, all around the world. ... And we had just started to make a little bit of money. But there was also lots of uncertainty associated with just that period. There was a bit of a hamster wheel feeling, a Groundhog Day of it all. What could we do differently? How long would we be able to sort of keep up at that pace? Those were all questions that I recall posing to myself and to [manager] Rich [Nichols] and Ahmir. ...

Once we started doing ... Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, just having to spend time together every day in some way, shape or form and being onstage together every day, it was different. And it brought us together in a different way than touring had, because we reached a point in our career where we could afford separate tour buses, separate dressing rooms and stuff like that.

On deciding to tell his story publicly

My closest friends definitely know my history. But ... I'm such a private person that it's almost as if you weren't there at the time, there's no way that you'd have any idea. I've never worn my lived experience as that sort of badge, or on my sleeve in that way. It's one of those last bastions of self, right?

[If] someone [is] able to see themselves in my story and it's able to help someone get through a thing in any way, then it served its purpose.

I think as artists, there's a dance, there's a negotiation that takes place. And we give so much of ourselves. ... The job of an artist is one of service. But it's a delicate balance. ... It's the sort of thing that I was holding on to for the right moment for when it made the most sense. And that's right now. ... [If] someone [is] able to see themselves in my story and it's able to help someone get through a thing in any way, then it served its purpose.

On his first job at 7 years old

I was working for an optician, a place where you go and get eyeglasses and sunglasses, because I started wearing glasses at the age of 6 or so. And this place, this optician, was along my route to and from school, which often I would be traveling alone or with another young 5 or 6-year-old kid.

This optician, where I would often stop to ask him if he could repair my glasses before I got home from school, I think he sort of felt the vibe. ... He realized that I was a latchkey kid who was often headed home from school to an empty house, and he provided an alternative.

On his writing process

The process is different from song to song. I'm constantly jotting down ideas. A word here, a couplet there. But, for the most part, the writing process is I sit down and I try and think of just different ways to either add on to or to continue to articulate my origin story. Sometimes I'll hear a bit of music and I'll sit with the music for days, weeks, months at a time before some lyrics will come. A song will eventually write itself after the 20th, 30th, 40th time that I decided to sit and listen to this idea. And then other times, I'll get 30 to 40, 50 bars will just come without any sort of musical inspiration. Then I have to find a fitting composition, the best place for these words to sort of live. So, yeah, I'm just pulling my ideas out of the ether. And I try and just remain dialed in, tapped in, attentive, alert, aware, conscious enough to receive that inspiration and to recognize it when it comes, because it's all around you. Everything is a song. It's just about recognizing the gold.

Sam Briger and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Sheldon Pearce adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.