If you’ve ever attended a large music festival, you know all too well the bittersweet process that comes with it. The heat and the crowd can be overwhelming at times, but the vibes and energy output have the power to override and diminish any negatives. The 8th annual Roots Picnic proved this point. Set on the gorgeous Festival Pier in Philadelphia, it was a beautiful event filled with great people, expensive food/drinks, scorching heat and most importantly, a plethora of talented artists spanning multiple genres, all put on by the legendary Roots crew, a group that had been raising the bar of hip-hop (all genres really) long before they entered America's living rooms via Jimmy Fallon and The Tonight Show. I wasn’t able to see EVERY act perform, that would have been impossible, but I did my best to make a solid list of go-to’s and I definitely left satisfied.
Here’s a recap of who I was able to catch:
I’ve been following this 18-year-old since he was roughly 16 and he's continued to astonish me with his wordplay and classic hip-hop style. Backed by Hot 97′s DJ Juanyto, the young gun was full of energy and love for the crowd. Most notably known for his recent album with the elusive MF DOOM, he’s no stranger to large shows, but you could tell just by looking at him that he was simply happy to be performing in a gorgeous environment. I must’ve heard 20 separate people ask their friend “Yo, who is this dude? He’s a beast!” Each time I just smiled as I witnessed love for hip-hop culture grow through the music of such a young kid.
Over in the DJ tent, hip-hop legend and cultural icon Afrika Bambaataa had the fans mosh pitting to all types of old and new school sounds. Finally, some shade on this 92 degree day right? NOPE. I was not prepared to turn up to the level I did and leave that set sweating more than when I first came in. Complete with hype men and a young break-dancer, the entire performance was hip-hop in its purest form. This man had club jams for the young’ns and classic 80s/90s cuts for vintage fans such as myself. There was never a point when the crowd was not moving.
Coming all the way from Australia, the neo-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote was greeted with roaring cheers from longtime fans and curious glares from unfamiliar/prospective ones. As their set went on, the crowd grew…and grew…and grew. Once people started hearing the music, they just kept coming. I started off in the back as there was no other place to go, and by the end I was right at the front. With every turn of your head, you could see dancing. Whether lightly swaying from left to right or closing your eyes and deeply zoning into the music, you had no control over it. They just took over the soul completely and left the whole audience tranced out.
Ok, so I didn’t really see Rae Shlijfgdgufdglm perform, but I kinda did, so I wanted to include them here. Not being my cup of tea, I wasn’t planning on checking these guys out as I would’ve had to skip someone else to make it happen. That wasn’t happening. Wandering through the back layers of the massive crowd, I noticed they were still on stage so I decided to pause and at least SEE what the hype was all about. I will say this: gat dayum they can light up a crowd with insane levels of energy. Arms were flailing and overall buttons were popping off like it was 1996. I may not like the music myself, but as a pure music fan who lives to see appreciation celebrated, it was awesome to see the love they were receiving.
Though it took a while for him to come out (heat was BLAZING), A$AP Rocky came prepared to restore that lost energy with a collection of both classic songs from his beginning and unreleased jams from his new album. He even took a moment to let everyone know that a majority of the songs he was performing had never been performed before, until that day. Before you knew it, the whole mob was on stage jumping on everything and defining the word “lit.” If you’ve ever been to an A$AP show, you know to expect the hype-est of mosh pits and the crunk-est of body movements. Now, picture that same scene in an environment where you don’t even have room to move your arms. Yeah. That was the Roots Picnic.
If I had to use one word to describe The Weeknd’s set, it would be astonishing. I’m a huge fan of R&B music, but the past 10 years or so have left me seriously unfulfilled. My perception of The Weeknd going into the Picnic was that he had talent, but I never really understood why he was THAT big. But, once again, my opinion changed after seeing a live performance. His set was boasting with love ballads sung so perfectly you would have thought it was a recording. No backed vocals, no back-up singers; just him, the mic and the lighting was all that he needed. It was the epitome of an R&B performance and I would see him again without hesitation. Despite the pack of teenage girls beside me screaming bloody murder during his entire set, I had a great time. Maybe even shed a tear or two.
Erykah Badu (backed by The Roots)
The year was 1999 and the song was “You Got Me.” The Roots recruited female neo-soul singer Erykah Badu for its chorus and history was made. I was 13-years-old, had it on tape and would vibe out with it coming through my headphones. As The Roots awaited her onstage arrival, they played a ton of jams from their never ending catalog of hits and kept the crowd on their toes. Once the faint sounds of “Bag Lady” started to flow through the crowd, the energy rose to maximum levels and there she was: the goddess herself, Miss Erykah Badu. With blue lights shining down on an otherwise pitch black pier, she began to sing and the crowd silenced…THEN WENT NUTS. Badu seemed to be on stage for over an hour and a half, performing anything and everything you would want to hear. As the set went one, she vanished and reappeared on the other side of the stage on roller skates, gliding around as if to be floating. It was a perfectly fitting image for the vibes that were already flowing about so freely. There were several moments where I just stopped dancing, tiled my head back, closed my eyes and just felt the moment. It was hard to believe it was actually happening right in front of me. I truly was at one with the universe. We all were.
Special Guest/Surprise Performances: YG, The L.O.X., Freeway (all backed by The Roots)
The Roots Picnic would not be the Roots Picnic without surprise performances! In the middle of Erykah Badu’s set, she would pause randomly and out would come an unsuspected guest. From YG’s “My Hitta” to The L.O.X.’s “Money Power Respect”/”24 Hours To Live” to Freeway’s “What We Do”/”Flipside,” hip-hop was in full effect at the end of the show. Did I mention all of this was ALSO BACKED BY THE ROOTS?! Are you kidding me?! It was a storybook ending to what had already been a historic day for all of music.
I repeat: If you’ve ever attended a (large) music festival, you know all too well the pros and cons. Not everybody is cut out for the long, exhausting day – but true music fans know that festivals are one of the best way to step outside of your preferred tastes and experience something new, something different than you would normally expose yourself to. Festivals have changed my views on a lot of genres and I couldn’t be more thankful for events like the Roots Picnic for putting local and international acts from across the world right in front of me. Face painting, bubble guns, sundresses, fashion galore, gorgeous women, smiles, no aggression, peace, love and three sizeable stages of great music – it was a music lover's heaven. I live in the Boston area, but for the past five years I’ve taken the bus down to Philly for this particular reason. If you’re looking for something to do next May/early June, set this event reminder now. The 8th Annual Roots Picnic was epic, and I'm only expecting it to get better.
[By Matt Whitlock, he does all things hip-hop. This is his Twitter.]