The Roots' Black Thought on His First Solo Project and Being Independent: It's 'The Tip of the Iceberg'


The Roots frontman Black Thought rocked the industry last month when he announced that not only was he releasing his first-ever solo project project, he was also teaming up with producer 9th Wonder to do it. When Streams Thought Vol. 1 arrive earlier this month with five concise yet superb songs, fans begged for more — and judging by the title, it’s clear that there’s certainly more to come.

Billboard sat down with Black Thought and J. Erving, the founder distributor Human-Re-Sources, to talk about how Streams Thought came to fruition, how this album ended up on Human-Re-Sources, and how Black Thought feels about being called a legend.

How did the two you connect?

J. Erving: We're family from the Philly days. There's this tight-knit community musicians and executives in Philly, and Shawn Gee, who manages Tariq and The Roots, is one my best friends. He connected us on this project, so it's an honor to be able to be the distribution company choice for something this magnitude and status.

What else is coming up through Human-Re-Sources?

J. Erving: Yeah, we got a lot cool stuff coming up. I think with the success YBN, Brent Faiyaz, Charlotte Lawrence, and some the things we've put out to date, there's been a lot interest in what it is that we're doing. As a company, we just wanted to attach ourselves to things that we really believe in and are passionate about. Having the ability to work with a legend is also huge for us.

Black Thought, how do you feel about being called a legend?

Black Thought: It is what it is. The Roots have been around such a long time. It's such a broad range music, I feel like the work sort speaks for itself. So in my personal opinion, I definitely feel like I'm a legendary emcee, and I also feel like we're a legendary brand, which is why I started rebranding ourselves years ago by saying “The Legendary Roots Crew,” which is how we're introduced on The Tonight Show. I feel like I'm a legendary emcee and this is “The Legendary Roots Crew,” and you have to work for that legend, you know?

You’ve teased solo projects for years. Why did you finally decide to release a solo body work now?

Black Thought: Now is the right time because I'm a free agent. I'm independent, and The Roots are independent. I'm in a good creative space. I'm in a good space business-wise and career-wise here with The Tonight Show. It just made perfect sense to put out some music, both aa follow-up to the Hot 97 freestyle from the end last year and as a palate cleanser and appetizer for The Roots album to come. It made perfect sense. It's never made better sense than it does now.

What held you back previously? Was it a label situation, or did you just now feel it was the right time to step out and do something solo?

Black Thought: I feel like it's a combination both. We had a regular label experience and went through what most artists sort go through. It never felt right, you know? None projects that I began, from Masterpiece Theater to stuff with Danger Mouse — it never felt like the ideal time to hit people with it, so that's why none that stuff ever saw the light day.

How did you decide to work with 9th Wonder?

Black Thought: 9th and I are friends. He's an artist who's hugely inspired by The Roots, and we toured with Little Brother early on. I've watched him grow as a producer and as an influencer into a hip-hop icon. I've always respected what it is he's done. He's a master what he does, and I think his specialty is a certain boom-bap. It's a rarity in the current climate.

Why only five songs?

Black Thought: I feel like we just needed to wet people's whistles and see where everyone was at with it. We happen to drop at a time where the entire model is changing. I felt it changing from the more traditional full-length recording to a handful three to five minute songs. I think anything about 15 minutes is considered an album at this point. It wasn't my intention to say, “Hey, here's my solo album with more to come.” It was to get people ready to receive the entire series. This is the tip the iceberg.

There are no hooks on the entire project. Was that planned from the beginning?

Black Thought: That wasn't the plan. It's just the way it came out. There were a couple other songs that we had recorded that didn't necessarily make the initial cut. A couple those joints had choruses, but I'm not as concerned with the tried-and-true song structure. I'm going for a different feel, and the different feel comes from the arrangement.

How do you find time to work on this particular project alongside The Tonight Show and all your other responsibilities?

Black Thought: We make time for the things that are important to us. I'm inspired. I'm fearless. An unspoken level competition to succeed and diversify your brand. So when I see my friends winning James Beard Awards and Pulitzer Prizes, it motivates me to get it. I feel like I've yet to achieve all that I set out to achieve at the beginning my career. To be in a band with the other founding members that never sleep is inspiring. Questlove put out five books a year and deejays every night and still do the same day job that I do, only with more responsibility. It drives me to find a way to juggle it.

You mentioned that there are other volumes. Can you give us some insight? Are you working with 9th again, or will other producers involved?

Black Thought: I think it's a little both, because 9th and I, we definitely have more music to put out. Whether that's going to be Streams Thought Vol. 2 or another 9th Wonder joint has yet to be determined. I've been working with lots producers.

J., when you hear the response to this particular project and the attention that it could bring to Human Re-Sources, how excited do you feel?

J. Erving: I'm a fan first. I was patiently waiting along with everyone else. What we're building, it expands ourselves and speaks to the fact that someone who has the ability to get a record deal anywhere can take this route and have our support, from a distribution perspective. It also puts some pressure on us to make sure that it's right and we service them proper. We're super grateful and excited about what's to come.

Have you ever thought about doing a joint project with another emcee instead another producer?

Black Thought: I have. That's definitely a possibility for another installation Streams Thought. There are some other emcees that I'm working with and some other emcees who also produce. It might just be me collaborating with another rapper who is rapping over a beat, or it might be me teaming up with another rapper to exchange bars. Yeah, I feel the possibilities are endless, especially because it's an independent platform. I'm able to do whatever we decide we want to do. We can do it.

What are your thoughts on ageism in hip-hop? This year, we've had Royce 5’9″, Phonte, and other rappers and artists over 40 producing some amazing music and challenging the idea that hip-hop is a young man's game.

Black Thought: I'm anti-ageism in the arts. I feel there's space for us to coexist. I feel like the youthful experience is what drives the creativity, and I feel like experience and maturity as an adult, experience as an elder statesman, that refines it. So we're certainly both ends the spectrum.

Do we have a sense when Vol. 2 is coming?

Black Thought: Vol. 2 is coming soon, but it has to be right. So we gotta curate this experience the same way we did with Vol. 1, and so much comes into play beyond the music. For me, getting the music recorded is the easy part, and then that's when the hard part begins. So that's where we're at. That being said, Vol. 2 is coming soon.