Festival Review: The Roots Picnic in New York City

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One of the most gifted and musically diverse bands on the planet, The Roots are in their ninth year curating their own music festival.  Always co-headlining alongside some of their favourite artists, collaborators and friends, the festival has been one way The Roots’ celebrate their hometown, Philadelphia, every year.  For the first time in 2016 however, The Roots have expanded their festival to not only celebrate their hometown, but to also celebrate their second home (where they go to work every weekday for The Tonight Show), New York City.  Having already hit Philadelphia back in June, The Roots also brought a two-day festival with its own unique lineup to Bryant Park in New York for the first weekend of October.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to New York.  I had previously attended back-to-back Rock The Bells festivals here in 2010 and 2011, but this would be my first time back after starting this website.  There would be many artists on the lineup who I had never seen live before, including D’Angelo, EPMD, John Mayer, David Bryne, Nile Rodgers and others, but the main selling point for me was being able to see my favourite band, The Roots, perform alongside my favourite rap group, the Wu-Tang Clan.  I’ve seen both of these legendary groups perform each on three different occasions before, but this would be the first and maybe only time I’d get to see them on the same stage, at the same time.  The Roots, one of the most organized, disciplined musical acts out there, would be backing the chaotic, unpredictable and difficult-to-organize Wu-Tang Clan.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration like this that will make me buy a plane ticket to see a concert.

Day One – Saturday Oct. 1st

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The first day of the NYC edition of The Roots Picnic would be co-headlined by John Mayer, D’Angelo, and of course The Roots themselves.  There was plenty of fun to be had during the day before they would hit the stage though.  Bryant Park is a vibrant open space in the middle of all the concrete and tall buildings of New York City, and it was set up nicely for this festival.  There were two stages set up at opposite ends of the park, with vendors, bars, eating areas and games along the perimeter, among the trees.  When one artist wrapped up their set at one stage, the next artist would start immediately at the other stage, keeping the party going constantly.

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When I got to the festival, Philadelphia’s own Chill Moody was just wrapping up his set on the small stage, and Emily Wells would soon take over the main stage on the opposite end.  I explored the park as she sang, played violin, and played drums and an MPC, filling the park with some peaceful music.  Next on the small stage was a band called Chargaux, who spoke on how they had spent years playing in New York subways before gracing festival stages.  They had some talented ladies who could sing, rap and play violin.  After Chargaux rocked, a veteran Hip-Hop duo, The Jungle Brothers, would take the main stage.

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The Jungle Brothers brought out Hip-Hop in its purest form, with the DJ spinning break beats and the two MCs spitting dope rhymes.  As a younger head, I’m not too familiar with their songs, but I did recognize some flows and rhymes they originated, and that some of my favourite MCs reinterpreted on their own songs (including The Roots and Wu-Tang Clan).  After they got the crowd hyped, we got to calm down with some stand-up comedy by the co-creator of Dave Chappelle’s The Chappelle Show, Neal Brennan.  Neal had a funny set, and at the end of it he surprised everyone by bringing out Dave Chappelle himself for one minute!

I took some time to get a meal, and so I missed out on sets by Kevin Gates and Lady Leshurr, although the music could still be heard throughout the park.  When I got back into the crowd, there was a dope DJ set on the main stage by The Roots’ drummer himself, Questlove, followed by a set on the small stage by Stretch & Bobbito.  Back at the main stage was a rock band from New York called X Ambassadors.  I wasn’t too familiar with them at all, although I did recognize their song “Renegades” from some Jeep commercials.  They did a good job rocking the crowd and getting everyone ready for the headliners.  Rather than catching Everyday People back on the small stage, I decided to stay by the main stage in anticipation of The Roots.

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The Roots got things started on their own, with the band building up the energy with “Game Theory,” and Black Thought slaying his verses.  Other than the title track off their 2006 album, all of their set was songs off of their 90’s albums, including “Section,” “Dynamite,” and “Proceed.”  They then performed the song “Act Too (The Love Of My Life),” and to everyone’s surprise, Chicago’s own Common came out to perform his verse!  This would be my first time seeing Common perform live, and he rocked a few songs backed by The Roots.  He did “Go” and “The Food” off of his 2005 album Be, bringing back memories of that era when him, The Roots and Dave Chappelle would often collaborate.

The band took a break, and Common spit an accapella freestyle verse, which presumably may be featured on his upcoming album Black America Again.  Common did one more song, “The Light,” before The Roots returned and got back into their set.  They did their routine with “The Next Movement” leading to a solo by Mark Kelley on bass guitar.  This then lead into the high-energy “Get Busy,” which got the crowd jumping, and as with the last time I saw The Roots in Toronto, Jeremy Ellis got a wicked solo on his MPC.

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After Jeremy Ellis’ solo, The Roots brought out John Mayer, who had some wicked guitar solos to go along with his singing.  I’m not too familiar with his music other than the obvious “Waiting On The World To Change,” but the crowd seemed to enjoy his set despite the soft-rock being a far different vibe from hip-hop.  Fans of The Roots do appreciate good guitar solos though, as after John Mayer shined on his own, The Roots would come back and perform the hit “You Got Me,” complete with a shortened version of Captain Kirk’s guitar solo.

The Roots would have more surprises, as original member Rahzel came out and did some beat boxing with Black Thought.  Despite not touring regularly with The Roots, Rahzel has not lost a step, as he showcased his ability to beat box a sung chorus over a beat, all with just his mouth.  Another surprise was next, as Dave Chappelle came back out and did five minutes of stand-up!  He had a joke like “if I’m here, two things must be true: Kevin Hart couldn’t make it and D’Angelo is running late!”  He also poked some fun at Key & Peele, making a joke about having to watch them “do [his] show” over the past few years.

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Pretty soon D’Angelo came out and he got the crowd moving again.  The crooner performed smoothly, whether it was at the front of the stage with the microphone, or off to the side behind the keys.  I’m not too familiar with his songs either, other than a couple hits like “Brown Sugar,” but the vibe of his set was nice.  John Mayer stayed on stage and rocked the guitar in the background, at one point playing another guitar solo with D’Angelo’s singing.  It was cool seeing all three headliners collaborate on stage together at the same time.  The RnB tunes had the crowd in a good mood, and everyone left day one of the festival feeling happy.

Day Two- Sunday Oct. 2nd

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Day two of the festival would be co-headlined by David Byrne, Nile Rodgers, and the Wu-Tang Clan, all backed by The Roots.  It also had some of the artists I was most excited to see, including Black Thought’s Live Mixtape featuring J. Period, Royce 5’9″, and others.  Black Thought and Royce in particular have collaborated on some of my favourite songs of 2016, and are two of my top three favourite MCs.

I got back to Bryant Park around mid-day, and the legendary EPMD were just getting on stage.  They were true professionals when it comes to rocking the mic, as they spit every word of their verses and knew exactly when to back each other up.  They performed a lot of their classics and brought a ton of energy to the small stage.  They also spent some time criticizing modern rappers who rap over their own recordings when they perform, saying “that Gucci belt won’t rap for them.”  This would be especially funny considering the next artist to hit the main stage, Lil Uzi Vert.

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I had never heard of Lil Uzi Vert before, but he was exactly the stereotype EPMD had just been making fun of.  He rapped over recordings of his own vocals, showed off some jewellery, and you could barely understand the lyrics.  On the positive side though, his performance had a lot of energy and was fun to dance to.  After Lil Uzi, comedian Jerrod Carmichael was supposed to do some stand-up on the small stage, but he never showed up.  Instead, DJ crew Grits & Biscuits performed two sets.

Grits & Biscuits did a set of classic, golden era Hip-Hop in place of Jerrod Carmichael, and later came back for the southern flavoured Hip-Hop they were booked to do.  In between their two sets, a band called Deerhoof hit the main stage.  I spent that time getting a meal but could hear them rock out in the background.  Grits & Biscuits were effective at getting the crowd dancing, as they played nothing but party tracks.  Next up on the main stage was Swizz Beatz, who would basically play hypeman and shout some lyrics as his DJ played a medley of the several hit songs he has produced.  I grew a new appreciation for Swizz after hearing how deep his catalogue goes.

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After Swizz kept the party going at the main stage, it was time for Black Thought’s Live Mixtape at the small stage.  This one would be extra special, as The Roots’ frontman happened to also be celebrating his 45th birthday.  He got things started by spitting some verses over Nas’ “NY State Of Mind” and Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement.”  The first of many surprises came early, as Black Thought brought out one of his idols, Kool G Rap, and together they performed the classics “Ill Street Blues” and “Road To The Riches.”

Next, Black Thought brought out Detroit’s own Royce 5’9″, who performed his classic “Boom” before doing his PRhyme collaboration with Tariq, “Wishin’.”  While “Wishin’ Part II” is their actual collaboration together, Royce rapped his verses off the original and Black Thought rapped an unheard original verse over the two beats in the song.  I was hoping they would perform “Rap On Steroids,” but that song never came.  Instead, they brought out Philadelphia’s own Freeway, who performed his hit “What We Do”!

The surprises wouldn’t stop, as Smith N Wesson came out, and Pharaohe Monch also graced the stage to perform “Simon Says.”  Next was another epic surprise, as the legendary Big Daddy Kane came out and performed “Ain’t No Half Steppin’!”  The crowd was absolutely turned up at this point, and the most epic was yet to come.  DJ J. Period played the beat from the 1988 classic “The Symphony” and Black Thought covered Marley Marl’s “I don’t care who’s first or who’s last” bit to set things off, bringing out all the guests who previously rocked the stage to spit some raps over the beat.  Freeway got it started, followed by Royce spitting his verse from “Courtesy,” Pharaohe Monch’s verse from “Oh No,” Smith N Wesson doing a back and forth, Craig G making a surprise appearance, and of course the originals from 1988, Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane.  My people at AmbrosiaForHeads covered it before I could:

Black Thought’s Live Mixtape would be difficult for any artist to follow up, which is probably why the next act was a completely different vibe from typical Hip-Hop.  Straight from New Orleans, Trombone Shorty rocked the main stage with a band including saxophone players, drummers, guitarists, and he himself alternated between trombone and trumpet.  It was a different but fun vibe, and eventually another New Orleans native, Mystikal came out as a surprise guest.  Mystikal performed a few songs with the band, including his hit “Shake Ya Ass.”  Afterwards, DJ Jazzy Jeff would hit the small stage, but I stayed by the main stage in anticipation of the headliners.

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The Roots got set up, and Questlove could be seen behind his drum set wearing a Wu-Tang hoodie.  Black Thought came out and introduced the first headliner, David Byrne.  I’m not very familiar with David Byrne, as most of his hits were before my time, although I did recognize him from his guest appearance on the new De La Soul album.  Rocking a checkered suit jacket and a head full of grey hair, David Bryne got the crowd warmed up by singing and dancing to a few songs.  Next up was Nile Rodgers, who would really turn the crowd up.

Nile Rodgers and members of the band Chic came out and got everyone dancing right away to their classic disco hit “Freak Out.”  They then did a medley of hits Nile produced for other artists over the years, and it was a real lesson on Hip-Hop history.  Hip-Hop’s foundation was partly built on sampling disco records, and Nile Rodgers had a hand in a lot of those songs that got sampled.  They performed the Diana Ross song that was sampled to produce The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems,” and another song that was sampled to produce Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy With It.”

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They performed the Chic hit “We Are Family” before Nile paused to speak on his successful battle against cancer.  He told the story of how when he was first diagnosed five years ago, one of the first phone calls he got was from Daft Punk, which lead to the creation of the next hit song they’d perform, “Get Lucky.”  Kim Davis put her own awesome twist to the opening vocals on the song.  To end their set, they performed another disco classic with “Good Times,” during which The Sugarhill Gang made a surprise appearance and performed their hit “Rappers Delight” over the bassline!

After Nile Rodgers’ epic set, The Roots teased bringing out the Wu-Tang Clan by playing the instrumental from “Rainy Dayz,” but they had another surprise in store, and instead brought out Alicia Keys!  With The Roots at her disposal, Alicia Keys performed a reggae version of “You Don’t Know My Name,” followed by a couple more of her hits like “Teenage Love Affair” and “No One.”  Just as you’d expect from a singer as talented as Alicia Keys, she laid down her vocals perfectly and gave the crowd good vibes.

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With the Wu-Tang Clan’s reputation for showing up to shows late, improvising and sometimes having members not see each other until they’re on stage, there were rumours that maybe they didn’t make it and that Alicia was supposed to replace them.  The doubters were proven wrong though, as pretty soon comedian Amy Schumer came out and earned some cool points by introducing the Clan.  The Roots’ unofficial band member Jeremy Ellis had a wicked intro on MPC, playing with all the classic kung-fu samples Wu-Tang is known to use, and the band started to play the instrumental from “Triumph.”

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The whole Clan rushed the stage, as Inspectah Deck got the set started with his classic opening verse, and the rest of the members followed.  The entire Clan was there to rap all the verses on the song, except for Ghostface Killah.  Eight out of nine ain’t bad though.  Before Raekwon could spit the closing verse of the song, The Roots transitioned the beat into “C.R.E.A.M.,” and Rae spit the opening verse of that song instead.  Next was GZA’s solo hit “Liquid Swords,” except the birthday boy Black Thought came out and performed the song with him, spitting the first verse while GZA rapped the second.  At this point it sunk in just how epic this collaboration was.

Next to shine was Raekwon, Cappadonna and Method Man with a performance of “Ice Cream.”  As with most times The Roots perform, there were barely any pauses, as they transitioned seamlessly from one song to the next.  They then performed “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin’ Ta Fuck Wit,” and RZA got the crowd jumping.  The live instrumentation gave the songs a different sound, and the way the beat drops during RZA’s verse didn’t stand out as much.  The crowd was still hyped though, as next was the up-tempo “M-E-T-H-O-D Man.”

Meth took over the stage with his solo hit, although he didn’t jump into the crowd or do any stage diving like he’s known to do.  They then performed “Da Rockwilder,” and it looked like Method Man was going to do it solo, but then The Roots surprised the crowd yet again and brought out Redman for the second verse!  This might have been the most hype the crowd had been all night.

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U-God and Masta Killa finally got their chance to shine, as they performed their standout verses on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” and one of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s sons came out to perform his dad’s verse.  Wu-Tang ended the show with something I’ve never seen in the three previous times I’ve seen them perform; they did the classic “Protect Ya Neck,” but with all members spitting all of their verses (Inspectah Deck covered for Ghostface Killah).  While it was a shortened set, they did get through the bare essentials, and it was absolutely epic seeing Wu-Tang perform over The Roots’ instrumentation.

Overall, this was one of the most memorable festivals I’ve ever been to.  The Roots held no punches with all the surprise guests they brought out; it was awesome seeing some artists for the first time, and others collaborate in new ways.  This festival allowed Hip-Hop heads to scratch some items off their bucket lists (like for me, seeing Big Daddy Kane perform live), and even gave them performances you wouldn’t think were possibilities to even put on a bucket list.  The Roots’ performances with all of their co-headliners also really showed their musical diversity, which you won’t always get to see at a typical Roots concert.  The band did their own brand of Hip-Hop, along with soft rock, RnB, disco, and hardcore Hip-Hop.

The festival was a success from start to finish.  The location was beautiful, and while the weather was overcast the entire time, there wasn’t any rain to spoil the festivities.  Not only were the performances epic, but the food and the way vendors were organized was also great.  Black Thought said at the end of the show that this is their first annual New York edition of Roots Picnic, and so the Big Apple can look forward to hosting this awesome event again next year.

 

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