Photos by Kyra Kverno
In the crisp, grey fall weather that signifies the final throes of the summer festival season, the Roots Crew invited a few thousand of their closest friends to a party in the heart of Manhattan, and reminded those of us lucky enough to join in on the fun why they’re- without a doubt- legendary.
The first weekend of October marked the first time they brought the Roots Picnic to NYC, though it’s run successfully in their hometown of Philadelphia for nine years now. Their Philly installation took place on June 4th, condensing performances by Future, Usher, Leon Bridges and Blood Orange and over a dozen others into one day. The line-ups showed little overlap, aside from the common thread of the Roots themselves backing the headliner, but part of what made the NYC Fest- held in Bryant Park- so electric, was the sense of historicity that ran throughout the weekend; the youngins had their time to shine, but the biggest slots, as the sun went down and the floodlights snapped to life, were reserved for pioneers ready to teach us a lesson or two and remind us of, fittingly, our musical roots.
Saturday afternoon, Kevin Gates no doubt came to provoke, dressed in a white tunic, red kufiya and neon orange slides and peppering his set with choice words for his haters (“I do give a f**k about what I say, I just don’t give a f**k about what anyone thinks about it.”), but it was Lady Leshurr, a pintsize rapper from Birmingham (UK, not AL) who first caught my attention. Sure, she had more covers than originals in her set, and has some sort of weird hang up in regards to personal hygiene (“If you’ve got clean underwear this side make some noise! Everyone should have it,” she shouted to the crowd, before launching into a song about the silent scourge of “crispy bacon lips.”), but she spits fire, and hits her verses as heavy as Miss Minaj herself.
Everyday People, a crew who puts on “a monthly brunch party and gathering in downtown NYC… signature parties across America, as well as a mix of cultural, wellness and fundraising projects,” followed on the small stage, and was the perfect antidote to the somewhat antiseptic X Ambassadors before them. They delivered a ferocious, feel-good outpouring of community– a little taste of how fun their fetes must be. DJ Moma kept the positive vibes flowing, mixing Latin, African, Cuban, Hip hop and beyond, even bringing his young son up to show off some of his dance moves. A trio of dancers in cropped hoodie sweatshirts and black pants did their thing throughout the set, dancing their asses off and inspiring many of us to do the same.
The Roots came out for their first set with massive swagger and massive speakers, giving Times Square a run for its money as the hub of midtown. Reminding people that they’re hip hop pioneers, thank you very much, not just Jimmy Fallon’s background music, they blasted through a few songs, before bringing out a parade of A list pals to play with them. “I’m only out here for two reasons: Kevin Hart couldn’t make it and D’Angelo is late,” Dave Chapelle deadpanned. Surprise guest Common delivered one of the weekend’s highlights, an intense freestyle addressing Black Lives matter and the tension in our country; “The new plantation, mass incarceration. Instead of educating they rather convict the kids,” he rapped, before launching into an old classic, “The Light.” After solos from the Roots Crew, Black Thought introduced “guitar slayer” John Mayer, who sang “Paper Doll,” but mainly focused on shredding, staying onstage to accompany D’Angelo on “Brown Sugar.”
The open format of the venue, with the smaller and larger stages facing each other along 6th avenue and 5th avenue, respectively, highlighted some of the festivals built in contradictions. Case in point, some acts held the audience’s attention better that others; before Sydney Sierota- the only sister in the quarter of siblings that make up Echosmith- was even halfway through her Taylor Swift approximation, crowds had already flocked to the smaller stage in anticipation of EPMD, who kept the party going, delivering a rowdy set in celebration of their 30th anniversary. “This new hip hop is making our kids dumb,” emcees Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith told the crowd, pulling no punches. “We represent Biz Markie, A Tribe Called quest, De La Soul.” Stepping aside, they let DJ Diamond show off his considerable scratching skills, including some pretty slick tricks like scratching behind his back, after which they led the audience on a sing-along (rap-along) as they paid tribute to artistic geniuses that we’ve lost both in recent years and since the advent of hip-hop, sampling huge chunks of tracks from A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dog, Biggie, ODB, Tupac, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye.
Of course, in a perfectly timed punchline, Drake blasted from the main stage by way of an intro for Lil Uzi Vert. If, just minutes before, the crowd has nodded along righteously to EPDM’s excoriating remarks about the new rap vanguard, they promptly forgot, shrieking excitedly as the young rapper took the stage. “Hey New York, can I come turn up with you?” he asked, throwing himself into the crowd as he rapped the chorus for “Of Course We Ghetto Flowers.”
Experimental noise-rock band, Deerhoof, was definitely the wildcard of the lineup, but further proved that the Roots curated the picnic without limiting it by genre. The audience may have been skeptical, but they were certainly captivated by lead vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, who radiated hyper, punk energy, hopping and flailing and gesturing when she wasn’t playing guitar. “I’m gonna try to not destroy anything on this stage,” she said enthusiastically, launching into her last number overtop the whine of feedback. A surprisingly metal cover of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was a highlight of the set.
Grits & Biscuits mixed comedy and tunes first with a set of ‘80s and ‘90s tunes and then a string of Southern hip hop hits. “This ain’t no performance, this here is a party,” they said to the hyped up crowd.
Swizz beats won his hometown crowd over bringing his two young sons on stage (he called them “lil swizzies,” d’aww), saying, “I wanted “to show them how much love New York City has for their dad.” What an egomaniac, I mused to my pal, immediately eating my words as he backed the boast up, launching into a head-spinning set of hits he had a hand in creating, including Jay Z’s “On To The Next One,” T.I.’s “Swing Ya Rag,” DMX’s “Party Up” and Kanye and Rihanna’s “Famous.”
Black Thought lived up to the name of his Live Mixtape, bringing out legend after legend to trade raps, including Kool G Rap, Royce Da 5’9”, Freeway, Smif-N-Wessun, Pharaoh Monch and Big Daddy Kane.
Trombone Shorty then deviated from the hip-hop pattern, but quickly won over the audience, proving himself a natural entertainer and joyful spirit. Alternating between singing and trumpet he performed a feat that dropped jaws across the park, blowing on the trumpet for at least a full minute, ending on a huge blast of sound. He gave each band member their moment to solo, including guitarist Pete Murano and Dan Oestreicher and BK Jackson, on baritone and tenor sax, who danced along with him in sync. Their version of James Brown’s “Get On Up” brought the energy of the evening to a fever pitch, paving the way for Jazzy Jeff to take us on “a journey through this thing we can music,” the smoke from Delaney BBQ wafting in the air, clouding the sky like a nightclub.
Black Thought came out one more as rain started to mist, and introduced David Byrne, who sadly lost a lot of the audience (who were anxiously awaiting the Wu Tang Clan, if apparel was any indication), choosing to perform a series of songs from his forthcoming musical, Saint Joan, based on the life of Joan of Arc. But to those of us that love the man, he was in fine form, decked out in an orange and red plaid suit, doing the funky chicken across the stage. Sadly, he had the shortest of the headlining sets, but he ended with a crowd pleaser, “Born Under Punches” from Talking Heads’ seminal Remain In Light.
Decked out in his fuzzy pink Kangol, Nile Rogers was one of the heroes of the weekend, sharing his excitement at getting to play his hometown, opening with “Le Freak,” and proceeding to blow the audience away with a medley of his hits, including “I’m Coming Out,” “Upside Down” and “We Are Family.” Backup singers Kimberly Davis and Folami were astounding, taking the lead on “I Want Your Love” and “I’m Coming Out,” and giving Diana Ross a run for her money. The audience freaked out some more when Rogers brought out the Sugarhill Gang, who performed their classic “Rapper’s Delight.”
As if the evening could get more star-studded, Alicia Keys turned up, looking stylish in a black corset, blue jump suit and big, gold hoops. “You couldn’t have a party in New York and not have me pop by,” she laughed, indulging Questlove with “Teenage Love Affair,” and making my teen dreams come true with a stunning version of “No One.”
The final mystery guest, Amy Schumer introduced the members Wu Tang Clan overtop barks of “Wu, Wu, Wu,” and the crew poured onto the stage, opening with “Triumph,” and hiting the highlights of their impressive catalogue, including “C.R.E.A.M,” “Bring The Pain” and “Da Rockwilder” with Method Man and Redman.
“We came in peace we gonna leave in peace,” they announced to the crowd, prompting New Yorkers of all ages and races to throw up the peace sign as we flooded back into the street of Manhattan, renewed in our love of this crazy, amazing city, bursting from the seams with talent.