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

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. This week, we're featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. And today we listen back to my conversation with musician Tariq Trotter, co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning hip-hop group The Roots. He was our guest when his memoir was published. It's called "The Upcycled Self: A Memoir On The Art Of Becoming Who We Are."

In it, he talks about his life, and how as he remembers it, it started with a fire. He was 6 years old, deep in play with his army men - those popular plastic figurines from the '70s - when he decided to flick a lighter to add drama to the war scene. When the tip of the lighter got too hot for Tariq's little fingers, he reactively tossed it, the curtains and carpet erupting in flames before engulfing the entire house.

Trotter examines the shame of that moment, as well as other harrowing events growing up in Philadelphia intertwined with joyful moments like discovering music and meeting his fellow bandmate, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. Known by his stage name, Black Thought, Trotter is the lead MC of The Roots, which he and Thompson founded as teens in high school. The group now serves as the house band on NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."

Here's one of The Roots' first hits from their early album "Things Fall Apart." It's "You Got Me" featuring Erykah Badu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU GOT ME")

ERYKAH BADU: (Singing) If you were worried 'bout where I been or who I saw or what club I went to with my homies, baby don't worry. You know that you got me. If you were worried 'bout where I been or who I saw or what club I went to with my homies, baby, don't worry. You know that you got me.

TARIQ TROTTER: (Rapping) Somebody told me that this planet was small. We used to live in the same building on the same floor and never met before until I'm overseas on tour and peeped this Ethiopian queen from Philly taking classes abroad. She's studying film and photo flash, focus, record. Says she's working on a flick, and could my clique do the score? She said she loved my show in Paris at Elysee Montmartre and that I stepped off the stage and took a piece of her heart. We knew from the start that things fall apart, intensions shatter. She like that s*** don't matter. When I get home, get at her, through letter, phone, whatever. Let's link. Let's get together. S***, you think not, think the thought went home and forgot? Time passed. We're back in Philly, now she up at my spot telling me the things I'm telling her is making her hot. Starting building with her constantly round the clock. Now she in my world like hip-hop and keep telling...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOSLEY: Tariq Trotter, welcome to FRESH AIR.

TROTTER: Thank you. Thank you so much, Tonya. Thanks for having me.

MOSLEY: This memoir is about you going back through your life to understand who you are, and that fire that you accidentally started at 6 years old, you write that it became the basis of all that you are, but to say that it changed you isn't quite right. It actually shaped the person that you are. What did it shape you into?

TROTTER: I think, you know, the fire and that whole experience at such a young age, it changed me in that it jump started - it was the beginning of me having to grow up, you know, fast. Yeah. And, you know, when I, you know, go back in my life and I trace through, you know, like, those watershed moments. And I think, you know, as a kid, I mean, you know, I was 6 years old. So there was no way, at 6, for me to really understand the gravity - you know what I mean? - of it all and how that's the sort of thing that could carry through life, you know.

MOSLEY: At the time, you were living with your mother and your half brother in a house that your mom had done this amazing job making a home in North Philadelphia. She did not blame you or scold you, but it was clear that it had changed your family's life. There was very much a before the fire and an after the fire for your family. How, in those immediate days and weeks and really, years, did things change for you all? It really destabilized you.

TROTTER: Yeah. It definitely - it was the beginning of just a more unstable period in our lives. One of the things that - a revelation that occurred post-fire, like, right after the fire, was just the fact that I - you know, I didn't get in trouble. There was no doubt in my mind that I was, you know, going to get it, you know what I mean? I knew that I had really done it this time. And I was expecting, you know, some - if not multiple - manners of punishment, right? And, you know, there wasn't really a reprimand.

Like, you know, my mom, I mean, obviously now as an adult and as a parent, you completely understand that the only concern would be for your kid's safety. But in that moment, I felt like, wow, you know, she's letting me slide with this one. But, you know, I think I came to - like, the revelation was the amount of grace - you know what I'm saying? - that my mother was able to show in those moments, right? You know, that felt as if such a display would be impossible.

MOSLEY: You talk about how much you had to grow up after that fire. You got your first job at 7 years old?

TROTTER: Yeah. Yeah, I did - 7 years old. I was working at an eyeglass - for an optician, because I started wearing glasses at around - at the age of 6 or so. And this place, this optician, was along the route - my route to and from school, which, you know, often, I would be traveling alone or with, you know, another young, 5 or 6-year-old kid. And...

MOSLEY: It really speaks to the time, because...

TROTTER: It really...

MOSLEY: ...Like...

TROTTER: ...Does. It...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

TROTTER: ...Does, you know, because we would just be out there. Back in the day, your parents would go to work and just, you know, go to school. I hope you make it, you know what I'm saying? My trek to school, it was a couple-mile walk. And, you know, this was, you know, the winters in the in the '70s and early '80s when it was real deal, you know, super-cold out and. But yeah, anyway, this guy, 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 just, you know, sort of felt the vibe. He - like, he read the room, of sorts, and was, you know, he realized that I was a latchkey kid who was often, you know, headed home from school to an empty house. And he provided, you know, an alternative in saying, hey, would you accept these responsibilities? And would it be OK if I talk to your mom and, you know, figure something out? And he spoke with my mom, and she was with it. I had a job.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tariq Trotter, also known as Black Thought, co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning group The Roots. He's written a new memoir about his life called "The Upcycled Self." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to Grammy Award-winning rapper and performer Black Thought, also known as Tariq Trotter, about his new memoir, "The Upcycled Self: A Memoir On The Art Of Becoming Who We Are." Trotter is the lead MC of The Roots, which he and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson founded after meeting as teens in high school. The group serves as the house band on NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."

You write about these times so vividly, and you also write about some heavy things that allow us to understand and see you more clearly. In addition to the fire that forever changed you, you also lost both of your parents at a very young age. Your father was murdered when you were a baby, and your mother was murdered when you were a teenager, in a very brutal way.

TROTTER: Yes.

MOSLEY: I'm guessing, for a very long time, you did not lead with this part of your life.

TROTTER: Absolutely.

MOSLEY: Did people in the entertainment circles and around you know these things about you?

TROTTER: I mean, you know, my closest friends definitely, you know, know about my history and, you know, what my life has sort of been like. But, no, I think I'm guarded in that way. I'm such a private person that it's almost as if - if you weren't there at the time, there's no way that you - you know, you'd have any idea. I've never worn my lived experience as that sort of badge, you know, or on my sleeve in that way.

MOSLEY: What do you think that's about, holding it so close to you?

TROTTER: You know, I think it's one of those last bastions of - you know, of self, right? I think, as artists, there's a dance, there's a negotiation that takes place. And, you know, we're - this - we give so much of ourselves. And that's what becoming an artist and embracing the arts is about. It's about, you know, giving more of yourself, not that I never intended to become more personal and more vulnerable and accessible as an artist. But it's the sort of thing that I was holding on to for the right moment - you know what I mean? - for when it made the most sense. And that's right now.

MOSLEY: You didn't find out right away that your mother had been murdered.

TROTTER: No.

MOSLEY: You had been living in Detroit and - with relatives. You were a teenager. And you'd come back to Philly, and you couldn't find her. And so you went out to search for her, and one of the places you went to after calling and driving around was the morgue. And that's where you found her.

TROTTER: Yeah. Yeah. You know, not me personally, but that's where our family found her. And it was, you know, one of the sad, you know, just realities of life, you know, in Philadelphia. And at the time that, you know, I was growing up in Philadelphia - I mean, you know, just in the middle of the '80s crack epidemic and then, you know, immediately after, you know, just the crack epidemic and everything that took place.

Yeah, you know, we had normalized lots of trauma and lots of, you know, things that, you know, we had gotten used to seeing and experiencing every day. You know, it just wasn't necessarily OK and wasn't necessarily normal. And, you know, one of the normal things for us was that, you know, that's what you do if, you know, someone doesn't show back up home at the end of the night or the next morning, or you're trying to track somebody down. First you check the hospitals - you know, see if, you know, maybe they've gotten hurt and wound up in the hospital. Then you check, you know, the jails - see if they had been arrested. And then you check the morgues.

And we - in that order, that's what we always did. And that was the process. And then my mother, you know, she would always turn up after a couple days. And this particular time, I think it was something that we all felt - you know, just an eerie feeling. It felt different. And once we had found out that there was a Jane Doe that had turned up, like, an unidentified or unidentifiable body, I think we all knew that or felt that that was my mother. And then my grandmother and her sister went and confirmed at the morgue.

MOSLEY: When you found out your mother was killed, you were in high school. And you had this good friend, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. What did that friendship mean to you through that time period?

TROTTER: Through that time period, you know, Ahmir and my friendship was huge. It was an anchor for me, you know? You know, the ways in which he and his family were there for me - they really had taken me in. We are - the dynamic was already one in which I would spend days, weeks at a time at his place and vice versa. You know, we were inseparable in that way as creatives. But the fact that I was able to pour myself completely into my art and that the music was there for me when I needed it to be and, you know, just that Ahmir and his family was there for me, it was huge. It was just the perfect, you know, safety net to sort of keep me on the right trajectory because I was very much at a crossroads. And I could have processed that trauma and the experience and the loss in a different way and, you know, just been, you know, at a very different place today.

MOSLEY: The Roots was also one of the first rap groups to play live music. There are so many elements of jazz. Was it hard for you guys in the beginning? Did record companies know what to do with you?

TROTTER: Yeah, no, record companies had no idea what to do with The Roots. So, yeah, we looked different. We sounded different. You know, I spoke and performed differently. Both Malik and I - the other MC, you know, rest in peace, Malik B., the other MC in the Roots...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

TROTTER: ...You know, spoke differently than, you know, folks did from places that were, you know, trending more in the culture. Like, you know, there was a specific way that rappers in the West Coast or from the South or even from New York, you know, said things. And from Philly, we just - we sounded different. There was no - there wasn't - Philly wasn't the incubator for us that it's been for some other artists at different points in time.

MOSLEY: When I look at you guys, I mean, you're not just a band. You're like a collective.

TROTTER: Absolutely, we are.

MOSLEY: Yeah. I mean, so in any given iteration, there are almost, like, a dozen members. But there's also all of these other connective tissues around Philadelphia of other artists that you all introduced us to. So you all basically set that foundation, that culture that we know of, like, this Philly sound of neo soul hip-hop.

BLACK THOUGHT: Yes. Yeah. Yeah, we did. It began with just jam sessions that we would have at Ahmir's house or at, you know, our manager - again, rest in peace, Rich Nichols - at Rich's place. Then we wound up arriving at a residency at a place called the Wetlands here in New York City. And then after doing the Wetlands for a while, it became so, you know, testosterone fueled. And it was just so male energy dominant that we wanted to create another platform just to give, you know, female energy and, you know, just to give that - you know, the feminine a place, you know, to showcase and perform. And that's - from that, the Black Lily was born. And that's really - the beginning of the Black Lily was - you know, it ushered in an era. My man Adam Blackstone...

MOSLEY: Can you describe Black Lily - yeah - what that is?

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah. Yeah, well, you know, Black Lily was the answer to the initial, like, the original Roots jam session, where it's lots of improv. It's almost - you know, think of, like, an Upright Citizens Brigade or something for, you know, what that is for the comedian - right? - for the sketch comedian, having to, you know, just to learn to improvise and create and entertain on the spot. That's what the Black Lily was. It was an incubator for artists like the Jill Scotts and Kindred the Family Souls and Musiq Soulchilds and Bilals, you know, of the world.

MOSLEY: Your rap cadence, it's always been instrumental, if that makes sense. MCs before you, they had, like, maybe, like, a louder, bombastic kind of projection. And you're much more melodic. How did you come into your style? Did you ever emulate some of those earlier guys? You talked about Kool Moe Dee when you were really young, but...

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, I did. I've definitely emulated, you know, all the greats. You know, if we're talking cadence, then it began with, you know, Melle Mel - right? - and the way that, you know, the Melle Mels of the world sort of spoke. There was a cadence that was - it was almost, you know, like your uncle at the barbeque, right?

MOSLEY: (Laughter).

BLACK THOUGHT: You know, really accessible, easy to follow along. But even in that, you know, Melle Mel was the first artist to - you know, he rapped, his cadence was very different from, like, say - OK, we begin with the Sugarhill Gang, right? The way that, you know - the hip, the hop, the hippy to the hip of the hip, hip, the hop. You almost got to smile to rap in that cadence, right?

And Melle Mel came out, and he was, you know, talking about the Bronx and rapping about what was, you know, really going on on songs like, you know, "The Message." And he was emphatic in his expression, you know what I mean? Broken glass everywhere. And you could - it was visual, you know what I mean? The way that - the emphasis he put on his words made it possible for you to see what he was talking about. And then you had the - you know, Run-DMC and those guys came along - right? - you know, through - I guess the connective tissue would be Kurtis Blow - right? - who was, you know, the first...

MOSLEY: Oh, yeah.

BLACK THOUGHT: ...Sex symbol solo rap star. But, you know, again, he didn't rap in the way that, you know, the Melle Mels or the Sugarhill Gang did. And he introduced us to Run as his DJ, DJ Run. And then when Run-DMC came out, they were almost the antithesis to everything that was happening on the scene before them. I feel like that's what - Def Jam and, you know, the people who were associated with Def Jam and Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin at that time, they all were yelling and screaming. They came out and it was like, we're not going to rap the way these other guys rap. Like, it was Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, you know, even, you know, T La Rock, LL Cool J, Run-DMC, who - they weren't Def Jam artists, but they were part of that movement.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BLACK THOUGHT: And then you had artists like, you know, Rakim and Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap who came out. And for them, it was more - it was about more nuance. And in particular, I think that's - you know, it goes for Rakim, who, you know, many of us - like Talib Kweli, Yasiin Bey, Nas, myself - there's a long list of us who sort of trace it back, you know, to him, you know what I mean?

MOSLEY: Influence, yeah.

BLACK THOUGHT: Yeah, to the influence of Rakim. He was one of the first MCs who said, I know everyone else is screaming and yelling to get their points across, everyone else is going to be super emphatic, I'm going to articulate my instrument as such. I'm going to use my voice like an instrument. And, you know, he had a jazz background. I think Rakim, you know, grew up playing, you know, trumpet or sax. And his brother also was a jazz musician, his older brother. And he approached his cadence and his storytelling and his songwriting from that perspective. And I think that was, you know, some of the earliest signs of that. And that's what - you know, it's a tool that I still, you know, employ today.

MOSLEY: Well, to give an example of your instrument and how you use it, I want to play one of your more recent songs, which is a personal track about your life and family, and it is called "Fuel." Let's listen to a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUEL")

BLACK THOUGHT: (Rapping) I'm an Ernest Hemingway portrait painted by Ernie Barnes, clean sneakers and dirty horns, last soldier of thirty gone who lost hope but still journeyed on. Yet I'm the reason we gon' have to get the gurney for him. Karma police carrying customized cuffs for me. I hope these taped up guns will still bust for me. I had the whole world, it wasn't enough for me. It got me feeling like the Lord lost trust for me. I made a means to an end when there were no wins. I burned bridges I had sworn to be eternal friends, the last ones I ever intended to turn against, until we grew our separate ways like fraternal twins. So to the chosen few with whom I need to reconcile - my mother's mother, my only brother, my second child - I've always loved you, although that was rarely said aloud. So take forever, I guess better late than never proud. Listen.

PORTUGAL THE MAN: (Singing) I'm going to breathe in the bellows...

MOSLEY: That was "Fuel," by Tariq Trotter, also known as Black Thought, the co-founder of the rap group The Roots. He's written a new memoir titled "The Upcycled Self." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUEL")

PORTUGAL THE MAN: (Singing) Ashes in the bay. Never looking back until there's nothing in my way.

BLACK THOUGHT: (Rapping) Yo, identify with the dead or the living? I don't know. Maybe my people set up to fall like a domino. America the beautiful, go ask Geronimo. What's the worst they could do to you? I bet my mama know. I bet my father know Your Honor would throw the book at us. Even if justice wasn't blind, she'd never look at us. I want that clutch of what I could not touch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Let's get back to one of our favorite interviews from 2023, my interview with Tariq Trotter, Grammy Award-winning rapper and performer, also known as Black Thought. We talked about his new memoir, "The Upcycled Self: A Memoir On The Art Of Becoming Who We Are."

Trotter is the lead MC of The Roots, which he and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson founded after meeting as teens in high school. The group has won three Grammy Awards and is known as one of the top rap groups of all time. The Roots serve as the house band on NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." In addition to his music, Trotter is also a theater actor and writer, performing in the 2022 off-Broadway play "Black No More."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MOSLEY: What's your writing process? Are you putting your rhymes to paper from the start, or does it just start with an idea and a freestyle?

TROTTER: You know, the process is different from song to song. I'm constantly jotting down ideas - a word here, you know, a couplet there. But, yeah, for the most part, you know, my - the writing process is - yeah, you know, I sit down and I try and think of, you know, just different ways to either add on to or to, you know, continue to articulate the - just my origin story, you know? Sometimes I'll get the - 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, right? A song will eventually write itself after the 20, 30, 40th time that I've decided to sit and listen to this idea.

And then other times, you know, I'll get 32, 40, you know, 50 bars will just come without any sort of a musical inspiration. Then I have to find, you know, a fitting composition, you know, the best place for these words to sort of live. So, yeah, I'm just - I'm pulling my ideas out of the ether, you know? And I try and just remain dialed in, tapped in, attentive, alert, aware, conscious enough to - you know, to receive that inspiration and to recognize it when it comes 'cause it's all around you. Everything is a song, right? You know, so it's just about, you know, recognizing the gold.

MOSLEY: You and Questlove - I mean, you guys have been thick as thieves since high school.

TROTTER: Yeah.

MOSLEY: But you do tell this one story of a fight that you guys had that sort of changed your relationship. You've always been thick as thieves, but it sort of put, like, a little something on the relationship.

TROTTER: It did. It did. You know, yeah, you know, we had a brief sort of a scuffle, kerfluffle (ph), you know, little 30-second altercation when we were young and - you know, but we'd already...

MOSLEY: Young and just starting out. Yeah, you guys were, like, touring.

TROTTER: Yeah, we were young. We were just starting out. We were, you know, displaced, living in London. And, yeah, there was just lots of angst and anxiety associated with all - you know, all the energy associated with, you know, anyone's first time putting out, you know, a record - you know, a new record deal and just the unknown - all of the unknown that was associated with that.

So, yeah, you know, just the perfect storm of events, you know, led to us coming to blows right quick. And it was this sort of thing that - you know, it was over. I had given - you know, I'd forgotten about it before we left the place that, you know, that it had taken place. But I think it's the sort of thing that - yeah, it stuck with him in a different way, you know? Does he hold - is it a grudge that he's held? I don't think so. But I definitely don't think it's something that he, you know, has ever forgotten, you know what I mean? It...

MOSLEY: Well, he said to you, like, he's over it. But...

TROTTER: Yeah.

MOSLEY: And when you say you had a scuffle, you guys literally had a little bit of a physical altercation. And...

TROTTER: Yeah, yeah.

MOSLEY: ...He - but you've also seen him have, like, these deep, connective relationships with other MCs in the way that you all had that there's a little bit - a little part of you that feels like, was it because of that fight that, like, we aren't as connected as now he's connected to other people?

TROTTER: Yeah, yeah, I do. You know, there's a bit - you know what I'm saying? When someone is one of your closest friends, is someone who you - you know, you feel you know, is a brother, is a friend, is a comrade, is a collaborator - when there's that many levels to one's connection with someone or to someone, yeah, you know, we can - you can get, you know, possessive, you know, selfish, jealous. Like, all of those are real feelings and are valid, you know? So, yeah, there's been times - there are times when I feel all of that sort of thing.

MOSLEY: Well, Questlove has actually said that Jimmy Fallon is kind of responsible for rekindling your friendship because he says that when you all were offered the opportunity to be the house band for the show, you guys had kind of lost the magic of your friendship. This is like the mid-2000s. Is that how you remember it?

TROTTER: I don't remember us as having lost the magic as much as, you know, we were getting tired. I definitely recall that. I think, you know, at the point at which, you know, we met Jimmy, we had hit a stride of, you know, consistently 200-plus shows per year and all around the world and, you know, just lots of traveling. And we had just started to make a little bit of money. But there was also lots of uncertainty associated with just that period, right? There was a bit of a hamster wheel feeling - you know what I mean? - you know, "Groundhog Day" of it all. You know, what could we do differently? You know, how long would we be able to sort of keep up at this or at that pace?

MOSLEY: Yeah.

TROTTER: You know, those were all questions that I recall posing to myself and - you know, and to Rich and Ahmir. But, yeah, you know, the fact that once we started doing the, at the time, what was "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," you know, just having to spend time together every day in some way, shape or form and being on stage together every day, it was different. And it was - 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, you know, dressing rooms and stuff like that. And I do - I think, you know, that definitely contributed to - it's part of what, you know, contributes to our longevity, right? If you ask him today, he'll say, oh, separate tour buses. That's why, you know, The Roots is still here. But, yeah, so I think there's, you know, a gift in that, you know, ability to sort of spread out a little bit.

MOSLEY: And separate, yeah, to come back together.

TROTTER: There is a gift and a curse that lies - yeah. Right, you know?

MOSLEY: You're an old hat now at the "Tonight Show" gig, but did it take you a moment to, like, get into - it's almost like it's a regular job that you have to be at every day. And when you're touring, when you're a musician, it's - you're - you kind of have an entirely different life where you're on the road, but you've got to be there every single day, basically...

TROTTER: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Or every day of taping.

TROTTER: Yeah. Five days a week, we're there. And, you know, yeah, it took some getting used to. It's just sort of, you know, it was like giving up our touring schedule and, like, trading it for this, you know, the shooting schedule there. But, you know, the body and the mind just still, you know, having that desire to - you know, to go - right? - to travel. So yeah, it took a while to just get used to, you know, the routineness of it all. But again, you know, you talk about, you know, gifts, and I think there's more upside to us having this regular, like, this nine-to-five, this day - quote-unquote, "day job," if you will, then downside to it, you know what I'm saying? I'm able to spend more time with my family. You know, I come home to my kids every night and, you know, get to see my wife more. Yeah.

And The Roots, we - just the depth of our connection as musicians, as performers, as brothers, and again, just as comrades, I think is unmatched. And there's so much - like, I've always wanted to have that thing with, you know, with a group, with a crew, with a gang, a band where we're able to communicate without words, right? There's so much that's just unspoken, like, and it's a luxury to have someone that understands what it is that you're trying to articulate without it having to be said. And Ahmir and I have that. You know, Kamal and I have that. It's a bond that I'm able to enjoy with - or experience, you know, with members of The Roots, and I appreciate it, you know what I mean? Something that I cherish.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tariq Trotter, also known as Black Thought, co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning group The Roots. He's written a new memoir about his life called "The Upcycled Self." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today we're talking to Grammy Award-winning rapper and performer Black Thought, also known as Tariq Trotter, about his new memoir, "The Upcycled Self: A Memoir On The Art Of Becoming Who We Are." Trotter is the lead MC of The Roots, which he and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson founded after meeting as teens in high school. The group serves as the house band on NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." In addition to his music, Trotter is also a theater actor and writer, having performed in the off-Broadway play "Black No More."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCASRT)

MOSLEY: I read somewhere that older hip-hop artists are, right in this moment, getting more work than younger rap artists these days. I think that's pretty interesting. Maybe it's because we're nostalgic and we're in the 50th year of hip-hop, and, like, we want to see shows that really speak to...

TROTTER: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...That. The people with the money are middle-aged, and they're going to these shows.

TROTTER: Yep.

MOSLEY: But I'm really curious about your assessment of the music today. One thing that - one kind of music that it seems like every time it comes up people have polarizing thoughts about is drill music, which for those who don't know, drill music is kind of this subgenre of hip-hop out of Chicago that's really popular. What is your assessment of the music today - the hip-hop world and music today?

TROTTER: I mean, you know, my assessment is that it continues to grow. I think there's more variety out there, you know, musically than ever, right? So you talk about, you know, subgenres and, you know, the drill musics and then, you know, subgenres that those subgenres sort of spawn. And I think there's space for it all to exist, you know? In that, do I - I mean, I think, you know, there's lots of rappers, there's MCs. I think that a rapper and an MC are two different things. But again, I think there's space for both to exist...

MOSLEY: And how so?

TROTTER: ...Within this culture.

MOSLEY: Can you describe the distinction?

TROTTER: I mean, I think, you know, in brief, I think an MC is more - an MC is, you know, more concerned with acknowledgement of the foundation and that from which it came. An MC is more concerned with something, you know, cultural with hip-hop as a movement as opposed to, you know, something more surface. I think a rapper raps. An MC, you know, has been bestowed with and, you know, has accepted the responsibility and the honor that comes with, you know, becoming a griot or a bard of sorts - right? - a truth teller, one of the people who, you know, it's your job to let us know what's going on, you know what I'm saying? An MC - that's what - an MC lets you know what time it is, you know what I'm saying? And a rapper raps, you know what I'm saying? There's some MC who rap, and there's, you know, some rappers who rap just as well as MCs. But yeah, I think there is a, you know, there's a distinct difference.

MOSLEY: How do your kids view your music? You've got a couple.

TROTTER: Yeah. I've got a couple of kids. Most of my kids, you know, they like my music. They're into it. My older kids, you know, who are teenagers, 17, you know, ranging from 17 to 23 at this point, yeah, you know, they love my music. I think they like it fine. But they're into - I wouldn't say they're into my music. I think they appreciate it, but what draws young people into music - what drew me into hip-hop was that it was, you know, spoken in a language that, you know, people who were 30, 40, 50 years old didn't understand. So that's the whole point. It's about us being able to communicate, you know, with one another, you know, in an authentic way. So, yeah, I don't understand all the drill music or all the hip-hop music that young people are creating today because it's not for me. I don't think it's my place to understand it, but I appreciate it and I respect it.

And I remember when I was a young person and you know how, you know, people didn't understand what I was saying. If I played some of my - if I played, you know, "Organix," you know, at the time for someone who was - they may have liked the music, they may have appreciated the live instrumentation of it all, like, oh, wow, this is cool. I can get into that jazz music, but then it would always get to some point where they say, well, I don't know what the dude is talking about on there. Who - that's you talking there? You know what I'm saying? So it's the same thing. You know, this is - you know, we've become our parents and grandparents at this point, you know?

MOSLEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

TROTTER: So yeah, I say that to say it's not all for us.

MOSLEY: Your kids are living a very different life than you lived as a young person in Philadelphia. And that's a positive thing. I mean, you write about it in your book. Do they know about your story and the different parts of you? And how has it felt, if so, to be able to share those things with them?

TROTTER: My kids don't really know. I don't think they know about my story as much as they, you know, could or should. But again, it's - I haven't really impressed it upon them either - right? - you know, because it's not the sort of thing that I've worn on my sleeve. They just - I mean, I don't know. You know, I guess we - the ways in which we protect our kids - you know, sometimes, we withhold information. To say - and I talk about this in the book about how I'm still, you know, trying to figure out information, receiving information about exactly what - you know, what exactly happened in the case of my father's murder, right? So I think they're going to continue to - you know, to hear sort of, again, about the pieces of the puzzle that, you know, make me.

And I think over time, they'll get into it. I think they'll appreciate the fact that, yeah, I was able to tell this story, you know, but probably further down the line. You know, right now, my kids - they feel oblivious to a lot of what's going on, a lot of what's happened in my life and a lot of, you know, what's happened in the world. And I think there is a - you know, there's a certain level of privilege, you know, associated with that, the bliss of that ignorance. You know what I mean? And sometimes I find myself, you know, just wishing they had just a tougher way to go, you know.

MOSLEY: Do you feel good, though, that you've been able to provide them with that privilege?

TROTTER: I definitely feel good that I've been able to provide them with that privilege, you know, in many ways. You know what I'm saying? Because I never, you know, as a kid - yeah. I didn't know what I was going to wind up doing or how long I was going to even, you know, live, right? That's the sad truth. Lots of us didn't think we - we couldn't see ourselves making it past 25 or 30 just because we didn't know that many people who had. You know, and then the people - you know, it was almost as if a generation had been skipped, because I knew people who were my grandparents' age. And I had, you know, friends and classmates who were my age. But, you know, the drug epidemic in the '80s took a whole generation of people out of here. So it was like, you know, oh, where do you see yourself at 30? And I would say, who's 30? Who made it? I don't know. Who's - who made it to 30? You know what I mean?

MOSLEY: Tariq Trotter, thank you so much for this conversation.

TROTTER: Oh, no. Thank you. Tonya. This has been a great conversation. And yeah, I'm excited. I can't wait to hear.

MOSLEY: Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, on his new book, "The Upcycled Self: A Memoir On The Art Of Becoming Who We Are."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SEED 2.0")

TROTTER: (Rapping) Knocked up nine months ago. And what she finna have? She don't know. She want neo-soul. This hip-hop is old. She don't want no rock 'n' roll. She want platinum or ice and gold. She want a whole lot of something to fold. If you a obstacle, she just drop you cold 'cause one monkey don't stop the show. Little Mary is bad, and these streets she done ran ever since when the heat began. I told her, girl, look here. Calm down. I'mma hold your hand to enable you to peep the plan 'cause you's quick to learn. And we can make money to burn if you allow me the lay this game. I don't ask for much but enough room to spread my wings. And the world finna know my name.

CODY CHESNUTT: (Singing) I don't ask for much these days.

MOSLEY: Coming up, critic Nick Quah takes a look back at the year in podcasts. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley is a co-host of Fresh Air. She's also the host of the award-winning podcast Truth Be Told, and a correspondent and former host of Here & Now, the midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR.