On December 14th, Black Thought – the voice of the Philadelphia-bred band the Roots, and presence on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon – reminded us why he deserves consideration on your greatest rappers of all time list. While visiting Funkmaster Flex’s show on Hot 97.1 FM in New York City, the rapper dropped a stunning freestyle – more than 2,000 words and nearly 10 minutes long – that quickly went viral, earning over a million YouTube views in 24 hours. It sparked conversations around the Internet over the seemingly lost art of lyricism in an era described by some older fans as “mumble rap.” In an interview, Black Thought – who also frequently freestyles on The Tonight Show, spitting witty and charming remarks on the studio audience – expressed surprise at the widespread acclaim for his appearance, and explained how he created his virtuosic performance.
Were you surprised that so many people responded to your freestyle?
Black Thought: Yeah, man, absolutely. You know, it’s become pretty routine for me when I go to do interviews with certain people that it’s going to be requested of me to rhyme: Tony Touch, or Statik Selektah, or Sway in the Morning, or sometimes the Breakfast Club, or Ebro [Darden at Hot 97]. These are all places where I feel like, as an MC, especially coming from my graduating class, it’s safe to assume that they’re going to say, “Well, could you spit something?” So I didn’t expect any different from Funkmaster Flex. I mean, what I did is what I always do, but it’s never been this well received. So yeah, it’s totally taken me by surprise.
Why do you think this particular freestyle went viral?
I think hip-hop, the culture, is at a crossroads right now, and there’s not very much that people who are older than millennials have to identify with. There isn’t much that’s reaching the mainstream that is hip-hop in the sense that people my age know it as, if that makes any sense. The game has changed. It’s different. The standards are different, the criteria that’s taken into consideration in determining validity is different. We’re at a point in history where lyricism almost comes last in very many regards. So for someone from my school, who has come from the ilk of lyricism being held in far higher regard, it brings a different sort of urgency to every performance. That’s what I went into that Flex freestyle with, with that same urgency that I had when I was a young person coming to New York from Philly with very much to prove.
I think people had almost forgotten. Maybe not forgotten, but people had given up hope that someone out there was still around who is doing it the way we had done it. … I mean, I’m not like a unicorn. There are very many artists who make those sorts of beats, and write and record those sorts of lyrics and performances, and carry that same cadence. But they don’t necessarily have the same sort of platform [that I have].
How do you prepare for a freestyle like this? Do you memorize lines? Or do you generate lists of words that you can combine into lyrics?
I think the definition of “freestyle” has definitely changed. When I was coming up, a freestyle wasn’t a freestyle unless everything was completely improvised, in-the-moment and right there, and you had to incorporate various elements of what was going on in the room on the day. That’s still a part of it. But I feel like it’s evolved into something more, where you have to have the improv element, but you also have to have a certain script. As an actor, the theatrical side of me identifies with the concept of having a script, and memorizing the lines, and then being able to be “off book,” so to speak. If you know your lines and everybody else’s lines, and you have those beats in your muscle memory, then you can improvise and go off-script. And if you reach a point during the improvisation where you feel like you’re about to stutter or second-guess yourself, then you can immediately fall back on the part that you already know. So that’s what [freestyle] has evolved into. It’s like the new definition of freestyle. I mean, it still has to be witty, and you have to have punchlines. But in order to make it super dense, and incorporate all those layers of meaning and depth to the listener, it has to be both improv and muscle memory.
Some people are debating whether your freestyle was improvised or pre-written. It sounds like it was a combination of the two.
It absolutely was a combination, as it would have to be. I mean, I’m no superhero. I’m definitely an adamant professional, and I feel like I’ve mastered the craft. But it’s just changed. If I were on Stretch & Bobbito back in the day, like when I would go to their radio show and freestyle, everything had to be completely off the top. And, you know, I’m able to do that with the best of them. But in order to say what is needed, to get a rise out of young audiences, the 18-to-25s. … You know, I have a couple of boys who are 17, 18 years old…and in order to get that sort of response from them, it has to be a combination [of improvisation and pre-written]. There has to be a research element involved. No public speaker or stand-up comedian, I mean, there’s no one who’s going to give a speech completely off the top without having worked on the beats, and how you’re going to say what it is that you’re saying, or worked on the tone.
There were numerous topics you addressed during your freestyle. You talked about how the Roots’ 1999 album Things Fall Apart anticipated the current political environment. You talked about growing up impoverished, and how you rose from those circumstances to win several Grammy Awards. How did you pick those topics?
I feel like the performance is better received when I’m able to show vulnerability and wisdom, and not only winner-takes-all. I’m not only concerned with the braggadocio aspect and proving my lyrical prowess. That’s a part of it, and that’s a part that has to be spoken to as well. … But at the same time, there needs to be a balance. So as I’ve matured, I’ve learned to give the listener, the audience, and my fans those glimpses into the inner workings of me, into what makes the machine that is Tariq Trotter. … The same way that any speechwriter – or Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld – will incorporate elements of their everyday life so that they resonate with their audience, that’s what I do.
There’s a line in your rap where you say, “Can’t explain what these lame kids are talkin’ ’bout.” There are folks debating that line. Did you call out the current generation of rappers?
Yeah, I mean, some of the current generation, the ones who are lame. There are some millennial artists that I totally get and understand, and I know what they’re talking about. People who I’ve worked with and who I’d like to work with. But there’s a whole element of artists that I can’t explain what they’re talking about. And it’s not just because of their stylistic approach with the whole “mumble rap.” Lots of people are saying that I shut down mumble rap in one 10-minute setting. But that wasn’t my intention, because mumble rap – if we go back – that’s something I invented. I invented rapping without actually using the words. … [W]ith songs like “Don’t Say Nuthin’,” freestyles like “New Year’s At Jay Dee’s,” I essentially invented mumble rap, where you go for many bars without saying any words. And when I did it, it came from a place of being inspired by scatting.
Would you say the current generation’s approach to rap is the same as what you’ve done?
It’s definitely different. I hate to keep using the term evolution, but I feel like it has evolved. The same way that all other pop culture has evolved into what we now know it, so has the music. Art, politics, everything must change, and everything has changed. But there’s a way to embrace change and still appreciate and incorporate elements of the foundation from which it came.