The 7th Annual Roots Picnic featuring Jhene Aiko, Action Bronson, Janelle Monae, The Roots, Snoop Dogg, Biz Markie and Doug E. Fresh
Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia PA
May 31, 2014
Over the last few weeks, I’ve felt mentally and spiritually exhausted in a way that is unfamiliar to me, and it may be part of a larger sign. In fact, I’ve tried to write and rewrite this particular post a few times and have just been too tired to put thoughts together in a cogent fashion – that is until now.
Although there were a few details that were set up in advance – mainly that my friend Abdul and I would be attending, and that I would have press access, there were a few details that fell into place as it got closer to the Roots Picnic. Originally Abdul was thinking of crashing with another friend, while I was going to crash with a dear friend in North Philly, which would have most likely meant that I would have just caught up with Abdul at Penn’s Landing; however, it turned out that Abdul’s friend was out of the country, and we both wound up staying with my friend Jamsin for a couple of days. Then we had to figure out how we were heading down to the City of Brotherly Love and when, which we figured out a few days before we were supposed to leave. But there wasn’t a lot of concern over those issues; it just felt that things were going to work out in an agreeable fashion.
For me, this trip to Philadelphia was interesting on a deeply personal level. It was the first time in Philadelphia in about 8 years and in that time, a lifetime had seemingly passed. At the time, I was with my ex-girlfriend Tanya for about a year; and Jasmin’s now-eldest son was a rambunctious toddler, whose favorite word was “no.” But let’s get to the business at hand, right?
Abdul and I took a SEPTA train into Center City for a fantastic brunch at Jones on Chesnutt Street, located a few blocks from the Liberty Bell and Old City. There’s something about their protein plate of cheddar scrambled eggs, grilled ham, sausage and applewood bacon with a cold Yuengling that just seemed to get the day going right. This was followed by a stop at the Mitchell and Ness store, and a brief stop at a drug store for a notebook that I had meant to buy while in New York. I also bought a cigar and a lighter – I normally would have had my Zippo light but as I later discovered, I had forgotten it in a pair of pants back in my midtown Manhattan office. But at the time I thought I lost the damn thing and I spent a good two or three hours annoyed at myself.
In any case, we finally got to Penn’s Landing, right on the banks of the Delaware River, a little after 4, just in time to catch most of Jhene Aiko’s set. And on a gorgeous afternoon with a view of the Ben Franklin bridge, it just felt right. In any case, Aiko’s set managed to mesh hip-hop and contemporary R&B/soul in a way that reminded me quite a bit of the neo soul of Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and others. And although she had a pleasant, but unoriginal singing voice, I found her most compelling when she started rapping – it seemed to me that was when she started to set herself apart as an artist.
Unfortunately, from being in the crowd – and not in the photo pit – I had the distinct sense that the crowd wasn’t all that impressed by her. And in a way I couldn’t blame them, because her work didn’t strike me as being extraordinary; however, she did carry herself with a comfortable self-assured confidence and charm that suggests that perhaps one day, she’ll be headlining a show like the Roots Picnic in the future.
The whole festival was planned so that a huge crowd of people would try to rush back and forth between a main stage with enough space for everyone, and a smaller stage area that quickly felt uncomfortable and cramped. Depending on how tall you were and where you were in the crowd, you were more likely to see heads and cell phones taking pictures or recording video than you were of the actual performer. It made watching A$AP Ferg’s set kind of frustrating to watch for about half his set. And for a sound that’s so incredibly bass heavy, the set’s live sound severely lacked punch.
Admittedly, I wouldn’t listen to the A$AP crew for music that says anything profound or meaningful – you listen to Mos Def, Common, Black Thought, et, al, for that – but I know what to expect: high energy, rambunctious, party hip-hop that gets a crowd to lose their shit, which they did. Someone accidentally stomped on my foot but what can you do? However, at some point I found it kind of tiresome and boring. But maybe I’m becoming a curmudgeon? Still there was one very cool moment that I later Instagrammed – Ferg standing on an amplifier, seemingly exhorting and threatening the crowd to get rowdier, and it was framed by the mighty Ben Franklin Bridge.
The War on Drugs followed Ferg on the main stage, perhaps as a nod to crowd-pleasing eclecticism but to my ear, they weren’t quite the right fit. They played a slick, indie electro pop full of synths, guitars drenched in reverb with earnestly sung vocals. And yet their sound struck me as sounding wholly unoriginal, much like the copy of a copy – the entire time I thought of the Killers, Franz Ferdinand and others. I also found their stage presence to be dull in a predictably indie rock fashion – even the earnestness struck me as somehow being done ironically. I got bored and wandered off with Abdul to meet two other friends and then we all got lost but it also allowed us to wander around the grounds and chat with in mind, it gave us ample opportunity to meet and chat with as many random strangers as possible; after all, how many times have you gone to a concert and dealt with someone who ha been in a bad mood? Very rare, right?
I had wanted to catch Action Bronson and he was performing at the smaller stage towards the back of the fairgrounds; so I squeezed my way towards the back, and found myself standing by a beer truck and the sound booth. And what was evident early on was the fact that Action Bronson is ridiculously talented – much like Homeboy Sandman and Jonwayne, Bronson employs a complex rhyme scheme with surreal imagery and even perverse wit. But he showed fans that he could rhyme over just about anything when his DJ started spinning 80s hits like Phil Collins’ “Sussudio,” and others. I remember turning to look at this one brother who was standing next to me, and shared this look that said “Holy shit, dude is rhyming over Phil Fucking Collins – Phil Fucking Collins.”
But what made his set was when Action Bronson – and I’m talking about all 375+ pounds of him – jumped into the crowd, ran to the sound booth, climbed up the towards the controls and did part of his set hanging from the sound booth. He then jumped over and finished his set on top of the beer truck. At one point Bronson looked at me with an impish smile and said “I’m going to stage dive, catch me.” And my immediate response was “No!” He responded back with a sly laugh – it was probably the funniest thing I’ve seen at a live show.
We all ran over to catch the fantastic Janelle Monae’s set but after drinking about 6 or 7 beers at this point, and desperately needed to eat. The lines for beer were bad enough, considering that the venue was charging $11 for a 24-ounce can of Yuengling but the line for food was even worse. I spent half of Monae’s set waiting and then finally purchasing food that was just okay. That was both disappointing and annoying. Still Janelle Monae was great but I had this sense that some people weren’t quite getting her or her energy.
I’ve seen Araabmusik at a crazy Summerstage show at East River Park and I was okay with missing his set. Besides I had made a few concert friends and was enjoying a lengthy conversation about music and the Philadelphia area; plus, I had wanted to have a good spot for the set everyone was waiting for – Snoop Dogg with the Roots.
So to cap the night, the Roots took the stage and they played some of the material from their new album and it may be among the most challenging work they’ve released to date as it questions what it means to be a Black man of the hip-hop community and the stereotypes that come with it. The crowd responded well to the material but since it was largely unfamiliar to most – the album came out just a few days before – I don’t think they responded as well as they would have if they played some of their classic stuff.
But no matter, because catching the Roots backing Snoop Dogg was one of those incredible live hip-hop moments that I was blessed to catch – and it goes up there with catching Q-Tip and Talib Kweli with the Roots doing classic A Tribe Called Quest Songs; the Roots backing William Hart of the Delfonics to do Delfonics tunes – especially, “La, La, La Means I Love You;” the Roots with Raekwon doing songs from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx; however, this was on a totally different level. Granted, if you were a Snoop Dogg completist you would have been a little disappointed that most of the set was comprised around Snoop’s gigantic hits – so we’re talking about most of Doggystyle, “Beautiful,” “Deep Cover,” “Drop It Like it’s Hot” and others. But the familiar material was delieverd with an extra dose of muscular funk that was inspired and loose. It felt as though Snoop and the Roots were feeding off each other and the crowd, who by that point of the night had completely lost their minds.
What was even more incredible was that they had extra special guests waiting in the wings including Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie and Rahzel. Yes, seriously – and at one point they were all on the same stage together. Talk about having your mind blown. First the Roots did “The Show” and they followed that up with Snoop and Doug E. Fresh doing “Ladi Dodi.” And the live version of “Lodi Dodi” was loose, almost boozy. Biz Markie, ran out to do “Just A Friend,” and he tripped and went down like a felled tree before quickly getting up and doing an enthusiastically goofy live version of his most beloved song. Quite simply what an incredible, mind blowing night.