BY DYLAN LONG Year after year without fail, The Roots have managed to wrangle just the right combination of iconic — and destined to be iconic — artists from the realms of hip hop, rap, reggae, R&B, electronica, indie and soul, to showcase at their annual Roots Picnic in Philadelphia. This year was no exception. The eighth annual Roots Picnic kicked off Saturday with sets from the soulful Marc E. Bassy and Donn T, the little sister of Questlove, The Roots Don Dada, drummer and all-around ambassador of good vibes and goodwill. Mr. E. Bassy, hand-picked by Questlove to be on this year’s bill, spent his 45 minutes in the spotlight laying down soulful lyrical rhymes with tracks like “How To Get Low” & “Faded,” happily small talking it up with the crowd every chance he could. Next up, teen rapper Bishop Nehru took the crowd by storm with his remarkably crafted lyrics, character and flow. This young man held the utmost resemblance to Brooklyn mastermind Joey Bada$$, both in appearance and with the recurring themes vibing in his music (a highlight of his set being the tune “Just Vibe”), collaborations with masked rap villain MF Doom and the brightness of his own youth.
After a short mainstage set by rap duo Rae Sremmurd — which highlighted all of their big-hit singles such as “No Type,” “No Flex Zone” and “Throw Sum Mo” — the small crew bid Philadelphia adieu, citing their awaiting flight to Cali. Meanwhile, Philly-native tech-head King Britt laid down some fresh, quality techno under the tent at the Oasis Stage. His groovy track selection stretched far & wide, including the brand new smash hit from the UK duo Disclosure, “Holding On.” While Georgia native teen sensation Raury heated things up at the Harbor Stage, Rastafari singer Chronixx was holding it down at the mainstage, backed by a full group of swagadelic conductors of reggae. Chronixx’s Marley-esque rendering of pure, Jamaican reggae had fellow Rastafarians in the crowd cheering in unison throughout. It was easily one of the most impressive performances of the day.
Soon after, Afrika Bambaataa took control of the Oasis Stage, laying down a DJ set full of classic, classic hip hop, with the strange exception of the 2014 bro-anthem “Turn Down For What” towards the end. Back on the main stage, NYC electro-rock duo Phantogram served up a lovely dose of laid back and mysterious indie rock mixed with invitingly strange synths and sample loops. After DJ Mustard closed out the Harbor Stage with a somewhat uninspired set consisting entirely of the top 20 rap songs of 2015 (possibly in that order), ASAP Rocky hit the main stage with a call for remembrance to his fallen partner in crime, ASAP Yams (who died of an accidental drug overdose back in January at the age of 26). Rocky blew through a hyped up 40-minute set, throwing the crowd into a frenzy with “Wild for the Night” and “Peso” as the sun began to set on the massive, 6,500-strong crowd of respectably wild concertgoers.
The highly anticipated solo artist Abel Tesfaye — AKA The Weeknd — and his signature wacky hairdo took the main stage next, with a personalized stage set of elegant rectangular light fixtures that glittered up the stage. His slow, melodic and sexual lyrics and grooves had the females in the crowd speaking up loud and clear with high shrilled praise. As dusk turned to dark, Hudson Mohawke closed out the Oasis Stage with his trapped-out beats before heading to play the TLA afterparty.
By then, the time had come for the main attraction. Suddenly it became nearly impossible to move anywhere within the Festival Pier grounds with the arrival of the mother-effing Roots freezing everyone in their tracks. Roots frontman Tariq Trotter, AKA Black Thought, took the mic on a pitch black stage and sharply echoed out to the rapt crowd, “What are you passionate about? What makes your heart race? What is your passion?” The crowd’s trance-like state was suddenly broken up by a highly energetic surprise appearance from the mayor of Philly himself Michael Nutter, introducing the magic that we all know as The Roots. For the next 90 minutes, all jaws dropped at the majesty and the sheer scope of the musical territory covered by The Roots and special guests The Lox, YG, Jeremy Ellis and The Weeknd.
And just when you thought a crowd couldn’t cheer any louder, miss Erykah Badu appears on stage, and the crowd welcomed her presence with open arms, instantly falling victim to her enthralling spell. Badu’s visceral lyrics and velvet octaves sent shivers down spines and left some in awestruck tears as she laid down signature masterpieces like “Back In The Day,” “Love Of My Life,” and “Bag Day” but hands down the high point of her set, and for that matter the whole day, was “You Got Me,” the indelible 1999 Badu/Roots joint. As the legendary performance neared curfew, in a raw and accurate representation of the culmination of the entire night’s emotions, Erykah simply could not help herself from exclaiming, “I love it, god damn it! Hands up and scream if you’re feeling good!” The response from the crowd was heartwarmingly deafening.