Danger Mouse & Black Thought: “You can’t name a classic song that’s not sad”

It's long been mooted that the fêted producer and The Roots’ lead MC had a stellar collaboration in them. Now 'Cheat Codes' is finally here – and the story is far from over, as Patrick Clarke learns

‘Cheat Codes’ has been a long time coming. Among fans of the prolific producer Danger Mouse and The Roots’ lead MC Black Thought, there have been whispers about a collaborative album between the pair of generationally acclaimed artists for almost two decades.

They first met in 2006 to lay down the demos from which all that expectation stemmed. Back then Danger Mouse – aka Brian Burton – was riding a wave of breakout hype for ‘The Grey Album’, his internet-breaking mash-up of The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ and Jay-Z’s ‘Black Album’. Black Thought – Tariq Trotter – was introduced through The Roots’ then-manager, the late Rich Nichols.

“I wasn’t too familiar with the name Danger Mouse, but I was familiar with that album, so that’s how Rich introduced him,” recalls Trotter, speaking via Zoom from his car halfway through his commute to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where The Roots are the house band. “He said, the ‘Grey Album’ dude wants to do a joint with you.” The two both happened to be in Los Angeles at the time, so Black Thought agreed to meet.

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As a teenager in Atlanta, Burton had been obsessed with The Roots. “I remember paying someone to steal [The Roots’ 1995 album] ‘Do You Want More?!!!??!’ from Turtle’s Records And Tapes,” he recalls with smile, joining the call from his apartment. “It was one of those albums that most people in my high school didn’t really know about, so I had even more of a connection with it because it was ‘my thing’.” A few years later, in his freshman year at the University of Georgia, when The Roots were in town, Burton went around his dorm like an evangelist preacher to convince anyone who would listen to come to the show.

“At that time rappers were like superheroes – everyone had their favourite and could tell you why, and for me Black Thought was the best,” he recalls. “So after ‘The Grey Album’, when I was getting to reach out to people more, Tariq was at the top of the list.”

The demos they made together were good, and left plenty of space for further collaboration, but then Gnarls Barkley, Burton’s project with Cee-Lo Green, began to explode. With debut single ‘Crazy’ going quadruple-Platinum, “I just had to run with it,” Burton admits. Both he and Trotter were keen to return to their collaboration, but neither could find the time amidst increasingly hectic schedules.

“Months turn to years, and then you suddenly turn back and think, ‘Man, we haven’t done anything in 10 years,” Burton remembers. The Roots released albums at a rate of knots and established themselves as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, while Black Thought pursued a parallel acting career and Danger Mouse worked on one hit record after another, from four albums with The Black Keys to Adele’s ’25’ and U2’s ‘Songs Of Innocence’. All the while the ‘Dangerous Thought’ recordings, as they were rumoured to be titled, entered internet folklore, brought up from time to time in blog posts and fan forums.

It was not until late 2017 that Trotter picked up the phone. “He said: ‘Do you still wanna do this?’ and I said, ‘Of course I still wanna do this,’” Burton explains. Both happened to be in New York the following week, and all of a sudden they were together in Burton’s apartment. “We started recording the album right then and there,” he continues. There was “maybe one verse here, a piece of a beat there,” that they carried over from their sessions a decade ago, but for the most part they started fresh in order to utilise the experience they’d gained in the intervening 11 years. “I felt like I’d gotten better. I knew more what I wanted to do,” Burton says.

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Much of it was sketched out during twice-weekly meet-ups throughout 2018, strengthening and strengthening their creative partnership. Working with his childhood hero inspired Burton to return to his roots in hip-hop beat-making – “trying to find the music that I wanted to hear my favourite rapper on,” as he puts it.

They established a rich working relationship. “Over time we’ve become really efficient, we’ve learned the ways in which we’re able to best complement each other,” says Trotter. Each allowed the project to take precedence over individual ego. “You communicate better when you know you’re not gonna mess up the relationship or that someone’s gonna get upset,” says Burton. “Sometimes there’s so much ego involved that you almost have to walk on eggshells because you don’t know how far you can go before the other person gets offended,” Trotter agrees. “It’s good to be able to tell it like it is.”

The result is a record where that synergy is plain to hear; the ease with which Trotter’s bars weave their way among Burton’s beats is frequently staggering on ‘Cheat Codes’ .

“You communicate better when you know you’re not gonna mess up the relationship” – Danger Mouse

For the first time since his early career, Burton was working primarily with sampling, “similar to the way I made music 20 years ago but with a more specific purpose,” and focussed on the fundamentals of his style. “Most music I work on, I look for it to have a darker, more introspective, more melancholy quality.” It has become a feature of his vast discography as a producer, he argues, because “I listened to a lot of music on headphones when I was younger. It wasn’t very communal so I always gravitated towards the more melancholy.”

The record opens on a sample from soul legend Gwen McRae’s ‘Love Without Sex’ – great flows of mournful strings, tumbling piano and a deep, moving vocal line. On ‘Aquamarine’ guest Michael Kiwanuka counters Black Thought’s urgent bars with a despondent vocal: “Everything’s burning down when I close my eyes again / Enemies all around – I don’t understand.”  As Burton argues: “You can’t name a classic song that’s not sad. Maybe you can look around and find one here or there but that just proves the point. Every good song, historically, is melancholy in some way.”

Trotter agrees. “I can’t prove him wrong! There have been [happy] hits, sure, but classic records that have stood the test of time? It’s the melancholy joints!” For him, the fact that Burton’s work shares that characteristic is proof of his genius. “You can’t just go into the lab and say, ‘Let me make a sad song.’ It’s a super-subtle nuance that has to already exist in the DNA of everything that you’re pulling from.”

In turn, when he was writing to those beats, their melancholia invited him to respond with deeper introspection of his own. “The soundscapes that Brian was creating were dense and intricate, but left space for the vocal to co-exist in a different way than I was used to. I would play the demos to people in my inner circle, and they would say: ‘It’s taken years off the sound of your voice!’ It’s something I can’t recreate; it’s part of the production. There’s an emotional, visceral sort of quality that’s given me the perfect backdrop to become more introspective and open, more transparent and vulnerable and personal as a writer.

Danger Mouse. Credit: Shervin Lainez

“’Cheat Codes’ is the most introspective I’ve been in a long time,” he continues. “It’s some of my most honest writing.” As well as Danger Mouse’s beats, he explains, heightened political tensions in the US – and particularly the outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020 – increased his tendency towards contemplation. “They were all factors, just the way the world is, what we were all dealing with mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally at that point in time.”

Apart from the additional input of producer Inflo on ‘Aquamarine’ and ‘The Darkest Part’, the duo took on all the work themselves. “The fact that it was just me and Brian doing this alone, without an engineer, made for a very raw sort of creative trajectory,” Trotter adds.

The duo in fact used the coronavirus pandemic as additional impetus. With both of their respective made considerably less hectic by the pandemic – Trotter no longer had to attend filming for The Tonight Show, four times a week for instance – they upped their focus on ‘Cheat Codes’. “The uncertainty of the moment affected people in different ways, and for people like Brian and I… we became almost hyper-productive,” Trotter says. “There was a different urgency to see things through to fruition.”

“It was [during the pandemic] that we started adding more guests and turning it more into an album instead of a bunch of songs,” says Burton. Flicking through their “mental Rolodex of people we know,” drawing heavily from the duo’s considerable amount of past collaborations, as well as Kiwanuka (whose last two LPs Danger Mouse produced), they included Run The Jewels and A$AP Rocky. The rappers trade sparring bars on the pumping ‘Strangers’ and there’s a charismatic turn from Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon on the plaintive ‘Darkest Part’. Perhaps most notably, there’s also a posthumous appearance from the late MF DOOM on album highlight ‘Belize’.

“The pandemic affected people in different ways. We became almost hyper-productive” – Black Thought

Danger Mouse had first worked with him in their ‘Danger Doom’ collaborative project from 2003 to 2006, and the two continued to link up here and there in the years that followed. “DOOM was a big fan of Tariq’s,” Burton recalls. “Likewise – he was my God,” Trotter returns. By the time ‘Cheat Codes’ came along, the producer had already been trying to figure out a way to get both on one track: “The song that is now ‘Belize’ was always unfinished, because I hadn’t been solidly working on anything with Tariq. Then as we were working on the album we realised we could finish it and it would fit this album.”

Following DOOM’s unexpected passing in October 2020, its inclusion has become bittersweet, Burton says. “I had to get it right because [I thought], ‘You’re not gonna get too many more of these – if any at all.’ This will probably be the last time I have something with him on it. But I’m happy with how it turned out.”

Before lockdown, “we had thought we were getting close to the end [of the sessions],” Burton says. “But then when we suddenly had all this time we just kept going.” Trotter, for example, was able to work on his vocal contributions to a degree he’d rarely explored in the past. “I don’t think there’s anything on ‘Cheat Codes’ that was a first draft. Everything was made a little bit better and refined, down to where I take a breath or the annunciation of a specific syllable. The amount of attention to detail in this record is what makes it unique,” he says.

Black Thought. Credit: Shervin Lainez

In fact, the only point at which Danger Mouse and Black Thought realised that the record could be refined no longer “was when we started thinking, ‘Well, this can go on the next record,’” Burton says. It is clear that their collaboration is far from over.

For now, however, attentions turn to finally releasing a record that some fans have been anticipating for almost two decades. The two start laughing when asked whether that long wait breeds additional pressure.

“We’re hard enough on ourselves!” declares Trotter. “Honestly,” adds Burton, “I don’t even feel like it’s pressure. Tariq’s who I’m trying to make excited about the music I’m doing, and I’m his first fan when he does what he’s doing. If it gets past him, then that’s good enough for me. You can’t really worry about the rest.”

– ‘Cheat Codes’ will be released via BMG on August 12

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