Interview: The Roots’ Black Thought On Being A “Rap Athlete” & Lipton’s Be More Tea Festival

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The Roots’ Black Thought isn’t the type to roll up in a white Bentley. Nor is he rocking shiny Rolex wristwear or any other flamboyant gear. The Philly native’s forte is simply spazzing on the mic. And word in these hip-hop streets is that some of your favorite rappers think twice about jumping in the lab with Black Thought.

Thought’s habit of slaughtering the mic has garnered him a career that spans more than two decades. He recenty added another highlight to his already prolific career when The Roots performed at Lipton Tea’s Be More Tea festival in Charleston, South Carolina (Oct. 24).

“The Roots brand is like the Lipton of hip-hop, so to speak, “Black Thought said. “Lipton is celebrating their 125th anniversary. They’ve become an American tradition, and we’ve been going strong for 25 years.”

Coming off a stellar performance at this year’s BET Cypher, Black Thought phoned VIBE while weaving in and out of New York City traffic to discuss rap battling his homies, Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), recording with Nas and Scarface, and The Roots upcoming performance at the Be More Tea Festival. Take it away, B.T.

VIBE: That was an interesting cypher at the BET Awards. Far different from the one you did back in 2011.
Black Thought: In 2011, it was different because I was performing with my peers, Eminem and Mos Def, so compared to this one, it was two different MC worlds. That [in 2011] was an unspoken competition, a friendly competition. This time, it definitely wasn’t the competition that it was then. It was more relaxed. I wasn’t trying to kill everybody.

Speaking of Mos, did you chop it with him before he called out damn near every MC in the game?
If you know Mos Def and you follow the statements that he makes, he issues this same challenge every year or two, and it’s been an evolving list of artists that he’d like to join him but I’m always on that list. He’d say, ‘Me, Black Thought and Pharaoh Monche against everybody.’ Or it’ll be, ‘Me, Black Thought and MF Doom are going to meet at the fifty-yard line…” I wasn’t surprised that he re-issued his challenge but I was surprised on that day.

READ: Mos Def & Friends Versus Everybody: Yasiin Bey Issues An Epic Challenge To All Rappers

Do you rock with Chance The Rapper like that?
I’m just a little familiar with Chance [The Rapper]. I was more surprised that there was an artist that he included in our hypothetical supergroup that I wasn’t that familiar with so I did a little more research and Chance is nice. That would make for a nice team. It was what it is. None of the artists that he accepted are artists that I’d want to battle. I think it would be pointless to battle my contemporaries.

We know that’s your man but fans would love to see that sh*t. It would all be in fun and competition.
Yeah, it’s a lot of stuff that the fans would love to see but I’m just not that into exhibition matches. A war is a war so if it’s someone that I have an issue with or someone that I feel has a problem with me, or someone doubtful of the level of lyricism that I’m dealing with then it would be more of coming from a place of having something to prove but Lupe [Fiasco] is my youngin’. He respects me. It’s not something that I can fake. I can’t fake battle anybody.

Since we’re on this subject, is it true that Noreaga didn’t want to spit behind you?
Yeah, that’s true. It was me, Sean Price, M1 from dead prez, this guy named Illa Ghee, Lil’ Fame from M.O.P. and N.O.R.E. had came in with two of his artists. Everybody had spit and it was N.O.R.E’s turn to spit and he was like, ‘For what, Black Thought already used all the words.’

Do you feel overlooked as a MC?
Nah, I don’t feel overlooked, underappreciated, or none of that because it’s a short list of artists, past and present, that I kind of have respect for. And in all of those situations, the admiration and respect is mutual. That’s what I care about. The people who I feel are the best to do it consider me one of the best as well. I’m in great company and some may say that the underexposure has added to my allure and the staying power of me as a MC and The Roots as a band. We’ve been doing this decade after decade and some artists haven’t stood the test of time in that way so it kind of adds on the intrigue.

Is MCs not wanting to get in the lab with other MCs something that happens often?
Hell yeah. It happens all the time, man. Artists have featured me on records with them and send me a message like, ‘Why you have to do me like that?’ I’m not going to start naming names but it’s a lot of artists that I got a lot of respect for, who we’ve been constantly talking for years about getting in the lab together but what’s been holding them back is that unspoken competition and them saying they don’t want me to kill them in the studio. But I’m never coming from a place of animosity or sportsmanship. It’s more about being a rap athlete, I guess.

What’s up with new music from The Roots?
Yeah, we’re working on new music. We always working on new music, so yes new music is coming out. When it’s coming out? It’s hard to say.

READ: The Deeply Rooted, Self-Deprecating Genius Of Scarface

When can we see you and Nas or Scarface on a track?
You know what? I was in the studio some years ago working on some Nas stuff for one of his records. He wasn’t in the lab with me at the time but whatever I wrote and recorded didn’t make the cut. I don’t know if it was one of them situations like it wasn’t what he was looking for or it wasn’t up to par or if he wasn’t able to come up with something that was comparable. I got some stuff with ‘Face already recorded.

Word? Are you and ‘Face releasing music soon?
It’s just something that we sitting on right now. The idea was to incorporate some other MC and do that supergroup thing that Mos was talking about but so far, it’s just me and ‘Face. Initially, he was talking about doing something with me, him, and Killer Mike. Then most recently, he was like, “We should do some sh*t with Ice Cube.” So, yeah, you can expect it to be Scarface, myself, and some other MC that represents another region of the country.

That’ll be dope. The Roots are also playing at this year’s Be More Tea Festival.
Yes, we’re playing the festival celebrating Lipton’s 125th anniversary. It’s called the Be More Festival in Charleston, South Carolina on October 24th. We’re real excited because it’s not often that we get a chance to play in South Carolina, especially in recent years having our Tonight Show commitment.

What’s your favorite songs to perform?
Some of my favorites are the classics like “What They Do,” ““Proceed,” You Got Me,” and “Silent Treatment.” It’s weird. We perform a specific song from a specific record then we get tired of them and re-create a whole set. But there are some songs that the audience will feel a certain kind of way if we didn’t perform.