Black Thought is almost assuredly crazy. He may not admit it, but he has operated at the highest zeniths of creative genius more consistently, over time, than most of his peers. Producer Sean C is admittedly in a different space now, owning the fact he has morphed into an another being since his days as a founding member of DJ legends The Executioners. Both otherworldly goats generously give their creative keys in this AllHipHop interview with Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur. The pair talk everything from the benefits of sobriety to Elvis as an unwitting influence.
AllHipHop: You look happy [Black Thought] You got a glow, man.
Black Thought: Thanks, Chuck. I’m about two years sober. 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. 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 definitely close to folding. My wife she 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 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 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 the some of the conditioning came from that, being able to sort of pivot between disciplines, you know.
AllHipHop: Before I ask Sean, the next question, I got to talk about the play. I’m sure saw the Hamilton success. Did that help at all? In developing this play you are working on?
Black Thought: The success of Hamilton, just the, 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 been resonate with me, I’m not gonna say what someone did was bad or good. It had yet to resonate with me, personally, 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 for 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 this 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 throughout my career. So I always look at how the projects could be even more could speak as a as a total thought. From dead prez and making sure that their vision was 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 prez situation?
Sean C.: I actually didn’t. What’s 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 and not Nas.
AllHipHop: How did you guys link up? Like, how did this project come to life? 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[love], to show him love. And after that, 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 the drive is, 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 deen 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 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. We’re not trying to fit in. We’re not trying to go back.
Black Thought: Now. Okay, good. Now, I was just gonna say, yeah, everything. It came to be in an organic sort of way. Like it was no, and that’s what I appreciate about the way you know, that Shawn and I work together is some, you know, stuff just comes out. You know, I mean, just supernaturally There’s not a lot of, you know, after thought and, you know, thinking about the way it’s gonna be received or any of that. It’s like, you know, this is a natural representation of, you know, who he and I are, as artists, and you know, as, as, as a, you know, pillars of this this community, this thing that we call Hip-Hop. Um, so, yeah, no, I would never thought about dumbing it down to fit in. And because this, you know, was the perfect fit. This is us. And I think what resonates the most with folks, you know, people can identify with the truth, you know, what I mean, and, you know, it’s easy to smell a fake. So for me to write, I mean, like, Sean could do production, that’s more on par with some of the sparse sounding, you know, music that that’s currently trending, or some of the newest stuff and, and I could rap, you know, and however, but, you know, that’s, that’s, it’s not gonna be me So I think, what is most important, especially at this stage of the game, like when you don’t have anything to prove, man, you just got to remain true to yourself. So it’s something that’s very authentic and organic.
AllHipHop: Okay, what? What do you think about the Hip-Hop landscape in general right now? I don’t actually don’t have a problem with it, you know, what I’m saying? My daughter and I, we have some real dope, Hip-Hop conversations. She likes a Lil Durk. And I just, you know, sometimes I make fun of it. Just jokingly, like, my dad used to do with me, with James Brown and Hip-Hop at the time. But, how are you? And what’s your relationship with your seeds and everything.
Black Thought: You know, me and my daughter have a similar relationship. And, you know, like, I checked for what she’s listening for, what she’s listening to. And often, it’s the same stuff that, you know, sort of cutting through that I appreciate every now and then the sudden that I just don’t get but you know, I realized that I’m I’m not supposed to understand that. When I was a freshman in high school, 49/50 year-old [people] wasn’t on the same type time.
But just this morning, I was dropping her off to school this morning, and asked if she wanted to DJ. And she was like, “nah, nah.” “You don’t wanna hear whatI am listening to [daughter says] Yeah, I’m listening to Kanye’s album.” I said, “Well, you know, play that, like, that’s my guy.” So she put the joint on and I think it was the Ye album. I hadn’t heard it. Yeah. And, um, you know, she, she started going through the joints and certain stuff, I just wasn’t feeling. It was like, I felt like [Kanye] had phoned it in on this joint, or, you know, it didn’t feel super authentic on another joint. But then we got to this one song that I was feeling. It was a joint called “Ghost Town, with a feature in Party Next Door. And when my daughter said, you know, this was the one on the album that. she was checking for this is, when she was gonna play it. So we have a similar aesthetic.
AllHipHop: Sean, how you feel about the game right now?
Sean C: I mean, some of the feelings man it’s, it’s, I don’t I never want to be the “do what my mother did when I was playing” adult. You know, cutting [DJ’ing] in my room and she was like, “What is that [noise]”? You know, if I forgot to do something or I was messing up in school, she would say, ‘If it had something to with that [noisy Hip-Hop], you would know.” The generations after us are supposed to say the generation before them doesn’t know what they’re talking about. You know, that’s part of how culture moves, and especially Hip-Hop. I remember playing Welcome To The Terrordome – which was like one of my favorite records ever from Public Enemy. And I remember playing it for my son in the car. He was like, “Dad, this is trash.” I was broke, broke my heart, you know what I mean? But I realized that, you know, at that time, it didn’t speak to him, you know what I mean? It’s generational.
AllHipHop: By the way, my daughter just met Chuck D the other day last week. Yeah, over Zoom. But yeah, she always knows Chuck. So can each of you name an unlikely influence? Somebody we might not know. That influenced impacted your life.
Black Thought: Hmm. You know, a, some of my earliest influences were I’m James Brown and Elvis Presley. And, you know, the first music that really made me want to create music and go out and sing or form a group get some other kids together and try was Doo W## music. Yo would see just who was working the hardest on stage. Right? You know, James Brown was the hardest working man in show business. And then, you know, just Elvis Presley. Just his aesthetic, you know, I’m just that down south-ness, the flashiness. You know, what I mean, like the pageantry, Liberace-ness of just how he presented himself. Elvis, for all intent and purposes was a great, great pretender. He took what Black people in Memphis was doing, and [ran with it]. Elvis Presley and James Brown performances, always really just moved me in a certain way. And then when I, you know, started singing, which I did before I rap.
AllHipHop: Sean, what are your unlikely influences?
Sean C: Muhammad Ali would be one just because like, when I was a DJ, I, you know, I’m a pretty laid back dude. Like, you know, as an adult, but as a teenager, I was, you know, we had this we had the crew, the X-men, which eventually turned into The Executioners. I was one of the founding members. And we will battle all through Harlem, and battled people in Queens, but watching Muhammad Ali, I may have just grabbed [his] whole persona of like, “No one’s better than me. No one’s better than us.” And, and just that confidence of talking sh#t. Like, I used to just talk so much sh#t all the time.
AllHipHop: So y’all have on the album “Thought Versus Everybody.” So immediately, obviously, you’ve barred it up with the best of them. But I had I have to ask: Is there anybody you would want to Verzuz battle with or just battle period?
Black Thought: Anybody I would want to battle with, I mean, I feel like we’ve already had that sort of meeting of the minds. People that, if I should we shared the stage with, we jump on the on on a joint together. This that unspoken, sometimes unspoken, sometimes..it is more definitive. But it’s always a competition.
I don’t have anything to prove it at this stage of the game, at this point in my career. And you know, you know, quite honestly, just what the Verzuz brand is based on, it’s never been my twist. I never gave a f### about selling records or about having the hit or, you know, popular music or any of that. It’s always been about bars for me and content and, you know, socio-political commentary, the same message, like what I rap about and how I rap how I do it. None of that is new to me.