Al Navarro, CCO & Co-Founder

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve no doubt heard of The Roots, the Philadelphia rap group that serves as the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s version of “The Tonight Show.”

Arguably the most famous member of The Roots is Amir “Questlove” Thompson. He’s the group’s drummer, an excellent writer, and the possessor of a very impressive afro. But the band’s actual front man is Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter.

Back in December, Black Thought appeared on NYC-area DJ and hip-hop icon Funk Master Flex’s show and dropped what many consider to be the best freestyle ever recorded — at the very least the best in the history of the long-running Hot 97 show. Where most rappers drop the minimum “16 bars,” Black Thought rapped for nearly 10 full minutes.

While having the talent to ad-lib for that long, on the beat, and (mostly) rhyming is impressive in and of itself, what impressed me most was the diversity of commentary and references contained in the rap — a transcript of which is available from several online sources.

And this is what I think is the key takeaway for from a professional writer’s standpoint: the importance of having a breadth of knowledge and a natural sense of curiosity.

There have already been appreciations and annotated transcriptions written about this performance, but here are just two of the dozens of references that impressed me most:

“Criminal records like record sales
Making heads or tails
We like Henrietta Lacks up in the cells”

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells were taken and used without her or her family’s consent. They have been reproduced and are still in use for research today. The whole affair is extremely controversial and was the subject of book and related documentary, both titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

Whether or not listeners know who Henrietta Lacks is, Black Thought’s inclusion of this important human rights figure adds incredible depth to his freestyle.

Here’s another section that I found particularly inspired/inspiring:

“Same cadence as D.O.C. pre-accident
Maybe, my acumen’s on par with Kool G. Rap and them
Give me the proper respect, mothafucka’, we back again
For a couple things we lost in a fire
The drive, the desire to perform on a higher plateau”

In addition to name-checking two important MCs, D.O.C. and Kool G. Rap, this section includes — at least to my ears — a reference to the film “The Things We Lost in the Fire” by Danish director Susanne Bier. Note also the use of two SAT-grade words, “acumen” and “sepia.” That’s a lot to pack into just five lines.

People sometimes comment on the fact that I know a lot of trivia. (For example, I knew who Henrietta Lacks was without having to look it up.) But to me, having a breadth of knowledge and natural sense of curiosity go beyond the trivial. In fact, I think it’s quite important to have these attributes, especially for creative types.

You might never be called on to drop a 10-minute freestyle, but chances are you’ll eventually be in a meeting where one of your clients references something that most people in the room have no idea about. But you do…and so you’ll make a connection with that client. So they’ll like you more than they like other people. They’ll trust you more than they trust other people. And that is priceless.

So even if you have no interest in rap music or pop culture, indulge me and go listen to/read the transcript of Black Thought’s freestyle. Because just as important as having a breadth of knowledge is having a natural sense of curiosity. And here’s a chance to prove you do.

Source: The New Yorker