May 11, 2023
Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter's upcoming memoir delves into his often tragic childhood in Philadelphia and rise to fame as the co-founder and emcee of the Roots.
In "The Upcycled Self," to be published Nov. 14, the Philly rapper narrates a "riveting and moving portrait of the artist as a young man," telling stories of four relationships that shaped him as a man and an artist, according to a summary from Penguin Random House. The vignettes explore themes of love, discovery, trauma and loss.
Black Thought was born in Mount Airy in 1971, the youngest child of Thomas and Cassandra Trotter, who were members of the Nation of Islam. Before Black Thought reached his first birthday, his father was found dead in a Germantown alleyway. Black Thought has described his father as a good, kind and chivalrous man who was feared by members of the Northwest Philly community, where he spent most of his life.
When he was 6 years old, Black Thought accidentally burned down the apartment where his family lived while using a lighter to melt green plastic Army men. Though he'd done it previously, the lighter got too hot and burned his hand, so he flung it away, unexpectedly causing the curtains to catch fire.
The fire department was able to control the blaze, but Black Thought's 14-year-old brother, Keith, accused some of the firefighters of stealing jewelry and smashing picture frames. Keith got into a fight with one of the firefighters and was arrested. According to the memoir, the years that followed this experience were "the story of a life snatched from the flames, forged in fire."
Though Black Thought has not gone into much detail about his father's death and his mother's subsequent struggle with drug addiction, he alluded to them while freestyle rapping at the Harvard University Innovation Lab in 2016, saying, "What my father was into sent him to his early grave, then mom started chasing that base like Willie Mays."
"The justice system in Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania was never on my side," Black Thought said during "7 Years," an episode of Audible's Words + Music series. "I grew up cognizant of certain dangers, one being the ever-present possibility of the risk of arrest. But that hasn't changed. All of the stuff I was concerned about living in Philadelphia when I was a young person, to my young son, my young nephew, my young relatives and family member who's on the streets of Philadelphia right now, they need to (be) concerned about the same stuff."
When he was 12, Black Thought was arrested after being caught tagging a South Philly park. He was sentenced to work with the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network under Jane Golden, now the executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. Black Thought, who is on the organization's board of directors, has said his passion for visual arts helped him gain entry to the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where he met Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and formed the Square Roots in 1987.
As a teenager, Black Thought briefly moved to Detroit and was caught by his relatives selling crack cocaine. Shortly after he returned to Philly his mother, who had developed an addiction during the height of the crack epidemic, was stabbed to death. She was found in a city morgue after having gone missing for more than a week. After two trials, the man who stabbed her was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
"It sort of renewed a drive within myself that just made me more determined to make whatever it was that I was going to do pop," Black Thought told NPR in 2018. "I didn't think I was going to become a professional musician until after I lost my mom. That's when I decided this is what I wanted to do."
He described the Roots as a "family" and remarked that Questlove and his family supported him after he lost his mother. In 1994, a few years after Questlove and Black Thought formed the Roots, the band released its debut album, "Organix."
The hip-hop group which has released 14 studio albums and two live albums, is best known for 1999's "Things Fall Apart," 2002's "Phrenology" and 2004's "The Tipping Point." Questlove and Black Thought are widely regarded as some of the most legendary artists in hip-hop's 50-year history.
Last fall, an unreleased song was teased on a New York City radio show but no plans for a release have been announced. Both Black Thought and Questlove have dedicated most of their time to solo projects.
Last month, Black Thought released "Glorious Game," a collaborative album made with El Michels Affair. It marked his second collaboration album released in the past year, following 2022's "Cheat Codes" with record producer Danger Mouse. Prior to those releases, Black Thought wrapped up acting in an off-Broadway run of "Black No More," an adaptation of George S. Schuyler's 1931 novel of the same name. (He also wrote lyrics to the music.)
The Roots will host the 2023 Roots Picnic at the Mann Center and co-headline the festival with Diddy and Lauryn Hill from June 2–4. The lineup also includes Lil Uzi Vert, Dave Chappelle, Eve, Busta Rhymes, City Girls and the Isley Brothers. There are still some general admission tickets left.
"The Upcycled Self" is currently available for pre-order in hardback, e-book and audiobook form.