Black Thought is a rap artist that has very few peers in the streets or the music industry. Bar or bar, the Roots lead emcee continues to push it to the limit, essentially rising to godlike levels. After 20 years-plus years of rhyming in an assortment of capacities, most recently, he has released the third installment of Streams Of Thought. This time, Thought linked with veteran producer Sean C, a legend in his own right. The results are stellar.
Streams of Thought Vol. 3: Cane and Able is a dazzling display of production, lyricisms, and dedication to the Art of Hip-Hop. In this conversation with Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur, Black Thought and Sean C reveal all that it took for them to delve so deep into the creative process. On top of that, the pair make a number of startling revelations like Thought rapping with Beanie Sigel in elementary school, to Sean C making unheard revelations about Jay-Z to the friction between The Roots and The Fugees and so much more. This is a timeless classic interview, destined to be archived in the Library of Congress. Jokes aside, Streams of Thought Vol. 3: Cane and Able proves – once again – that rap music is capable of the highest levels of musical genius.
AllHipHop: You look happy [Black Thought] You got a glow, man.
Black Thought: Thanks, Chuck. I’m about two years sober. I think I think that makes a difference. Sometimes I forget. I’m like, what are people talking about? For all of 2019 and 2020, no alcohol, no smoke, none. Now, if I could just, you know, knock these cakes and cookies out. That’s my only vice right now is the bakery.
I would go cold turkey at the top of every year for quite a few years now. And it stopped presenting a challenge for me. So just to try and challenge myself a little bit more at the top of 2019 just like let me see if I could go you know, sort of past June. I would go up until May, June every year. So I said “you know, it’s most tricky to make it through the summer. And then through, you know, holiday season everybody’s birthdays. And I did it and then you know, I turned around and in December it will be two years.
AllHipHop: Did the pandemic help?
Black Thought: The pandemic put the pressure on. I was close to folding. My wife keeps the good and she’s not on the same type time.
AllHipHop: Y’all came together for Streams of Thought, this is the third installment. It’s interesting, because you’re in Oregon [Sean C], and you’re in 30 Rock and sober for two years? Every time you talk about rappers, first of all, you got to be in the city. And you got to be smoking or drinking. But this a project. It’s so intense, it’s heavy. How did these things factor and what was your creative process, you know, and coming together?
Black Thought: Off the top for me, I’m able to better compartmentalize, whatever it is that I have to do. I can keep more plates in the rotation. Multiple irons in the fire, the more lucid I am. So being sober has helped for the year so that I was dug in pre-COVID. Since the pandemic, I feel like I’m sort of went into overdrive, creatively. The output it’s been outstanding.
We grew up in a studio, Sean, and myself, and probably you too for our youths, and the formative stage, the developmental stages of our career. For all intents and purposes, the studio was our church. So it took some getting used to, it was like a leap of faith to abandon the brick and mortar. And it was something that I considered for quite some time. But just being forced to make something out of nothing. I wasn’t able to leave the crib, I had to sort of just get my setup going at home.
I just been super productive man since definitely, since February, March. But before then, I’ve been able to sort say this, one particular thing that I’m thinking or working on or writing is for something super specific. And for, however, the amount of time that I’m carving out to deal with it, I could deal with it and then in this sort of move on. I’ve been working on a musical, writing a play, and composing arranging for that joint for a few years now as well for like the past five years or so. So I think that some of the conditioning came from that, being able to sort of pivot between disciplines, you know,
AllHipHop: Before I asked Sean, the next question, I got to talk about the play. I’m sure you saw Hamilton’s success. Did that help at all? In developing this play?
Black Thought: The success of Hamilton, just the possibilities that Hamilton sort of presented, you know to me, as far as the expansion of my horizon and my appreciation for musical theater, and musicals specifically. And, you know, just what that potential was. Had it not been for Hamilton my only point of reference would have been, “West Side Story and Grease.” Those are classics.
But if you get into anything where the dialogue is rap, it’s always been an immediate sort of, turn off for me, and I just shut down. Because I mean, people have attempted and it hasn’t resonated with me, I’m not gonna say what someone did was bad or good. It had yet to resonate with me before Hamilton. So the fact that we got to executive produce two albums for Hamilton, one that just went, like, seven times platinum, won awards, just my association with that project, it was a blessing to watch it sort of come to fruition from this small Off-Broadway thing, to history that was made.
That definitely added fuel to the fire. Hamilton is where I sort of set the bar. I set out to create something that was going to be as dope as Hamilton or better. Hamilton became the bar. My show, which is called “Black No More,” were associated with the Hamilton project in some way shape before as well. So it’s been a blessing.
AllHipHop: Do you have a concept of it?
Black Thought: It’s, it’s an afro-futurist satire. It’s set in Harlem in 1929, going into 1930. It’s a love story, hilarity and drama, and tragedy. Imagine if someone created a machine that for $50, could, turn black people white. That’s what takes place and during the Harlem Renaissance, with the depression looming. It is based on a novel that was written by George Schuler, and it came out in 1932.
AllHipHop: Sean, give us some history on yourself and also how it is to work with Black Thought on this project in relationship to the other artists and the other greats that you’ve dealt with?
Sean C.: It was really easy, man, we’ve known each other for so long that it wasn’t. The task for me was to just try to figure out how am I going to scope this to make this stand out and make this different? Or make it have its own life. That was more so the tasks that I had in mind, and the responsibility I took. I’ve worked with Jay Z, multiple times, myself and LB producing American Gangster and the songs on that album, I also worked on Jay’s first record as an A&R.
I’ve always worked with artists that have had a vision that is different than what you would say the “ordinary” rapper would, would be speaking about, the place that he’s coming from, or had extraordinary skill. So I’ve been blessed with that, as far as throughout my career. So I always look at how the projects could be even more could speak as a total thought. From dead prez and making sure that their vision was translated correctly and it will be palatable to as many people as possible. I think, a lot of artists get pigeonholed and people look at them a certain way.
AllHipHop: Did you set up that Jay-Z dead press situation?
Sean C.: I actually didn’t. What’s interesting about that, is before Jay-Z, Nas was supposed to be on that album. Nas was looked at as this forward thinker, pro-black positive person. Jay-Z was always looked at as the hustling dude. But for me, I already know everyone’s minds. We all come from similar places. Jay was the one that ended up being on the record.
AllHipHop: How did you guys link up? Like, how did this project come to life? Um, was it in the studio together? Were you sending tracks back and forth? What was the process?
Sean C.: The first one that we did was “Thought Versus Everybody.” That’s the very first song that we did. I called him after I heard the flex freestyle just to give to show him love. And after that compensation, we got in the studio, We were supposed to start at 3:00. Tariq was there at 2:57. By five 3:15, 3:20, he was in the booth already.
AllHipHop: Tariq, you rap like a man possessed. What’s driving you right now at this point? I mean, this illustrious career and these lyrics.
Black Thought: I am kind of possessed, you know. And for me, the drive is passion. I do it for us. The Chuck Creekmurs, the Sean C.’s, the RZA, GZA, people who are cut from the same cloth, from the same sort of graduating class who appreciate a similar aesthetic, the people who made me want to do what it is that I do. And the people who got in the game around the time that I got in the game. Everybody didn’t stand the test of time. So, for those of us who still here, I feel like it’s a bigger responsibility than ever.
Back in the 90s, early aughts, it was a bunch of people popping, it was a broad spectrum of like to sort of choose from of what we consider Hip-Hop. And that type of artist, that feel of production, and writing and delivery is far, far more few and just further between. So I just feel it my responsibility while it’s still me, while I can still do it. And while I know I’m continuing to just get better. If we still improve, and then we might as well put it out because this is for us. What I’m looking for, what I’m checking for the music that’s going to move me and resonate with me, it’s not a lot of people putting that out.
So if I’m able to set that example, then that what I’m doing. It does inspire some of the younger artists and show them how it’s done. And it’s like a wake-up call for a lot of these young cats. It gets them on the game in a different way, like, over beats, with bars. So that’s why I do it.
AllHipHop: Did you guys ever consider bringing it down a little bit ever? Cause production-wise, it’s really complex too.
Sean C.: I mean, that’s not even a thought turning anything down. It’s just what feels right. I do what I do. And Tariq’s the perfect person. We see things like-minded, as far as sonically. We can talk about old Hip-Hop records and the compensation won’t be lost. I don’t think there was ever a thought for myself production-wise, that we need to dumb it down. We are not trying to fit in, we’re being creative, what we like, and what we feel is pushing it forward more than anything.