The Roots’ frontman Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter had it extremely difficult coming up since both of his parents were killed. It’s something that he recently opened up about in an interview with The New York Times. But he hasn’t used that tough upbringing as an excuse to craft negative lyrics or create songs that are harmful to his community.
Instead, Trotter mastered the battle rap approach of rhyming, became an expert storyteller and can freestyle better than most rappers can write. If nothing else, the segment “Freestylin’ with The Roots” on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” should serve as proof.
In his New York Times interview, Trotter gave some new details about his father and mother’s murder and how he and his brother lived entirely different lives. He also talked about surviving those harsh experiences and wanting more out of life than he was initially dealt.
“I had a tumultuous childhood,” the rapper explained. “My dad Thomas Trotter was murdered before I was a year old. From what my family remembers and those who knew him have told me, he was a good man, very kind to my mother and very chivalrous. Opening doors for women, very respectful.”
Trotter then explained that his father — who was affiliated with Mosque No. 12 — was feared in the Germantown section of Philadelphia where he was raised, but he didn’t give a reason why.
The rapper noted, however, that Germantown is where the Philadelphia Black Mafia or Black Brothers Inc. was founded, so that could have something to do with where that fear came from.
“Years later I discovered that my dad’s body was found near an alley in Germantown,” said Trotter. “Ironically, the same alley was not far from the location of ‘Night Catches Us,’ a film I shot in 2010 with Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie and directed by Tanya Hamilton.”
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After the death of his father, Trotter and his brother lived with his mother and her boyfriend and everything seemed to be okay until one tragic day.
The way the rapper described it, he was playing with plastic toy soldiers and burned some of them, so they would appear wounded in battle. But something went wrong, the house caught fire and the fire department showed up. From there, life would change for both The Roots member and his sibling.
“My brother had accused a few of the firemen of pocketing some jewelry and smashing some framed family pictures on the floor,” Trotter recalled. “My brother also said some of the firemen had destroyed some furniture that had no fire damage at all. One of the firemen got in my brother’s face and threatened him and another swung on my brother. My brother fought back and he was arrested. That day was a turning point, not just for me, not just for my family because of the fire, but that was the day my brother was arrested for the first time. He has been in and out of jail ever since.”
After his father was killed, the rapper said he started selling crack cocaine, so his uncles sent him to Detroit to live with family members to force him to stop. But when he came back to Philadelphia ready to turn his life around, he suffered another huge tragedy.
“But not long after I returned home my mom Cassandra Trotter had gone missing for a week,” said Trotter. “She had gotten addicted to crack cocaine, so it wasn’t odd for her to go AWOL for a day … An unidentified black woman matching my mother’s description had been admitted to the morgue. Dental records confirmed it was my mother. She had been stabbed to death.”
After two trials, the 22-year-old man who killed Trotter’s mother was eventually convicted and is currently serving a life sentence.
These days, the talented wordsmith is a steady working actor and plays the character Reggie Love on the HBO show “The Deuce.” Not to mention, he and The Roots can be seen each weeknight as the “Tonight Show’s” house band, which is probably still strange for the group’s longtime fans.
Before they were on the NBC show, Trotter met his friend and the group’s co-founder Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Eventually, they formed the group Square Roots, which later became The Roots, and they would mix jazz and hip-hop styles brilliantly.
From there, along with other members like Malik B and Leonard Hubbard, The Roots went on to create an alternative to the gangsta rap sub-genre that was growing in popularity in the early ’90s. They were also the first live hip-hop band to grow to prominence in the music industry since Stetsasonic in the ‘80s
After the independent release of their debut album “Organix,” The Roots dropped their first major-label-backed album “Do You Want More?!!!??!,” then “Illadelph Halflife,” where they mastered the ability to make live instrumentation sound like dirty samples.
Other well-received albums came after like “Things Fall Apart,” “The Tipping Point and “Phrenology.” Their next album is called “End Game,” which is yet to have a release date.
“I felt rage,” he said about going through the trial of his mother’s killer. “The kind of rage you see from the families at the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer or the trail of any serial killer. I know that kind of rage. For a minute I was like ‘My mom was murdered, and I don’t care about anything or anyone anymore’ … But at that same moment, something turned me around to want to survive.”