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Black Thought and Sean C in studio
Black Thought and Sean C in studio
Photo Credit: Mel D. Cole

Sean C on the Making of Black Thought's "Bomb Squad" Album 'Streams of Thought, Vol. 3'

We spoke with Sean C about recording Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able with Black Thought, Bomb Squad's influence on the EP, and why the formula of one producer and one rapper works so well.

One of the first things you hear on Black Thought'snew EP, Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able, is an altercation with the police. It comes at the end of the EP's intro, "I’m Not Crazy (First Contact)." The intro features a Black Thought verse chopped and screwed interwoven with a speech from Native American activist John Trudell. Then you hear the altercation. Police officers are cursing and yelling and you can hear a man responding, "I'm standing right here... I am standing still."

The voice responding to the officers is veteran producer Sean C. And the incident occurred in January 2019 after he saw a young Black man get stopped by the NYPD in Manhattan.

"[The police] were harassing a young man on the Upper West Side of New York [City.] They had him on the floor... exactly the same kind of thing they did to [George] Floyd," Sean C said over a Zoom conversation in late September. "They had their knee on his neck... You hear him say, 'I can't breathe!'"

Cane & Able is the third edition of Black Thought's acclaimed Streams of Thought EP series. The concept for the series is simple: world-class MC Black Thought locks it in with one world-class producer for an entire project. The first, released in 2018, saw Black Thought go for a cup of coffee with 9th Wonder; the second, which dropped six months later, featured Thought connecting with the versatile Salaam Remi.

The latest edition, Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Able, which is out tonight at midnight, was produced enterally by Sean C and it hits different.  

While the first two selections were more like exercises for Black Thought to just tee off, Vol. 3 is more grandiose. This is a conceptual project, featuring a mish-mash of ideas and themes that speak to the dreary political environment we're in.

The album was mostly recorded two years ago — way before the spread of COVID-19 and the protests that erupted after the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor — but there is a real tense, suffocated nature to the album that makes it appropriate for the times. Sean C said he was inspired by the chaotic, complicated noise of Public Enemy's production group, the Bomb Squad. You can hear their influence, with Sean C crafting songs with fast cuts, abrupt interludes, and disarraying noises.

His influence is also felt in another crucial way. Cane & Able features appearances from Black Thought rap contemporaries, like Pusha-T and Killer Mike. But a good portion of the album is driven by Portugal. The Man, a Portland-based indie band who bring pop sensibilities to three of the EP's records, even when Black Thought is rapping material that is grim or introspective. Sean C was the one who brought the band on board. And he claims flying out to Portland and working with the group in the studio was an eye-opening experience. 

"These guys are very much activists for indigenous, native people," Sean C said. "So, creatively, that opened my eyes up to a lot of things that, of course, you hear about in school, but... It's not in mainstream media as much as African Americans' plight."

This feels like a real moment for Thought, who just signed a deal with Republic Records. So, by extension, it's a moment for Sean C, who has had a long career in hip-hop. He’s done everything from launch careers — he discovered The X-Ecutioners — to A&R albums from the likes of dead prez, Big Pun, Mobb Deep, and more. He also produced, alongside LV, for the likes of JAY-Z, Fat Joe, Clipse, and Ghostface Killah. But never has he done a whole entire project for one rapper by himself. (Sean C and LV did a majority of the production on JAY-Z' American Gangster and Diddy's underrated mixtape MMM.)

"I've always kind of been like a little bit under the radar with people," Sean C said. "It's like, I'm the guy that producers may know who I am, but maybe everyone else doesn't."

We spoke with Sean C about recording Streams of Thought, Vol. 3 how he was trying to imitate Bomb Squad on this album, and why the formula of one producer and one rapper works so well. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

producer Sean C headshot Photo Credit: Mel D. Cole

When did you get involved with this album?

I called Tariq after the Funkmaster Flex freestyle that he did, just to tell him he killed it. And he was like, "Yo, wassup? Let's get in." And I was like, "Bet." This was probably...the end of 2017? The First song that we did was "Thought Vs Everybody." Said he was going to be at the studio at 3 pm. He got there at 2:58. By 3:15 he was in the booth.

What kind of relationship did you have prior to "Thought Vs Everything?" 

I've known Tariq for over 20 years. I think my first memory of meeting him was when I was A&R'ing Big Pun, and he came in to do the verse for "Super Lyrical." That's my first memory of meeting him. We were in Battery Studios in New York and, from there, we were pretty cool. I got him on The X-Ecutioners album that I was working on. Any time I would call him he'd come through. I ended up working on one of The Roots' albums, Undune. I did "Stomp."

So you record "Thought Vs Everybody." What happens next?

The plan was to do a project. It wasn't supposed to be a one-off. It was like, "Yo, let's get in and try to knock a project out."

I wanted to kind of have a lot more of 'Riq's personal information on the songs,  where we could learn a lot more about him on records. He's a lyrical beast; he can spit with the best of them. So, that was a challenge for me. I had the responsibility of holding it down, and working with one of the best rappers of all time. He pushed me and I wanted to push him, as well.

One of my strongest points is being in the studio with the artist. I'm very in-tune with cadences, and lyrics, and just the content of what the song's about, and the cohesiveness of an album. That's something that has always been important to me.

I mean, you didn't say this word, but would you describe it as coaching?

Yeah, I would...That's what a producer does.  Producer just doesn't make the beat. Producer creates the song. And having that chemistry with the artist, and even with musicians, that's what my job is, and that's what a producer's job is — to create the environment that is going to bring out the best in the artist. Something that has not been heard before if it's a veteran artist. If it's a new artist, you've got to dig in deep with that person and find what they're about, and what they should be talking about that fits their personality.

With a veteran artist that has been around for a long time, you have to kind of find that thing that maybe he hasn't said before, or the flow that he hasn't done before or that beat that he may not have rapped on before. You're pushing him, but you're still keeping him in a creative space that's true to that person.

Can you give some examples of what that looks like? Are you throwing out topics?

I played a beat for him that I had, and he didn't react. And the way that I usually produce is, if I'm either making it or if I have something already, I will not ask if you like it or not. I will just play and look at reactions in the room.

When we first started... we're figuring out our chemistry. So a couple beats that I may have played, he didn't react to, and I was like, "OK, I know what I'm going to do. I really want him on this, but maybe this isn't the right time for that."

We then went to Portland to work with Portugal. The Man. I brought that beat up again, and it was a different environment and a different vibe. It spoke to him, at that point. Then he started writing, and I was like, "Yo, I kind of want you to do more of like a melody thing."

That was all it took [to make "Nature of the Beast."] Tariq is amazing because people don't know the amount of talent that he has, and the things that he can do. He's a master of all. It didn't feel like it was saying anything to him that was out of his range.  I walked out the room, I came back in, and he had this whole vibe melody that was dope, you know? And it was like him still rapping but more of a melodic cadence.

Black Thought Streams of Thought, Vol. 3 Cover Photo Credit: Artist

How would you describe the album musically?

It's professional hip-hop. Sonically, it has the soul of [JAY-Z's] American Gangster, but then it also has the drive and the angst. The album speaks to what's been going on... everything we're going through with social change and police brutality is in the album. I am a huge Bomb Squad fan. Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted is one of my favorite albums.

So, I always love conceptual records, and this album is conceptual from the beginning to the end. It goes through everything, from relationships to the indigenous plight to what Blacks are going through... We are this planet of all of these different people, and oppressed people are everywhere, in every country, and most of them are of color. And they're not all African Americans. There are indigenous people that are going through these problems as well.

Is he bringing this to the album? Or do you talk about this? Or does he surprise you with it? What's behind some of the content that's on the album?

Tariq is a very learned man. He's super informed. I learn a lot just from having conversations with him. He can have a conversation about anything. When we went to Portland, and worked with Portugal. The Man, these guys are very much activists for indigenous people. So, creatively, that opened my eyes up to a lot of things.

That opened up a whole new chamber, for me, content-wise. And that's why they ended up being on three songs. But, for Tariq, he's already very aware of a lot, so he still speaks the same thing that he's been saying for years.

It seemed like Portugal. The Man had a big influence on this album?

I would say they had a huge influence, content-wise, more than anything else. And whatever you're going through, or whatever you are, as a person, at that moment, is what comes out in your art. I'm in a discovery period — which I think a lot of us are in because of what's going on in society — and that kind of came through when I was putting the finishing touches on this album, with the skits, intros, and outros.

There's an interlude with an altercation that I had, personally with the police. It's my voice screaming at the cops. There are cops telling me to back up, while they were harassing a young man on the upper west side of New York.

When was that?

That actually happened when I was coming from the studio, it would have been January 2019. I walk a lot when I'm in New York [City]. I walked past the Duane Reade [pharmacy], on the upper west side, and I just see all of these cop cars. There was about five to six officers just running towards this Black man, who was coming out of Duane Reade, grabbed him, tackled him, threw him to the floor, had their knee on his back, and he was just like, "I can't breathe, I can't breathe."

So, I pulled out my phone, I started recording it, and they were like, "back up!" And [one cop] started pushing me, saying that I was getting too close, and I kept saying, "I'm standing right here. I'm not in your way." They ended up taking him in the car and took him down to the precinct. I spoke to some people, and I sent my video in. I didn't put it on YouTube, or social media or anything. I just wanted to make sure that the young man was OK. That he didn't get killed.

Who knows what would have happened to him if someone didn't document it, or someone didn't follow up.

Black Thought hat next to Sean C Photo Credit: Julian Laboy

So, I wanted to ask you about a couple of songs, specifically. So, I'm just going to throw a title out and then you can talk about making the track. Let's start with "Thought Vs Everybody."

The first thing that comes to mind is just, "he's coming for everybody's head." And the double entendre on it is your mind — you can do anything, because it's thought versus everybody.

There is a version where we broke it up, to make it into three verses. But I think, the energy of it comes through with just that one verse, and that was the other reason why I try to throw subliminal sounds, and things that go with what he's saying. So you can see everything he's saying while he's rapping. And to make it disruptive. That's why that cuts while he's rapping. That's the Bomb Squad, that's me trying to be like them.

The next one is the next song that he released, which is "Good Morning," the posse cut with Swizz Beatz, Pusha-T, and Killer Mike. What do you remember about making that song?

So, that was something that LV and I had. One day we had been in the studio with Swizz [Beatz] just vibing out and playing beats. We're playing shit. Swizz is a good friend, and Swizz loved that beat, so he had the mic going, and he just started doing choruses over it. I kind of played [it for Black Thought] I stopped it, moved to the next one. I didn't play the whole thing because, partly, I was like... "Everybody's going to think Swiz did the beat." I played maybe four bars of that, went to something else, and he's like, "Yo, go back to that other beat that you played."

He was like, "I fuck with that, I fuck with that." So, he started writing to it right there. There are multiple verses on that beat.

When we finally landed on something, I was like, "Yo, we should get somebody on it." And so I hit Push. Push sent it back in a week or so. And then, it was going to be just them three on it.

I want to say it was either  [for] Freddie Gibbs or Benny The Butcher's album, but Push had used that verse that he gave us on one of those other projects. But we didn't take it anyway. That was one of the earlier sessions, so he probably was like, "I don't know what's ever going to happen. I'll do something else." I hit him, and was like, "Yo, we still going to use the joint, but you [already] did that verse." So he did another verse, sent it back to us, then we wanted to just take it to that next place, and we reached out to Killer Mike.

I wanted to put [Black Thought] with people he hasn't rapped with before. That was one important thing for me. Because there's a bunch of people that could fit with Tariq, you know? But, him and Pusha is dope because that's an event. No one's ever heard him rap with Pusha. We had a whole conversation of rappers that he would do songs with that he hasn't.

Who else did he mention?

I'll let him answer those questions.

Can you tell me about the first full track, "State Prisoner?"

That's all angst. The intro comes in kind of mellow, with the speaking and letting you know where we're kind of coming from and then "State Prison" comes in. It's just hard. It's just got a lot of energy to it. The beginning of the album is the Black Thought that everybody wants to hear — just [him ripping] shit down.

It could have went the exact opposite way, too. I did a sequence where the album was actually reversed — where the way it ends is the way it begins. So, it could have gone either way. Sequencing is super important, so I wanted to make sure that the first couple songs were aggressive and then it mellows out a bit. Then it gets hot and it picks back up. Then it gets hard again.

Kendrick Lamar did this a couple of years ago with DAMN. Are you saying you can play the album from end to front and it would make sense?

Yeah, it still would make sense. It's all how you want to tell a story. But, yeah you could play it backwards, and it would work.

Can you talk about "Stake 'Em," which is Black Thought and ScHoolboy Q?

ScHoolboy's one of my favorite rappers. I really like ScHoolboy. That is something that I know people would not expect. And that is the reason why I wanted to see that. That's just them both being themselves on the record, so Schoolboy talking about where he's from, and what's going on there, and Tariq just being 'Riq.

I love West Coast rappers, and I feel like Schoolboy... is the quintessential West Coast rapper. He has that purity of a gang member, but [one] that could really rap. And his cadences are dope. He doesn't rap the exact same way, he has a lot of character in how he puts his words together.

One veteran rapper and one veteran producer seems to really work. I'm thinking about the success Nas and Hit-Boy had with King's Disease.  

Yeah, it is, man. When you're together in the room, that's the best way to do it. The reason it was great for me to be able to do the whole project because I know what every song is. There's songs on the album where I may have taken a verse that was originally on another song, and it might have been his scratched verse, or it might have been not even a whole verse, it might have been a couple lines that he was doing... and I would go to the playlist, take that verse, and then make a new song out of it. So, a lot of that was happening, and that lends itself to you being aware or remembering every song and what happened. I'm sure, Hit-Boy was privy to the same thing with Nas.

It is good when you're able to produce a whole record. That's the way a lot of those classic records were made. The Bomb Squad produced all of Public Enemy's records as a team. Prince Paul did De La Soul records. Marley Marl produced all of the Juice Crew albums. RZA was doing full Wu-Tang projects. That's what causes those records to be cohesive.

What is the Mount Rushmore of your career accomplishments?

Being able to go back and sign The X-Ecutioners to a major record label,was a big accomplishment for me because those are my boys from when I was a teenager. We were kids, just trying to be the best DJs ever, and be able to go back and sign was a big deal for me.

Working with dead prez. I have worked with the top MCs of all time, and then I've worked with groups or artists that were pushing the envelope, dead prez being one of them. And Big Pun being the first latino solo rap artist to go platinum. That's a huge accomplishment. That was something that had never been done before. And then working on JAY-Z's first album, "Can't Knock The Hustle,."

And now this album.