The Philly Institution: A Conversation With Black Thought Of The Roots
  • WEDNESDAY, APRIL 13, 2016

  • Posted by: Don Saas

"It's meant the world to us. We're really honored to represent the culture, the city, and our brand in this way. Not very many people were supportive earlier on...as far as sponsors and support to actually put on the festival, we actually kind of had to do it on our own. So to see it kind of gel, and then nine or ten years later, it's become an institution; it's everything that we had hoped and wished for."

On June 4th, the Roots will be hosting their ninth annual Roots Picnic Fest at the Festival Pier in Philadelphia (you can snag tickets for the day festival here). Over the last twenty years, the Roots have risen from heart of the Philly hip-hop scene to be not just one of the most acclaimed hip-hop acts in America but one of our most famous bands, currently enjoying a gig as the house band for The Tonight Show.

"That was always our ambition; we always kind of wanted to take what we do above and beyond the average hip-hop act and above and beyond the life expectancy of the average hip-hop act. I feel that our musicality, the fact that we play live instruments, and just our knowledge of music and music history beyond the genre of rap has afforded us that ability."



And Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter made it clear in our chat that it was that sense of musicality and their knowledge of the history of music that makes the Roots' curation process for the festival whose lineup this year includes heavy hitters like Usher, Leon Bridges, and Future as well as emerging and established alternative acts liked Blood Orange, Jidenna, DMX, Kehlani, and Ibeyi.

"One of the artists that I'm excited about...and she's virtually an unknown, but in the future you're going to hear a lot about her and from her...a singer/songwriter MC named Tish Hyman. I'm pretty excited that she's gonna be performing at the Picnic this year, and that people are gonna get a chance to experience what it is that she does. She's performed at a couple of jam sessions so far this year, like the jam session that we do in LA annually and just a couple weeks ago at our first annual SXSW jam session where she did really well, so I'm excited that she's going to perform, and she'll be really well-received by Philly.

I'm excited about DMX, I think Metro Boomin is gonna do an amazing set. Lil Uzi, he's gonna go crazy and he's Philly's own. Anderson .Paak is really poppin' right now. In my opinion, and I might say this every year, but I feel like every year is the best bill. If not the best, this is one of the best and most diverse lineups we've ever had.

I'm sure a lot of people are gonna be checking for Kehlani and Swizz Beatz, who's a legend. But the obvious, there's gonna be Future and Usher. It's always an honor and a pleasure to share the stage with these artists. We bring something out of the artists that we collaborate with onstage that's very different than normal performances, and vice versa. It's just a different energy that's really unique to the Roots Picnic. The Roots and Snoop performing at the Picnic was very different than a normal Roots show or a normal Snoop show. The audience was super engaged."



It's been just under a month since the passing of hip-hop legend and A Tribe Called Quest MC Phife Dawg. Tariq took a moment to talk to us about what Phife and Tribe meant to him as a hip-hop artist who came of age in the 90s and as someone who simply loved music period.

"Phife represented a real New York sensibility...Q Tip was the jazz, and Phife was the hip-hop. Even beyond Tribe, among the whole set [the Native Tongues Posse], Phife was the most down-to-earth, real New York dude. He was into sports, he was into a certain style of dress, earlier on in Tribe's career they all would wear a unique fashion code but Phife was always the most grounded, and the risks that he took, he took in a different way than the rest of his ensemble, but that made for a perfect balance.

Phife was always approachable. Before we were even the Roots, we would come up to New York sometimes for a visit and he might be in the Village somewhere. We'd see some members of Tribe. I'd run into Phife in New York or Philadelphia on many occasions. Before there was a reason for him to be super personable and just super cool to me as an up-and-coming artist, he was.

He was always an influential force. All those guys were highly influential and made a huge impression upon the minds and the work of Questlove and myself. I always said, had it not been for a Tribe Called Quest, or De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, and their whole crew, we wouldn't be the band we are today. We may not have even lasted as a band.

There was something about the camaraderie, the artistry of that crew, and the bravery, the fact that they had to be as different as they were at the time and they did it. Young artists like us, the Square Roots at the time, I mean, we shared the stage on so many different occasions and at so many different points in our career. I'm definitely appreciative that I got to see Tribe perform in its entirety, back together, mostly on the Tonight Show.

Some of my fondest memories of Phife...when I think of Phife I think of him on the shoulders of my friend who for a long time did security for Tribe, Black Star, and De La Soul. I think of Phife on the shoulders of Muhammad, who carried him across so he could touch the front row of the audience during their performances. That's when Phife would really start to kill it. That's when he was super in his element. He was a compact dude so he was able to fit on this guy's shoulders. Muhammad would carry him across the stage and Phife, while he was rocking, he would reach out and touch the audience. That's the way that I remember him."



But Black Thought didn't just have kind words to say about the past of hip-hop. He expressed a sincere excitement about the genre of which he is now one of its most celebrated elder statesmen.

"It's super easy to be a hip hop fan right now. There's a wider range of hip hop music right now available than ever. Hip hop has transcended genre I feel, and I feel like pop music is hip hop, just a slightly different type of hip hop. There's music like Run the Jewels, and all those artists that you named [Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Vince Staples] are doing. All these artists are kind of doing their own thing.

But there's these artists that are all at the top: the Biebers, Beyonces, the Taylor Swifts. I mean, it's all hip hop. It's an attitude, and it's a hip hop sensibility that is represented globally and it's become the standard. There's more hip hop available now for the listener and for the consumer than ever. One facet of that realm of music is kind of a term, like the sort of hip hop that meant the most to us in the 90's in the era of Tribe Called Quest. I think that's the sort that Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and Vince Staples, and so many more of these young artists who are kind of making their bones in this generation, that's what they represent sometimes consciously, and sometimes they don't even realize what they're representing.

There's no To Pimp A Butterfly without It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. But I was speaking to someone a couple weeks ago who said that Kendrick Lamar had never even heard It Takes A Nation...so that's that influence that's just in you. It's in that sub-psyche, in Straight Outta Compton, It Takes a Nation, 3 Feet High and Rising, People's Instinctive Travels, all of that shit is still very relevant and is very represented, but sometimes it's represented in artists' sub-psyche."



And if you want to experience the wealth of knowledge and talent that Black Thought and the rest of the Roots bring to music, be sure to head to Philly on June 4th for the 9th annual Roots Picnic Fest. It sounds like it's going to be a blast.

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