Believe it or not, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t all that long ago. It’s been less than three years since the country went on lockdown, leaving U.S. residents stuck at home in quarantine as they worried about when they’d ever be able to safely walk outside. A lack of live concerts was one of many worries that were impacting the real world.
Black Thought and Leon Michels were locked inside too — but they began to tap into their artistry to lock into some of the most prolific moments of their respective careers. Each of them was already accomplished. Black Thought is the lead MC of the revered hip-hop band The Roots, known as an unimpeachable lyricist who crafted thoughtful albums such as Things Fall Apart, wrecking the mic on viral moments like a Funk Flex freestyle that clocks in at over 10 minutes, and joining his bandmates every week on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Michels is a founding member of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and the founder/bandleader of El Michels Affair, a self-described “cinematic soul group” that has produced for or been sampled by A-list artists like Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Lizzo, Eminem and Lana Del Rey.
Along the way, the two began sending music back and forth to create Glorious Game, an album that finds Thought dropping gems over a dynamic mix of production by Michels. Some songs are live instrumentation all the way through, while others came from Michels crafting original compositions and then sampling his own work. But Black Thought is focused regardless of his partner’s approach: He unloads with in-the-pocket flows, colorful storytelling, and poetic sheen.
The duo’s new album is only the latest in a busy, nonstop stream of productivity from them over the past three years. Black Thought released 2022’s Cheat Codes album with producer Danger Mouse, recorded original programming with the audiobook company Audible, and has the next installment of his Streams of Thought EP series in the can already. El Michels Affair released the album 2021’s Yeti Season, Ekundayo Inversions with Liam Bailey, and also worked on Lady Wray’s Piece of Me, as well as songs with Norah Jones and Mary J. Blige.
Dropping next Friday (April 14), Glorious Game is brilliant in its own right, and neither artist seems to have any intention of slowing down. “I got a chance to experience what it felt like to be almost ahead of time, ahead of myself, in that I’ve had such a full clip of unreleased material,” Michels tells Billboard. “I’ve just been creative in such a high capacity that I don’t want to go back to the way it feels to have to do a deal, sit down with someone to figure out what you’re going to do and then go to take marching orders and fulfill the assignment. This is the way for me.”
In a Zoom call from their respective spaces, Black Thought and Leon Michels speak about sparking their creativity and maintaining their sanity during the pandemic — as well as the honor of helping LL Cool J revisit his ‘80s greatness, and why the Roots frontman sees himself as the greatest rapper of all time.
How did you two first meet?
Leon Michels: I met Dave Guy when I was like 17, and he used to play trumpet with the Dap-Kings. He got a call to join The Roots on the Fallon show, and then Tariq and Dave became friends. Dave would bring Thought by the studio and we would just jam, making music impromptu with no real project in mind. And we used to do these annual concerts for the Baxter Street Art Foundation, these 40-minute sets of music.
Black Thought: I got my hands on a Kenny Dope mixtape back in the day, one of his Soul Trippin series where he would mix up a lot of contemporary and older music. A lot of the stuff that I gravitated towards on this particular tape, come to find out, was stuff that was under the Daptone umbrella. So it was ensembles that were closely related to Leon, many of which he played some instrumentation in some way, shape, or form on. I just remember being amazed at how authentically they were able to capture the way music used to sound. I would come to find out it was probably attributable to them using a lot of the same equipment, and the whole analog-ness of it all in their recording process.
We had a Roots Picnic in New York City, and it happened to have been my birthday weekend. I got my favorite DJs to spin — Stretch Armstrong and Rich Medina — and I got one of the bands that Leon was playing in at that time. I think it was under the Menahan Street Band configuration, but I would come to find out that it’s all the same dudes; they may switch instruments, or call the same group a different name on a different day.
When we were going through our transition from Late Night to The Tonight Show, we were doing one of our last runs through Southeast Asia and Australia during a hiatus. [Television producer] Lorne Michaels suggested, “I think I think we need more horns,” so we had to expand The Roots’ band. We all knew who my favorite guys were, and our manager at the time, Rich Nichols, who his favorites were. We wound up reaching out to Dave Guy, and to Ian [Hendrickson-Smith], who plays saxophone with us now, and they began to transition into our band.
At that point, I started just rolling with Dave to the studio. I was a fan, I just wanted to come and be a fly on the wall to see how what’s made is made. James Poyser started to come through, Questlove — a lot of us sort of started making our way out to the Diamond Mine to soak up the energy and inspiration. I think at that point, we decided that it would make sense to do a thing at some time together.
You guys started to work on this album during the top of the pandemic, in 2020. The album has tones of despair at times that feel specific to that, but these songs also would make sense no matter when they dropped. Where were you two creatively and emotionally during that time?
Black Thought: Emotionally, I was dealing with a lot of the same fears and anxiety as everyone else. But from a creative aspect, I hit a stride and became more productive than I probably had in recent years. The Tonight Show continued, but it had become remote. “Two birds with one stone” doesn’t even begin to cover the amount like the number of items that I had in the fire.
The Roots, we signed our first deal when I was 18 or 19. I was always in a recording studio — so that was like my church, just the whole brick-and-mortar of it all. So it took a long time for me to wrap my head around working from my garage. But once it became a necessity and I had no choice, I dove all the way into it. I would record some of the Danger Mouse stuff, then I would record some Leon stuff, then I would work on my Audible Original. I had full days of work; I would leave the house and go across the driveway into my garage at 8 or 9 in the morning, and be busy until 8 or 9 at night doing back-to-back stuff.
Everything just took on a different level of importance — it almost became, “this might be some of the shit they dig up if we don’t make it to the other side of this. I want them to know that we were writing and recording some beautiful stuff.” It became representative of not only me in this particular moment, but of a generation.
The idea is always to create a thing that’s going to be timeless, because you never know when those planets and stars are going to align [on the business side]. You never want to write anything that’s going to eventually feel dated. So the idea was not to follow any trends — which was perfect, because that’s right on brand with what Leon already does. This is the guy who, I couldn’t tell if this s–t was recorded in the ‘60s or the early 2000s when I first discovered him.
And it brought out a different sort of storytelling. I think my writing came to transcend time on this project. There’s some stuff that creates a visual in the context of imagery from the past, but there’s also Afrofuturism, and there’s also being present in this moment. It’s dope that we were able to bring that out of one another, and at a distance for a good chunk of it. Once we did start having in-person sessions, it was to put the icing on the proverbial cake.
Leon Michels: I already used music as an escape from problems in my life. That’s one of the greatest things about music: It’s like therapy. So when the pandemic hit, my knee-jerk reaction was to just immerse myself in music and work. We all went through it, so we all know how scary it was in the beginning. That was the only way I could get through the day. At the same time as I was doing this record, I was finishing up Yeti Season, and I was recording, like, Turkish fuzz guitar, and just thinking to myself, “In the scope with the world, what am I even doing right now?” But at the same time, it made me feel good.
Thought hit me up and said, “Send me music. I’m trying to stay busy.” The energy coming back was was so much: I sent him three songs, and a week later, I got all three back. Sometimes I’d get them back the next day. So I think there was just this urgency we both had. As soon as we did the first one, we already knew it was dope, so that was incentive to keep going. But also just to keep ourselves busy. I was very productive during the pandemic because it was the only thing keeping my head above water.
For both of you, the live element plays a big part in your creativity. How much did being in quarantine and unable to play for an audience impact your process?
Leon Michels: One of the things I learned that became very clear during quarantine was just the addition of [having] a person in the room — even if you’re not making music with them, but just having a cheerleader. Not having that, you have to make adjustments. You need people to say, “Yo, this is dope, let’s keep going.” So that proved tough. The way I got through that was — I would just tap out when that would happen. I would have these four-hour work days, and then just be done.
But to your other question, in terms of pulling inspiration all the time, I try to look at music as a job. You go to the studio every day from 9 to 5, some days suck and some days you catch a wave and you follow it. You only get those waves when you get them. But if you do it every day, you’re gonna get it more than if you don’t.
Black Thought: I agree. I’d say it was hit or miss, but more peaks than valleys. And not only the audience, but I began to take into account just all of the things and people and relationships that I had taken for granted, for better or worse. Some things you just assume because they’ve always been there, that they’re always going to be there. And when that shit is gone, it hits different. So I definitely missed the audience. And it doesn’t have to be 100,000 people. It could be an audience of one, 10, or 15. After a certain point, it was huge to see the rest of The Roots. We started to come together for those corporate gigs, and it’d just be us in a rehearsal studio with cameras. But still, just being around the rest of the ensemble was huge. And that’s audience enough: the brotherhood, the camaraderie.
But one thing that was spooky that we did during the pandemic was a benefit concert for the Apollo Theater. It was called Save Our Stages. We performed just for cameras, in a completely empty Apollo Theater. It was just us and the ghosts. You can feel a lot of those spirits, just ghosts and the energy, the residual energy of audiences past and so many performers past. They’re in the walls, it’s in the buildings. It was eerie to be in there and to feel that presence. That was a freaky one for me. A lot of venues that shut down during the pandemic still weren’t able to open back up, so it was about saving some of our iconic theaters and amphitheaters.
Thought, you said that your new standard is zoning in with one producer. What do you look for when deciding who that next producer is going to be? Do you try to make each producer different from the others?
Black Thought: It’s not a conscious effort to say, “I’m gonna make sure this guy is nothing like that guy.” It’s more of a like-mindedness, being able to latch onto some part of myself that I see within this other person. Once I’m able to identify that, that’s where we dial in. It’s not like you have to like everything I like, or we have to come from the same place. But any one of thousands of different variables that I’m able to see in someone makes it worthwhile to work with them.
I’ve found myself in quite a few equations where somebody hires me as a ghostwriter, or my label hooks up with this person’s label. And you find yourself in a room, sometimes with people you’ve yet to find what it is that you have in common. That’s when it’s work, work, work. And I’m not here for that s–t. I’m 50, you know what I’m saying? I do this because I love it, so it can’t be a heavy lift for me to engage in the process. That’s important, too. That just comes with, “Wow, there’s some familiarity, there’s something that I see in you that already existed in me.”
Leon Michels: In my career, I’d say 98% of the time — the music I’ve made that really works, there’s usually some sort of friendship before music. You have to like a person to make a record; even if it’s instrumental, it’s a personal thing you’re going on.
Black Thought: Yeah, it’s an exchange of energy in that way. It’s very personal, very intimate. You can’t really fake it. The closest you can come to faking it is through the advances in technology. You could do a bunch of electro shit, tweak it sonically, put thousands of layers of synthetic additives and preservatives to make it gel. But when you’re working with live instrumentation and analog equipment, recording to tape and shit like that, it’s gotta be the real deal. You can smell it.
Thought, you’ve worked with The Roots, Leon, and all of these other producers. And even on The Tonight Show and at Roots Picnic, you work with different guest performers. You’re bringing Diddy to this year’s picnic. How much does working with all of these other artists help you learn how to stretch your own creativity?
Black Thought: There are levels to it. Working with artists like LL, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D, and receiving their stamp of approval and having them look to me for any level of guidance. Recently, there was this bit we did on the Grammys that was inspired by a skit at the end of LL’s first album. It was on the cassette version, right before you turn the tape over. It was probably a throwaway moment for him as a young person that he probably has no recollection of some 30 or 40-odd years later. But it was super impactful for me as an emerging artist, and it’s something that I’ve maintained access to in my mental ROM of sorts.
Some people were filming while we were rehearsing this thing; I was teaching him this little bit that I’d written, and I’d changed the words, but it was his melody, his routine from when he was like 16 years old. He was so animated and excited to learn it. Visibly, his energy is on a bean; and I’m sitting there just super focused, hands in my pockets and slightly bobbing my head. Everybody who looks at this tape is like, “Yo, you act like you’re not an LL fan. Why you frontin’?” I’m like, it’s not even that. I’m such a fan that I’m laser-focused on maintaining the integrity of this thing that he created, especially now, at a point in time where he might not even remember that s–t.
But it was so important to me. That’s collaboration at its best, for me: when I get to work with someone and indicate to them how important this thing was. It may have just been a regular Monday for them in 1985, but had it not been for this, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have been able to provide for my family in the way that I’m able to now. Those are the moments that are super important. That’s when I get to work with the OGs.
For the longest time, the conversation about you seemed to be focused on, “Black Thought is the most underrated rapper.” Now, the respect and adulation is there, based on not only your moments with The Roots, but your solo career. Talk about that evolution and if there was any tension amongst the group when you pursued solo endeavors.
Black Thought: For me, it’s just been a natural evolution. There was a point in my career when people would always come up and say, “Yo, you’re the most underrated rapper.” But I mean, if everyone says you’re underrated, then I’m rated! [Chuckles.] I’ve got a great deal of respect for very many artists. And it’s not just OGs; I keep my ear to the street, I associate with emerging artists, I reach out to folks who have no idea that I’m their fan, I build bridges and develop relationships. There’s no one that I’ve ever had a great deal of respect for who it wasn’t mutual. All the validation that I’ve ever needed, I’ve always received from anybody whose opinion matters to me. So that’s created a level of security.
I’ve never had anything to prove. I’ve always been humbled, and I’ve always been a team player. It’s not always about getting my shine, and that’s why I’m still here. As far as artist rankings and where I fall as an MC, I think I’m probably one of the best dudes, if not the best dude. I’m not saying I’m without flaw, but I’m such a student of the culture that I’m aware of my flaws and I’m aware of everyone else’s as well. And I’m aware of everyone else’s insecurities. And I think they’re aware that I’m aware. That’s why when you go down a list of artists that rappers want to rap with, I don’t rank high on those lists. I rank high on the list of, “let’s act like this motherfucker does not exist, because it will better serve my brand.” [Laughs.]
Starting to work outside of The Roots, that happened in a natural way. I’ve had my own record deals throughout my career, but it just wasn’t time to deliver those pieces yet. I’ve been working on different albums here and there, and at whatever moment in time, we just came to the decision that it will better serve our collective and the greater good to either scrap the project, put it on hold, or break it down and say, “This isn’t a Black Thought project, we’re gonna call it The Roots.” We started this group in 1987, and I’m better today than I was yesterday, and I was better the day before that than I was in the ‘90s, the ‘80s, and so on and so forth. We continue to evolve and continue to get better. And I don’t know that if I’d done it any other way — I might have received those accolades at the moment in 1998, but I don’t know that I would still be able to receive them now. Or that I would have been able to reinvent myself in the way that I am right now.
I was driving home from work last night and picked up my daughter from school. She’s 17. She said, “Dad, you got any ops?” In order to be my op, we got to be on the same level for me to even consider anything that you say or do in a way that’s worthy of my response. So for any other rapper to be my op, you got to be able to go perform at the White House, and then go perform with Griselda, and then be on Sesame Street the next day. That’s the space that my career has afforded me to exist in, and there’s nobody else that’s on that level.
So no, I don’t got no ops, I don’t have any competition. It’s only one Roots, it’s only one Black Thought, and I wouldn’t be able to exist in this space that I do had it not been for The Roots. So I’m thankful for that association, and for being able to blend into something bigger than myself for all these years. I’ve never had to bite my tongue, I’ve never had to change what I stand for, or rap in a different way. And I’ve still been able to have entry into anywhere that I wanted to be in the world. That’s from The Roots as an ensemble, and I’m still that dude. I’m the GOAT. That’s how I look at it.