> An Interview With Black Thought & Danger Mouse For Cheat Codes

An Interview With Black Thought & Danger Mouse For Cheat Codes

Black Thought and Danger Mouse

(From left) Black Thought (a.k.a Tariq Trotter) and Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton)
Photo: Shervin Lainez

With Cheat Codes, Black Thought and Danger Mouse—the emcee’s emcee and the producer’s producer—team up for a record that shows what hip-hop elder statesmen can do in a genre that so often thrives on youth. Less a rebuke to an era of trap beats and SoundCloud-ready verses than a showcase for their shared, effortless virtuosity, Black Thought (née: Tariq Trotter) delivers razor-sharp, incisive lyrics over dusty samples Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton) lends his timeless, cinematic flourish for a tightly-packed, adventuresome, eminently listenable experience.

While longtime Roots member Trotter was driving home from his “day job” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The A.V. Club spoke to him and Burton in a lengthy Zoom call where they each talked about what made the other the exact right collaborator, at the exact right time. In addition to discussing their “assembly line” approach to merging obscure samples, classical lyricism, and Burton’s tinkering—and sometimes “un-tinkering”—Black Thought and Danger Mouse reflected on the lessons they have learned, both as individuals and a team, that made Cheat Codes so fun to complete.

The A.V. Club: One of the things that has really stood out about both of your careers is the eclecticism that both of you possess. Was it simply that shared versatility that made the two of you feel like you were the exact right collaborators for this particular project?

Black Thought: I mean, I think there are parallels in both of our work ethics that complement one another, you know what I mean? It just made for the best fit. I think the work ethic, the attention to detail, and yeah, the flexibility of being able to sort of roll with the punches and yes, that versatility and being able to engage in the process in a way that is truly collaborative and not just saying that it’s a collaboration.

Danger Mouse: I’ll just say, I think musically, there’s kind of a pocket that he and I have together. When it’s there, you can just kind of feel it. And I think that we benefited from the time it took, the last couple of years, slowing everything down because then we really kept pushing it further and further and refined it more and more. But there is a thing about the way he raps, and the kind of music I listened to growing up, and the kind of music I gravitate towards that is in everything I do, that he’s kind of the quintessential rapper for that kind of tempo, for that rhythm, for that stuff. So it just works. It just does. Like when I do something, it just kind of has that feel, most of the time, when I’m making stuff. Because I can’t always control the tempo or certain things, but when it’s a certain pocket or certain thing, it’s right there for him. So that kind of just seemed pretty natural for me.

AVC: How easily did you two figure out what you wanted this record to sound like? Did you have a guiding principle for what you wanted?

BT: It came with ease. Like once we figured it out, the approach was to arrive at an idea and then build on it, so if there was a sketch that Brian would come up with for a beat, it was to something I would write. Every song that I wrote was written specifically to the music that you hear, like to the accompaniment. But none of it was complete when I wrote to it. So there’d be an idea, I’d write an idea and record some stuff. And then after we agreed upon where whatever it is that I’m doing is going to live, then he’ll finish sort of building around that, bass lines and different choral elements and different little subtle sample nuances that he’s able to add sort of after the fact. So it is a bit of an assembly line. But we worked together. We recorded this all together, every step of the way.

Cover of Cheat Codes by Black Thought and Danger Mouse

Cheat Codes’ album cover
Image: BMG

AVC: Tariq, your first solo album was supposed to be released in 2001, and as I understand, it got repurposed in a lot of ways into [The Roots’ fifth album] Phrenology. How easy is it for you to discard material or verses that you’ve worked on for so long?

BT: For me, I’m never super attached to any verse or to any composition or any music until it’s sort of agreed upon by all parties that this is what we’re using, and this is going to represent our effort. I guess I come from a camp where we just have a thicker skin. So I’m fine with anything that has to be discarded or changed in any way, because I just understand that that’s what the collaborative dynamic is about. So I embrace it wholeheartedly.

AVC: Brian, what’s maybe the oldest material that you’ve held onto? Do you tend to be particularly precious about that?

DM: I mean, I hold stuff and then it either keeps holding because it’s good, or I hold it and then I realize it’s not good enough and I’m glad it didn’t come out, but sometimes I’ve had stuff for 10 years before, or things like that. But for myself—I won’t say anything about Tariq—I don’t really like do ‘trendy.’ It’s not like I did something because that’s what other people were doing, so if it works now, I want it to work later. And I think everybody probably thinks that way too. But I guess now that the time has gone by, I’ve seen that I’ve [held] on to something for 10 or plus years and then release it when it’s been fine.

AVC: More specifically, how long have you guys been holding on to that MF Doom verse? Because suffice to say he isn’t around. How many verses like that are around that you guys can incorporate into the work that you’re doing now?

DM: Well, it’s not a bunch or anything like that. There was a few things that we did in the years after the Dangerdoom record where Tariq and Doom were both on records together, where I would give one a track that had a verse and the other person would do one and vice versa. We did that a couple of times, and this was one that we just didn’t finish. But Doom did his part, and it was sitting for a long time, and I was waiting on it for a long time. Of course, I didn’t know he would pass, but I just figured the quality was really high and I knew we were going to use it and he did too, and it just wasn’t quite finished. And so this was a good opportunity to use it because it went along with the other things that we had done. But I think one of them, he released himself, Doom did, that had Tariq on it, but this was one that I had been holding on to. So it’s been a while, but it sounds just better now, or just as good now as it did before. So that’s a testament to it.

AVC: Tariq, when you get the gold mine of a Doom verse to rap opposite, or quite frankly, any of your collaborators, how do you work to make sure that your collaborators are working in lockstep with you?

BT: I sort of do my own thing. I tend to record my verses before a feature and then just sort of leave the space for the feature. And then, I know again that nothing is ever in stone. I think there’s always an element of you’re making sure that whatever song is going to feature anyone can also sort of be complete on its own, stand alone if need be, just in case we don’t get the feature or whatever happens. So there are lots of songs where I’ll do two verses or I’ll put enough lyrics on the record so that if no one else gets on it, then it still feels complete.

But I also think that where I set the bar, where I’ve set the bar for such a long time, like any collaborator, anyone I’m working with sort of knows that, I mean, not like they have to elevate what it is that they do, but they know I have a specific aesthetic, you know what I mean? I’m one of the lyricists that people consider, I guess, a rapper’s rapper or an emcee’s emcee. And then, the idea of, again, like what Brian was saying about not wanting to feel dated or to do anything that feels like it’s following a trend. I mean, it was unspoken, but I think people understand that they’re encouraged if they’re collaborating with me or The Roots or Danger Mouse, for that matter, to try and write or create from a more timeless perspective, and don’t do or say anything that’s going to date the performance, you know what I mean?

(from left) A$AP Rocky, Black Thought, Danger Mouse, El-P, and Killer Mike

(from left) A$AP Rocky, Black Thought, Danger Mouse, El-P, and Killer Mike
Image: BMG

AVC: Brian, this feels a little bit like a clearinghouse for some of your other past projects. How much of this came from gathering bits and pieces from some of those collaborations and then plugging them into this genre?

DM: Well, I think that over time, the music that wound up on this record was very much more a product of thinking about Tariq than it was about some of the other projects that I’ve done up to this point. I don’t really have a very concentrated effort to do a certain genre of music so much. It just depends on the person I’m working with, really. So, I mean, a lot of the music and the samples and things that came from this, they weren’t hip-hop ahead of time. They were just that way once Tariq starts to rap on them, and whether there’s drums added or not, there’s just a way of hearing something, and so I can sometimes hear what I think Tariq might do if I hear a certain piece of music that you would never think somebody would do something with—but I think he could, and then you mess with it. There’s that kind of stuff. So it’s not really about the other people.

But I think the things maybe I’ve learned a lot as far as songwriting and structure and things like that, even that was not really very deliberate this time around. I think it was just more instinctual in going back and forth with Tariq. We added more of the other song elements, more singing and more hooks and things like that after the initial stuff was put down, and then that kind of then just [got] fleshed out from there. Same thing with the guests—all of the guests came later. It was after everything was already kind of recorded, we kind of had a framework and some spaces. And we would plan, okay, this song will have a guest, this person will have this, and we started thinking and we would discuss it here and there. But we didn’t go to anybody until we were pretty much done with Tariq’s place on the album. And then we started to flesh it out that way.

AVC: The Roots were defined by the fact that they were a live band, and yet this record is very sample heavy. What rules did you create, or what thoughts did you have about this being sample-focused to distinguish from what you’ve done over the last few years?

DM: I think there’s a little bit of both of us in it. I think that the kind of music I was influenced by from the time period was mostly samples. And I felt like in my process when I first started was mostly samples, and I went away from it for a long time and I really enjoyed coming back to it, probably back in 2015 when I started working with [A$AP] Rocky a little bit. I had been away from it for a long time, and I really enjoyed going back to it again—and then I gravitated right back toward the kind of feel and things that, when I originally had gone to Tariq years ago, there was that same kind of place. So there was that. And then, I love The Roots and it’s not usually a sample-based thing. It’s a different feel, a different thing. But I can only really do what I can do anyway. In this particular situation, I think it was advantageous to do something more sample-based. That’s what I was having fun doing, was finding stuff and chopping it and messing with it and then knowing I was going to have Tariq to come in on top of it. So that’s as purposeful as it was.

AVC: Questlove talked about this goal that he had in the early days of The Roots, of trying to recreate the precision of breakbeats, but eventually discovered that easing that discipline gave him a sense of creative freedom. Was there a similar challenge that you created to hone your talents that you realized, once I stop trying to be like this, I can achieve more creatively than I ever thought was possible?

DM: Yeah, I don’t think I could have made this record like this back when we first started. I think I was probably trying to prove too much. I think I’ve learned that instead of being really deliberate with what you’re trying to do to show who you are with what you’re doing musically, I think that I felt much more comfortable grabbing a lot of stuff I loved and understanding that that still represents me. So I left a lot of stuff alone. I didn’t try to tinker too much. I did, actually, and then when I un-tinkered it, I looked at Tariq and he liked it better every time. So when I took all of the bells and whistles off of the stuff, it was just much better. And I could just be a fan of it—I could listen to it more and it’s okay. It’s just about the end result, really, and how you feel about the end result, not necessarily how much labor [goes into it]. And when something sounds labored, it’s not necessarily a good thing either. So I think I’ve been a lot more hands-off in certain areas, and a little bit more able to really enjoy listening to it and just being confident with the [end result]. Sometimes you have to do a little, sometimes you do a lot, just however it sounds right is the best thing.

BT: I do agree that this record represents two people from a similar place in time, who neither of us have anything to prove. So I think this represents that. But I think I’ve always been myself as a lyricist, as an emcee, almost to a fault. I think there have been points in my career, forks in the road where I could have gone either this way or that way or done what they do, quote-unquote. And I didn’t. I’ve always been myself, and true to that. And that’s the space that I speak from. I speak from a place that one can only reach after having stayed the course for 30 some odd years, you know?

AVC: You talk about the idea of not feeling like you had anything to prove. But I’m curious if either individually or as a team, there was something that you felt like you wanted to say with this record? Were there any themes or ideas that you were witnessing going on in the world or in your lives that you wanted to explore?

BT: Well, it’s always been important to me to filter in the same message. I’ve always spoken about the same shit. I’ve always observed the world from the same skin and from the same perspective. So that’s what I write about. It’s always been about sociopolitical commentary and, speaking about the country, the world, our history, our evolution, and then my personal evolution and my process. I guess now at this point in life, I try and make sure that it’s all coming from an adult place, you know what I mean? I try to make music for adults that folks my age can sort of get with. But the message is always the same. I’ve never been able to separate my message from my art. I don’t know what anybody’s doing, other cats, what they’re talking about in their music, because quite frankly, I don’t really listen to too much contemporary stuff. I’m always working on my own shit. And that’s what I listen to. But I know what my lane is and I stick to it. And my lane is being Black Thought, you know what I’m saying? The thinking man’s lyricist. And to exposing the evils of the world, and just speaking to building the people up, and to righting some of the wrongs of history—all that stuff. It’s the same for me.

DM: I can rarely tell at the time. I can look back on stuff and understand maybe a little bit more closely. But because I’m not dealing directly with lyrics and things like that, it’s a lot less direct. But no, that’s not usually my place. I just go a lot more on emotions and feelings of how something feels. And then I can’t do anywhere close to what he can do. So that’s why I need somebody like Tariq or any other vocalist that I work with in that way. Otherwise, I don’t want to just hear the instrumental version of what I do. It’s not enjoyable for me to hear it back. These are just places for jumping-off points to turn into something bigger. So that’s not really how I think I operate in that way. But it’s definitely the people I choose to work with, or allow me to work with them, that kind of thing, that that has the bigger impact.

Danger Mouse & Black Thought – No Gold Teeth (Official Video)

AVC: Brian, did you look at this experience as sort of getting back to your roots at all?

DM: No, not at all. The last 30-plus years, it’s just a different time we’ve all been going through. Like the idea for me of roots or beginnings or genres, it’s all kind of silly. I mean, I grew up in the eighties. There’s pop on the radio, there’s rock and roll music, hip-hop’s there. It’s all there. There’s different things with where you were, where you grow up, the people you’re around. It all changed every couple of years, like a lot of other people. One of them isn’t any more natural to me than anything else based on race or age or any of that stuff. No genre for me personally is any more natural than another—there’s no roots really, for me. Like, there’s the specifics of [the genre], sure, and that’s what people are going to call it, and there are stylistic things. But there’s no inherent thing really with me personally—it doesn’t feel that way, anyway.

AVC: The fact that you, Tariq, are driving home from The Tonight Show while we’re doing this underscores the fact that you guys both obviously have so much going on in your careers. After completing this album, what lessons have you learned from this particular creative experience?

BT: One of the lessons I’ve learned is ‘work with Danger Mouse.’ He knows his shit. But I don’t know, man. I wish there was some philosophical jewel that I could drop on you. I think at the end of the day, if it feels like work, then you’re probably doing yourself a disservice. The process, especially at this stage of the game, for elder statesmen like Brian and myself, it should be fun. We do it because it’s what we would be doing in our spare time, whether we were commissioned to or not, you know what I mean? So what I’ve learned is keep it light and fun.

DM: It’s like he said, when you get past a certain experience of what you’re doing, the quality is only going to be there collaboration-wise if both people really are there for the right reasons. I honestly don’t think it matters that it took us as long as it did to get there. We did. And I just kept thinking, if we made something that should sound just as good as it would have sounded back in 2006 or seven as it would now, there’s no reason for that to change—because look at our careers. Neither one of us went and tried to go with trends or anything like that. It should sound just as good then as it would now.

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