Who Is Black Thought?
Alongside his multi-instrumentalist musical partner, Questlove Gomez, Black Thought is co-founder of the Roots, one of the greatest hip-hop acts of all time — and one of the best live bands of any genre. Known to many outside hip hop as the house band on Jimmy Fallon's TV talk show, the Roots are still going strong after three decades in the game. Black Thought — aka Tariq Luqmaan Trotter — is the band's lead MC, renowned for his clear, steely voice and effortless multi-syllabic rhyming. Despite enduring severe childhood trauma — both his parents were murdered in separate incidents — he has never adopted a "gangsta" persona; instead, Black Thought's lyrics are deep, conscious and evocative flows that live up to his MC name. Away from music, he is a private person who seems happy for Questlove to occupy the media spotlight.
Traumatic Childhood in Philadelphia
Tariq Luqmaan Trotter was born on October 3, 1971 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to parents Thomas and Cassandra, both devout Muslims. Thomas was a member of Black Brothers Inc, a group affiliated to the Nation of Islam, the African-American religious movement. But as Black Thought told Rolling Stone magazine in a 2008 interview: "There was a whole lot of criminal activity in the name of Islam." Trotter believes his father may have been involved in crimes including extortion, drug dealing and even murder. What he does know for sure is that Thomas left one night in 1974 and never came back. "He was executed: tied to a chair in an empty lot, shot in the neck, the chest, the groin, all over."
Trotter's older brother, Keith, also followed a criminal path and has spent more than half his life behind bars. But Trotter was destined for greater things. After his father's murder, his mother maintained a Muslim household — but young Trotter spent weekends with his maternal grandmother, a Christian, leading him to meditate on how religion, violence and politics affected his community. He went on to study visual art at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, where, in 1987, he befriended a fellow student, Ahmir Khalib Thompson (later known as Questlove, sometimes spelt ?uestlove).
During his summer holiday between 11th and 12th grades, Trotter's mom was murdered by a mentally unstable stranger who snatched her off the street. "My mom's death was even more brutal than my father's," he told Rolling Stone. "He died instantaneously. But my mother was raped, strangled and stabbed 30 or 40 times."
The Roots Go on Tour
Trotter was eventually expelled from Philadelphia High School after a series of disciplinary issues. But his friendship endured with the much less streetwise Thompson, a gifted percussionist who could play all the breaks that were popular at the time. They formed a hip-hop duo to hustle for cash in talent competitions and on the streets of Philadelphia. Later, they grew to become a band, the Square Roots, whose membership included another rapper, Malik B — whom Trotter met while studying at Millersville University, Pennsylvania — bassist Leon Hubbard and keyboard player Scott Storch. In 1993 they independently released an album, Organix, recorded while on tour in Germany. By now they had dropped the "Square" and were known simply as the Roots.
'Things Fall Apart' — and Come Together
The Roots made their major-label debut in January 1995 on DGC Records — a subsidiary of Geffen better known at the time for grunge — with their second album, Do You Want More?!!!??!. They followed up with Illadelph Halflife in 1996, but their breakthrough record was their fourth album, Things Fall Apart, released in 1999. Its lead single, "You Got Me," won a Grammy award for Best Rap Performance By a Duo or Group — its chorus was sung by the R&B star Erykah Badu, with a guest verse from the rapper Eve.
The Roots have enjoyed a long and prolific career in music, which has yielded 14 studio albums, two live albums and an extensive touring schedule. Jay Z signed them to Def Jam and in 2006 they released their first album for the label, Game Theory. "The Roots shatter the perception that hip hop has no musicality, that hip hop can't tour and that hip hop is one-dimensional," Jay Z told the writer Austin Scraggs two years later. They won a further two Grammies with their 2011 album Wake Up! — a collaboration with the musician and singer John Legend on which they reimagined socially conscious soul classics. The Roots have also collaborated with the singer Elvis Costello, on the Wise Up Ghost album in 2013. Their most recent album is 2014's ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin. Their twelfth studio album, End Game, is set to release in 2017.
One of the secrets of the Roots' longevity is Black Thought's skill as a wordsmith. "Once you've mastered battling about your MC prowess, what do you do? I think Tariq has come to grips with his life," Questlove told XXL magazine in 2006. "I slowly see him starting to open himself more and more and more."
Roots Picnic and Jimmy Fallon
The Roots' musical style has a live, organic feel and is notable for the absence of samples. The band has had a revolving cast of members, with the rapper Malik B leaving after the first four albums (though later returning for guest appearances), and a long list of collaborators including Nas, Common, Mos Def, Jill Scott, Talib Kweli, Jay Z. They have appeared in four movies, including films by Spike Lee, Marc Levin and the comedian Dave Chappelle, and featured on many more soundtracks, including Men in Black, Superbad and Hancock. They host the annual Roots Picnic music festival every June in Philadelphia, (they launched a sister event in New York in fall 2016), and a legendary jam session every year the night before the Grammys: guests have included Snoop Dogg, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Norah Jones Don Cheadle, Spike Lee and Tom Cruise.
In 2009 the Roots became the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, moving with the talk-show host in 2014 to The Tonight Show. In 2015 they executive-produced the soundtrack to the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. They regularly appear in the Rolling Stone's Greatest Live Acts Right Now lists.
In 2017, Black Thought showed off his acting skills in HBO's gritty The Deuce, playing pimp Reggie Love amid the thriving prostitution industry of New York City's Times Square in the 1970s.
Keeping His Personal Life Private
Black Thought is passionate about fashion design and has collaborated with the eyewear brand MOSCOT on a range of limited-edition sunglasses.
He keeps his personal life private, though he reportedly married in 2010 to a woman named Opal. The couple are said to be living in New Jersey with his young daughter, Saaliha. (He has two other children, Benjamin and Ahmir.) During a Rolling Stone interview in 2008, Black Thought reflected that his life had panned out well, against considerable odds. "If I go visit my brother [in jail] I'll see 20 guys I grew up with," he said. "Most of the rest are dead."
After the debut of The Deuce, Black Thought also opened up to The New York Times about his difficult childhood and the influence of Islam in his life.
(Profile photo of Black Thought by Larry Busacca/WireImage/Getty Images)
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