Inevitably, hip-hop records are treated as though they are disposable. They are not maximized as product, not to mention as art —Act Won (Things Fall Apart)
The Roots’ 4th studio album, Things Fall Apart (TFA) stands as a critical inflection point in the group’s trajectory. TFA attentively grapples with the idea of Hip-Hop as an art form, race, and consumerism, while also championing a sound culture that shows the groups versatility and artistic genealogy. In true Roots fashion, collaboration is at the core of the album, as TFA features a range of incredible artists in their own right. On TFA, we’re introduced to Beanie Sigel for the first time, a young Eve, and though not in sound, we are introduced to the pen of Jill Scott. TFA also features guest performances from Mos Def and Common, and production credits from Jay Dilla and Scott Storch.
Fittingly, 20 years after the release of Things Fall Apart, The Roots are at another inflection point. Act Won grapples with Hip-Hop’s legitimacy as an art form, and to a larger extent existential questions regarding Black American music. In the years since, The Roots have stood as a living embodiment of artistic evolution, gatekeepers of history, and storytellers for Hip-Hop.
On Saturday, June 1st, The Roots celebrated their 12th Annual Roots Picnic at Fairmount Park. After beginning as a relatively small music festival with humble beginnings and a few acts, the festival has outgrown its initial home at Festival Pier and moved on to greener pastures. And though the Picnic is bigger (sold out at 25,000 attendees!), it still maintains its niche feel, celebrating the varied forms of Black American music.
For Kevin and I in particular, this was our 5th year attending the Picnic! So, to commemorate the milestone we reviewed the Picnic, talked about some of favorite moments, where this Picnic ranked for us, the stampede (there was a stampede!), and much more! Here’s our conversation:
Stanley: Year 5 for us is in the books, so I was wondering what you thought about this year’s picnic? Big picture takeaways?
Kevin: Wow...five years of the Picnic, crazy. But I think the biggest takeaway has to be that we have finally seen the vision of Questlove/Black Thought/etc. manifested. The picnic location at The Mann was sprawling, beautiful and laid out very well. They outgrew Festival Pier a while ago, but this was the first year of them leaving and spreading their wings. I would say it was a huge success (minus that gun/seizure/stage collapsing/stampede? incident lol). The big takeaway is that The Roots have practically leveled up and it was inspiring to see and be a part of.
Stanley: Yeah, 5 years is pretty crazy, especially considering all of the artists we've gotten a chance to see. But, I'm with you, I think the biggest takeaway from this year's Picnic is that The Roots have leveled up! And yes lol, the stampede. Still not sure how it started, but it happened nonetheless. We weren't at the Fairmount Stage when all of that was going on, so we were kind of hearing a lot of stuff after the fact, and it was little buzz kill for a short period, but all-in-all, I thought it was a really well done event.
Stanley: This was the first year at Fairmount Park. What did you think of the new spot?
Kevin: So...though this was big picture takeaway and I gave credit where it was due, I will now explain my grievances. The new spot is undeniably beautiful and much more spacious. It even had a view of the city skyline that I didn’t know we had. But I think my biggest complaint is that I wanted the old Kanye back lol. I missed the more gritty, close knit feel of the old spot. I felt like it expanded and allowed for more individuals (casuals) to come and I think it showed itself in the fight incident that happened. Something like that never really happened in previous years and I think the more people there allows for this as the ratio of loyalists is lowered with the new fans.
Obviously it’s great to bring in new people but this was my initial feeling. At the end of the day though, I can appreciate 25,000 being there and the new location was a physical manifestation of their growth.
Stanley: I want The Old Kanye, chop up the soul Kanye. When we first met up I was visibly annoyed and asked you, "why are so many people here?!" I'm at a music festival complaining about people, go figure lol. I think around our third year of going to the Picnic, you could really feel Festival Pier get super tight. But, I liked Fairmount Park a lot! The stages were spaced out enough to where you never really felt too boxed in. Like, there was an entire stampede that happened and we had no idea it was going on. The city skyline in the distance was nice, and plenty of grass made it cool too. The new space is nice overall.
Now, I think there is some truth to what you're saying about The Roots' appeal to a larger audience, opening up The Picnic to more people, and having the increase having its downsides. I mean, I don't think Festival Pier even had enough room to run lol. Put simply, like you said, a larger audience increases the likelihood of more problems happening. But, it's so unclear how it all started that I'd feel uncomfortable making a proclamation about who did what.
Stanley: During the Picnic you mentioned how The Roots Picnic is unabashedly black, and I was wondering if you could expound on that?
Kevin: We essentially have two black events in Philly - Odunde and The Roots Picnic. For a city as black as Philadelphia there aren’t many spaces for black people to come together in a space that isn’t economically depressed and essentially the scraps given to us. The picnic allows for black people to come together, feel safe, enjoy that community feel (buy black, listen to black music, and meet other black people from around the country). This may be the biggest aspect besides the music that I really enjoy about the picnic and I love how The Roots lean into this and know that this is a black event. The Roots are very inclusive, of course, but they make no bones about who they are catering to on this day. My girlfriend Liehem said that the festival reminded her of Oakland, her hometown, and I would say that we need more days/spaces that The Roots Picnic provides.
Stanley: Doing an entire album is an impressive feat in a lot of ways. I wanted to talk a little about The Roots’ headlining set. How did you feel about their performance? Favorite moments?
Kevin: Man, I loved the performance. Their sound is impeccable (transitions, versatility, etc) but one the thing that really stood out to me was their authenticity. They didn’t rely on bringing in a bunch of big guests to appease the audience. They were themselves and performed this classic album flawlessly and didn't care who knew the songs. They relied on their talent shining through and not caring if the people were singing along. Towards the end the of the performance, they brought out guests like Mos Def/Yasiin Bey, Common, Bilal and Jilly from Philly but the night really showed me that The Roots want to show people that they are capable of headlining without the help of more commercial names. They really brought the album to life with great visuals, spoken word, modified interpretations of songs, etc. All around great performance from possibly the greatest ambassadors we have as a city.
A favorite moment of mine had to be just seeing Mos Def chillin on stage after his performance and just seeming to enjoy being on that stage among family. You really could see the joy in his face and that spin he did at the end was impressive as he didn't get dizzy and also indicative of how he must felt internally. I would be crazy if I didn't mention Raphael Saadiq vs the Soulquarians. I know we will discuss this in a minute but the amount of talent on that stage was astounding. Raphael Saadiq is still impressive as a performer and up until that point in the day I didn't see anyone being better than that performance.
Stanley: Same, I loved their performance, too. I thought they were incredibly tight and their sound was crisp. The transitions were clean, the stage set up with the large screen having the album cover in the backdrop was a nice effect too. It was really cool seeing all of the artists you mentioned - we're fans of each of them in their own right, but it was great seeing them perform with The Roots. Also, honestly, I feel like I've been living my whole life to hear Mos Def/Yasiin Bey perform Umi Says live lol. It was incredible. He definitely caught the spirit, too.
You used the word authenticity, and that feels especially apt. No matter who The Roots bring out on stage, The Roots do a great job of taking that artist into their world, while also entering that artists world; it's truly a marriage in music.
While they were performing I kept thinking about the opening scene from the album, which was taken from Mo Betta Blues. Where Wesley Snipes' character is telling Denzel Washington's character that black people don't support Black music/art, and that Denzel's character wasn't playing "shit people wanted to hear." I mean, The Roots' career is kind of that in some ways -- they don't play the shit people want to hear all the time lol. (I, we want to hear it). But that unbending, unapologetic nature is what makes me love them as artists.
Stanley: Where does this Picnic rank for you?
Kevin: You know what's funny, whenever I attempt to rank Picnic's, I always just start naming artists from all five years and get lost in the memories of it all. So what I will say here, not to cop out, is that this Picnic will be remembered as the year that The Roots solidified their legacy (if it wasn't already). I enjoyed every year so much that it gets hard to separate and rank them. Musically, I will say that even though I liked a lot of the artists that were on the bill, there wasn't that one artist, like in the past (i.e. .Paak, Solange, Hiatus Kaiyote), that had me super excited except the Joe Budden Podcast which we had to miss because of time constraints (as you said podcast Joe > rapper Joe). It was more about the new environment and seeing The Roots be the center of attention. So my answer is, it wasn't my favorite picnic but it will be memorable for sure. So I'm going to leave the ranking to you here playboy.
One additional question though: Can you rant about podcasts being at festivals? Lol
Stanley: Ranking is almost impossible lol. I'll say this, this Picnic had one of my all-time favorite sets -- Raphael Saadiq vs. The Soulquarians. I was already excited for this portion of the Picnic, and I dreamt and speculated that D'angelo would be there, but that didn't happen. I got over that fast, though. The band: Questlove on drums, Pino Palladino on bass, James Poyser on Rhodes, James Franceis on organ, Randy Bowland on guitar, Isaiah Sharkey on guitar, and Stro Elliot on Ableton Push. I literally lost my mind with each person Questlove introduced. Calling this a super band would be an understatement. They flipped a bunch of Saadiq's songs and just killed everything. Still blown away by that set.
Overall, this wasn't my favorite Picnic, but it had a lot of my favorite moments for sure.
Now, about these podcasts lol. A live podcast is basically group stand up or something? Right? lol But, like I said during the Picnic, podcasts are a medium best consumed in isolation. It's kind of antithetical to the medium to listen with a bunch of people. I think because podcasts are a relatively young medium everybody's still trying to figure out where it can or can't go, and throwing it at a wall to see what sticks. Generally, the idea of a live podcast isn't terrrrrrible, but if I have the option of music or podcast in a live setting, I'm taking the music lol.