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Monday, February 26, 2024
Feb. 26, 2024

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Trotter’s memoir is coming of age tale

‘Upcycled Self’ shows musician’s keen writer’s eye


PHILADELPHIA — The subject of Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter’s new book, “The Upcycled Self” is the Roots rapper himself. The co-leader of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” band is an actor, college professor, stand-up comic, and now author.

But there’s another character in Trotter’s book — subtitled “A Memoir on the Art of Becoming Who We Are” — that plays just as significant a role in the tale Trotter has to tell.

That would be the city of Philadelphia, where he grew up in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The values that city stamps on its youth are like brands seared into our flesh,” he writes in the book’s prelude. “Our history leaks a particular radiation into the blood of those born within its city limits. Loyalty, fight, pride, honor.”

“My only experience as a young person was the Philadelphia experience,” Trotter, 50, says. “And Philadelphia is the sort of place that can and will chew you up and spit you out. It’s very much survival of the fittest,” he told The Inquirer over the phone before a taping of the Fallon show.

In a whirlwind week — so busy he had to reschedule The Art of the MC class the rapper teaches at New York University, Trotter was getting set for a book tour that will bring him back to Philadelphia. He now lives in north Jersey to ease the daily commute to Manhattan, which began in 2009 when the Roots took the house band job with Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

“Philadelphia is a place that some times it hates to love you and sometimes it loves to hate you,” he says with a laugh. “And vice versa, you know what I mean? It’s definitely a two way street.”

Trotter’s coming of age tale is filled with trauma and tragedy, as well as tenderness. It’s rendered with the keen writer’s eye he’s always displayed with the Roots, as well as recent solo albums that have confirmed his stature among the greatest rappers of all time. Streams of Thought, Volume 4 is due early next year.

“I am the product of people whose love propelled me out of cycles of violence that they themselves couldn’t escape,” he writes.

He never knew his father, Thomas, who was murdered when he was 2 years old. His mother Cassandra fell prey to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and was murdered when he was 15. Both his parents are evoked in dream-like interludes written by co-author Jasmine Martin that offer a perspective beyond Trotter’s own.

Trotter — who was nominated for a Grammy on Friday for the single “Love Letter” — has always been a word nerd. With childhood friend Shawn Gee, who grew up to be the Roots manager, one his favorite playthings as a boy was a dictionary. But he never planned to write a book.

A number of factors led him to the project. “I’ve always seen myself in my brother,” he says, meaning his Roots partner Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who’s written or co-written eight books and just launched his own MCD Books publishing imprint with a Sly Stone memoir. “Anything that Ahmir has been able to achieve, it’s confidence building. It let me know that a possibility is a possibility.” He’s not being competitive, though. “If I was, I wouldn’t be able to compete,” he says. “He has too much of a head start.”

In 2021, Trotter recorded 7 Years, a revealing autobiographical project for the Amazon audiobook service Audible, in which he looked at his life in cycles. It inspired him to go deeper, as did pandemic introspection and the prospect of turning 50. His friend Ta-Nehisi Coates connected him with One World editor Chris Jackson, who aptly compares The Upcycled Self with short, singular memoirs such as Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles.

Trotter’s Upcycled concept of a closely examined life in which “the work of understanding our own humanity begins by returning complexity to the people who shaped us.” In an act of full circle Philly storytelling, he writes astutely about the block to block complexity of South Philly. As a boy, he took classes at the Fleisher Art Memorial and Mann Center. Now the Roots Picnic makes its home at the Mann annually.

Teenage years tagging led him to Jane Golden, whose Anti-Grafitti Network grew into Mural Arts Philadelphia, where he sits on the board. Now there’s a Black Thought mural in Kensington.

In The Upcycled Self, Trotter’s grandmother advises him that when he’s grown, he’ll be able to count his close friends on one hand. On the list, he puts his late mother, Shawn Gee, Arthur Price, a family friend who’s now a pastor in Alabama, and the Roots first manager Richard Nichols, who died in 2014.

And of course, Questlove, who he met in 1987 at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts in South Philly, when he was taken to the CAPA offices for punishment after being caught in the men’s room with a female classmate. There — while still grieving over the loss of his mother — he found the school’s star student, who was already experienced drummer with his father’s band Lee Andrews & the Hearts, consorting with teachers on a friendly basis.