A perfect Christmas blessing this season, and closure to the year end, is the magnum opus freestyle Black Thought (of The Roots) graced humanity with – via Ciroc Studios and Funk Flex – earlier this December. For those of you who are fans of Hip Hop – actual Hip Hop – meaning bars, boom-bap, and lyrical mastery, you’ll definitely appreciate this 10 minute saga as Black Thought went in like a Hwasong-12 , over the furious Mobb Deep street banger “Burn” instrumental:
That freestyle was basically the lyrical version of this clip below, from the first Kingsman film:
He pretty much served out such massacre, to anybody in present day comin’ through thinking they’re about to body some shit, on some “Yo I’m that dude!! I’m the truth!!!” NO. Reconsider that idea, my dudes. You can even see Funk Flex in these pictures below sharing the same sentiment. Look at his face: it’s the same response as the kid in the Kingsman clip watching the whole massacre go down (if you’re familiar with the Kingsman film, even better – it’s that much more relative).
(Funk Flex’s “Faces of Astonishment and Approval,” respectively)
Notice Black Though’s face, though. It’s like “Meh, I’m doing what I usually do.” Indeed. I’ve been talking about this freestyle unofficially, with peers, other lyricist and enthusiasts alike. I’ve even been doing conference calls debating which existing rapper meets this caliber of skill. I’ve gotten the same general response from most heads: “You act like this is the first time he [Black Thought] did something like this.” It makes me happy to get that reaction, as someone who was heavily involved in the hip-hop scene of the early 2000’s- but not everybody’s had such privileged access to gems such as gratuitous Black Thought freestyles. The cultural climate was different back then. Substance and craftsmanship meant something to the artist and audience alike. Somebody would “KRS-One you,” if your skills weren’t up to standard. If you don’t get that reference, I will pray for you – especially if you’re a rapper in present day, as your time might be very limited. Do your due digging in them crates.
If you happen to be a casual Hip-Hop or pop culture voyeur, you will probably just identify with Black Thought as “Oh, that rapper from The Tonight Show Band, The Roots” and such. What you really should know, however, is that Black Thought is a BEAST of an MC, on the level of something like an Obi Wan Kenobi – mentor to many true devoted MC’s and wordsmiths in the Hip-Hop culture, including myself. This is greatly due to the strength of the neglected constituent in Hip-Hop lyrical wizardry: the freestyle.
The power of the freestyle in Hip-Hop, was always a certification of authenticity that distinguished the mice from the men. What distinguishes this Black Thought freestyle from any other “freestyle,” in present day though, is that for starters, it could be arguable that some of the material is actually “off the top” – which is nearly an extinct art form in itself, in modern Hip-Hop. Alas, to the rescue is Tariq Trotter, The Roots vocalist/lyricist, to reassure the world that Hip Hop is indeed very much alive through the delivery of his 10 minute spit session.
I’m sure many can cosign my standpoint, that this freestyle spoke on behalf of every true Hip-Hop lyricist, performance MC, and “back-packer” Hip-Hop nerd on the face of this Earth. For ten minutes, that session basically said, “Don’t worry y’all, Hip-Hop is safe with us. Oh, yeah, but for all y’all unofficial motherfuckers, it ain’t safe no more.”
You can’t speak in terms of Hip-Hop and be considered to have a shred of credibility unless you speak of Black Thought. Let’s discuss exactly why he’s so ill, and how very briefly. It’s very important to differentiate between how and why with my reasoning. He’s one of the illest because he unintentionally secures his assertion as the illest. That’s how he does it: naturally. He isn’t in the game as an attempt to show you how superior his level of skill is. Instead, he shows you that – unintentionally – by enjoying himself at something that he does by nature, effortlessly. You can tell he has so much respect, love, and loyalty for the craft, and what it means to hold the title of “MC,” with “master” being the first word of that abbreviation. The authenticity and sincerity is present in every element of what he’s doing: the lyrics, the delivery, the flow, the cadence, the TRUTH. It’s all there.
Again, look at those photos above. His behavior is like second nature. He’s in his element. You can tell the idea of “The MC” meant something to him like it did to KRS-One, until the level of mastery was achieved. Many of today’s “MCs” are so detached and unfamiliar with the craftsmanship of what an MC is, that they will never even make it to the level of mediocrity. They’re not even decent enough to be mediocre. This is because they have no foundation to build from, and nobody calling them out on their weak bullshit bars. They’re too far from the true blueprint to develop into full blown masters, and the ears are too clogged with garbage to tell the real from the unofficial. Many of today’s MC’s haven’t acquired the knowledge, and it’s questionable if they ever will – or worse – if they even care to, indicating that they truly have zero respect for the craft that they assume relevance in. In all seriousness, most of today’s self proclaimed MCs, couldn’t spit if they were forced to gargle with sulfuric acid. Real talk.
Somewhere in Japan, there’s a Hip-Hop back-packer wearing a “Jesus Piece” on a Cuban link, but with Black Thought’s head on it instead, etc. That ten minute freestyle basically bodied the entire catalog of most of these “sucka MC’s” of today. Even the ones that people consider “nice.” They aren’t doing what Black Thought just did. They can’t. It’s a specific continuation of the hip-hop hierarchy lineage that rappers today just aren’t preserving, or have any interest in. The word play (“I told you, keep out the hood: circumcise), the connection of ideas (Took a golf cart / to the Baccarat / from the Waldorf / What was on the wall / that depend on what you call art / I’m a say 300k ain’t even in the ball park / I charge more / for just awkward / small talk), and the whole flow itself, as it’s own instrument. Heads can’t really do much of that today like it was continued in the past by the likes of Black Thought or a Pharaohe Monch (of Organized Konfusion), for example. That’s a Jazz element in Hip-Hop, or just a music theory element altogether. Cats nowadays have no knowledge of that, whether learned, or inherent, and they don’t care to learn, but they better get up on it fast, weak-ass rappers.
Rakim, Kool G Rap, and others had long established the multi-syllabic, internal rhyme patterns and intricacy of visual ideas, so it isn’t a new element of hip-hop, by any means. The point is, when those gems were being dropped, those that understood, were there to collect and keep it movin’ into the future. Those that weren’t, would never dare enter the ring with those that did. We kept a certain preservation of purity with that practice. Here in New York, many local Hip-Hop pillars of the new school honored the Hip-Hop culture by preserving these ideas. Crews like Natural Elements (Mr. Voo-doo, L-Swift, and A-Butta, collectively), and MC’s like L-Swift especially, (who currently goes by Swigga Da Don) had shined with these rhyme style/flow techniques as early as age 16 – already full blown vet in the NYC underground – long before Eminem had been crowned king of the lyrical word/flow patterns.
Hopefully in 2018 this becomes a trend that many MC’s of today choose to follow. There used to be a drive, a desire to be the greatest, and to display to the world exactly what that was, so it was identifiable. It is now very unfamiliar to not only the rapper, but to the audience as well. Sharpen your swords, y’all and level up. I ask myself the same thing Black Thought says in his freestyle, as I wonder “how we got so far from inspired.” Thank you, for bridging the gap, Mr. “Talented Mr. Trotter.” Salute.
If you love Hip-Hop genuinely, it’s almost like a sworn oath to accept no substitute for anything less than official. We can’t stand for unofficial B.S. in 2018, and onward. I leave you with this thought, as I wish you a happy and resonant New Year. Vibrate and Resonate.