Truck North | photo by Mel D. Cole | courtesy of the artist
Truck North talks middle school cyphers, studying under Black Thought, and the remarkable new project The Good Thief
For the better part of the last two decades, North Philly born and bred MC Truck North has built a reputation as a near-unparalleled writer in the landscape of contemporary hip-hop. With his detailed imagery and gift for punchlines and surprising turns of phrase, Truck North is a rapper’s rapper.
After making his first appearance on The Roots’ 2004 release The Tipping Point, Truck North has released several acclaimed albums dense with heavy beats and powerful wordplay both solo and as a member of the Money Making Jam Boys (a supergroup consisting of Truck North, Black Thought, STS and Dice Raw).
On The Good Thief, his latest project created in collaboration with producer Kxng Kables, Truck North’s cinematic approach to language is put on full display. With tracks like “Nightmare” and “Pity,” The Good Thief combines gorgeously minimal beats with Truck North’s ability to illustrate life’s vicious underbelly with hard-knock allegories. We sat and spoke with Truck North about his history, working with The Roots and his creative process.
TK: For starters, I know your music but I don’t know much about your background. Could you tell me where you’re from and how you got into hip-hop?
TN: I’m from Hunting Park and always loved music. My parents had a pretty good collection of records, so that’s where I kinda first fell in love with music. Older cousins did what they were supposed to back then and passed down tapes. I meandered a bit but long story short, I ended up going to middle school out Mt. Airy. Sixth grade is when I met my group of friends, which included Kamal’s younger brother. They had already been writing and rapping by then so I followed suit pretty much.
TK: Word! Kamal Gray [keyboardist of The Roots]?
TN: Yup, same Kamal. So our little ragtag group of rappers finished middle school and ended up doing the same thing in high school. We came in cocky as hell, battled everybody, kicked ass, and took names all four years and by the summer of our graduation, we started pooling money together to record. About a year of doing that, Kamal took notice of our progress and signed us to a development production deal. After a year of that not really panning out and the deal being done, I just started showing up to the studio and by this time The Roots were beginning recording for The Tipping Point. I was already a familiar face, so at some point Rich Nichols asked me to sit in on the jam sessions for the album. I was at Temple by this time so for a good month if I wasn’t in class, I’d be at the studio doing jam sessions. That led to getting a verse on the album.
TK: Damn, that’s wild. What was it like, rocking at those jam sessions and being involved in those recordings? What was your thinking and feeling like at that time?
TN: Man…it was a circus. I mean that in the most positive way though. These were what seemed like 24-hour sessions. For two months maybe. Let’s see if I can whittle this down. The sessions themselves were dope and served as a proving ground of sorts for the young up and comers around that time — Makk Dubb, Killa Kas, Patti Crash, people like that.
So they’re a rotating cast of musicians and we would literally rap all day. By nightfall some of the guys would start rotating in, Black Thought, Questlove, Kamal, you know, the actual band. And people like Jill and Jasmine Sullivan and Musiq Soulchild and Bilal would fall through too, So I stayed for ALL that shit. Mind you, ALL this is happening in the recording room. Rich was directing the madness in the control room and right outside, there’s a full-blown party. EVERY DAMN NIGHT. Strippers, alcohol, jugglers, you name it. It was literally a circus. It was great. NO one in college was having a better time than I was having.
TK: Haha! Damn. Seeing all that, were you thinking like “Damn, once I finish school, I’m doing this rap shit”?
TN: Honestly, not really. I knew it was fun and I got to be around some brilliant individuals. Somehow they let ME in the room, so I soaked up as much game as possible. I prolly didn’t really think of rapping on some pro-level shit. I didn’t have any delusions of rap grandeur. Shit by then, we were past the point in hip-hop where a feature verse on a major label release meant you would immediately get a record deal. It was just fun. I probably didn’t take it super serious until the process of the next Roots album where I actually began trying to become a writer more than a kid who had endless random rhymes to buss.
TK: Word. I feel that. And yeah, around that time, the industry had changed dramatically. Switching gears a bit, I’m curious about your writing process. How do you come up with your shit, and who are a few MCs that have inspired you or sort of make up the DNA of your rhyming style?
TN: All the greats, really — typical answer, I know — but I was fortunate enough to come up during a time when being a dope rapper meant a lot. LL, Rakim, EST, Redman, Ras Kass, Canibus, Monch, De La, Jay, Nas, Mos, Kweli, just to name a few. They all played a part in my makeup, but I mean spending over 15 years next to the, in my opinion, the best to ever do it definitely has been the ultimate inspiration.
He pushes me to get better every rhyme, every song, every year. Cuz HE still is. Like it doesn’t make any sense how he’s still as sharp as he is while still getting better. I remember asking him the same question you just asked me when we first became cool. He pulled a book out of his bag and said never stop reading. So I haven’t. It’s actually pretty tortuous. I literally try to write the rhyme of my life every time I start a joint. It doesn’t help that he sends me new shit all the time which gets me right back in my bag lol. At this point, there’s still a few guys who make me wanna rap every time I hear a new verse. Mos (Def) whenever he pops up lol, Hov, Pusha T, and Riq. But to answer the question, I consume a lot of books and documentaries and movies. You never know when you’ll hear something ill that you can flip in a rhyme.
TK: That’s incredible. No cap, and I’ve said it before, but people (rightfully) talk a lot about how Black Thought roasts cats on tracks. But of anybody, you’re the most consistent at getting busy and shining next to him on the mic. A lot of your verses from the MMJB tape are some of my favorites.
TN: Man listen, that’s extremely high praise. He’s the one who keeps me sharp, man. Steel sharpens steel. He’s literally one of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered. So much so that its not fair. My thinking has always been that dude is a Ferrari…my car will never run as fast as that. But if I can tune my shit and get some extra horsepower so that I can at least keep up with him, then I’ll gain his respect.
There were times during that Jam Boy shit were we’d all be writing, he’d drop a verse and I would just laugh, cuz I knew I had to start all over again lol. Couldn’t even get mad. I definitely wear that as a badge of honor tho. Cuz by proxy, if I can keep up with him and no one else rarely can, then who’ll be able to keep up with me?
TK: Word. That’s real though. It’s like elite-level MCing. Switching gears, Could you tell me a bit about the new record and how it came together?
TN: Definitely, It all came together pretty organically. Kables has always been a close friend of mine. He’s Rich Nichols’ son and He used to do stage production for The Roots, so whenever we went on tour, he’d be my roommate. Over the last couple of years, he would let me hear some of the music he was working on. It was mostly blends of music he crafted with a capellas he would find. I liked that shit but I wanted the beats so I asked him one day. Let me get some of those to record over, in about a month I recorded the bulk of the music and we thought we had something pretty cool so we decided to put it out.
TK: Word. The production is really great. “Pity” is probably my favorite joint. I’ve had that on repeat.
TN: Thanks a lot man, yea, it’s super dope for us because everyone likes something different on it. And we never had any intentions of collaborating. We would just smoke and vibe out and he would play his joints. I forget which one it was, but the rapper jumped out of me and was like “fuck the blends gimme that shit!”
TK: That’s the best feeling as a producer. You play a remix and a dope MC be like “Yo, let me get that!”
TN: Yea man. Plus I wanted people to hear his stuff too. I mean, I thought it was dope, I’m sure someone else will too.
TK: Definitely. Do you have any parting words or thoughts you’d like to share?
TN: I’m just glad we’re back in space musically where we can even put something like this out and have people dig it. Me and Kables appreciate that the most. We’re both sticklers for time, so any amount of time anyone has given to checking the songs or the vids out means a lot.
TK: Word. Well, it’s a really dope record, man. Y’all did the damn thing with this.
TN: That’s love my brother…thanks a grip!