The Roots Picnic — the 11th annual summer-starting music festival at Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing hosted by Philadelphia’s (and the world’s) greatest hip hop band — was cut short by weather.
Due to torrential downpours later in the evening, the daylong concert ended 10 minutes into the headlining set, featuring comedian Dave Chappelle, the guests and special guests.
“Due to dangerous weather — we are forced to end the show,” read a statement from promoter Live Nation.
The main question of the day before the rain was how exactly would Chappelle’s wishes be abided by in keeping the main stage a cellphone-free zone during the closing performance after people had been free to use them all day. (Lots of threatening voices over the loudspeakers and on video screens to immediately eject all transgressors wound up doing the trick.)
But besides those questions, there was another basic one waiting to be answered: Just who was going to be joining the Roots and Chappelle during the jam session capping the show? The bill only announced Atlanta rapper 2 Chainz and R&B singer Brandy, but since Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Rolodex knows no bounds and Chappelle is such a well-respected figure in the hip-hop-soul world, there was no telling who might show up.
Just as the rains came — with the front of the main stage area, at least, covered by a roof — Chappelle emerged on the stage to introduce them.
“Make some noise for your city,” he said. “Make some noise for your Super Bowl champions and make some noise for some of the finest hip hop the world has ever known: The legendary Roots Crew.”
With that Roots emcee Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter jumped into the 10-minute freestyle rap that he first turned out on New York radio station Hot 97 last year. It was a marvel of breath control and a masterly performance, more musically impressive than the version that went viral because of the matchless band playing behind him.
Minutes later, Chappelle brought on 2 Chainz but just as the Rapper started to perform, the intensity of the weather caused the show to be delayed, and then ultimately canceled.
Philly: this is a hazard. Of course I can play in ANY situation but lives are on the line and it’s a hazzard. If someone were to get electrocuted or worse —-I can’t have that on my head man. The city told us to stop for a bit
— T'Questlove (@questlove) June 3, 2018
Rule is if lightening is within a 4 mile radius we have to stop the show
— T'Questlove (@questlove) June 3, 2018
Sorry y’all. I’d like to think myself as a renegade rebel but lightening says nope. I swear to god after all the arguin and 3am freakout calls and begging and arrangements and preparation that goes into a festival no one is more 😑😑😑😑 than me right now about this weather.
— T'Questlove (@questlove) June 3, 2018
But before the show was cut short there was a day full of performances.
Space is the Place
Among the first acts up on the sweltering South Stage was the Sun Ra Arkestra, the Germantown-based interstellar jazz explorers fronted by 94-year-old saxophonist and bandleader Marshall Allen, who continue to carry on the swinging, “Space is the Place” experimental vision of their founder, who died 25 years ago this week.
At the Picnic, the Arkestra were 14 strong, with Allen flanked by a robust seven-man horn section and singer Tara Middleton, who kicked off the alternatively mellifluous and intentionally abrasive set with “Journey to Saturn.” All were dressed in their Mummers-on-acid full-color finery. “The first stop is Mars, the next stop Jupiter,” Middleton, who made fans of many of the teenage girls clustered at the front of the stage where Philly’s Lil Uzi Vert was scheduled to play seven hours later, rapped with conviction on “We Travel the Spaceways.”
North Philly rapper Tierra Whack followed the Arkestra on the Oasis Stage, the smallest of the Picnic’s three music stages, this one facing the Delaware River with the Ben Franklin Bridge overhead to the right. The quick-witted rising star pulled from her brand-new Whack World, a 15-song, 15-minute album that makes a virtue of brevity. She has style and swagger, to spare, as she demonstrated by playfully excoriating backstage VIPs who were rapping along to her lyrics with the same enthusiasm as less privileged ticket holders.
With music coming from three stages on all sides of the Festival Pier, the Roots Picnic can be an extremely loud (not to mention a hot and muggy) place. Enter Silent Philly, the local company who provided the headphones at the Picnic’s Podcast Stage, where fans gathered under a tent to listen to conversations transmitted straight into their ears while blocking out all the rest of the fest’s noise.
The stage’s big attraction was a live episode of Questlove Supreme, the Roots drummer’s podcast that is normally heard on the Pandora streaming service. Along with the regular crew members such as rapper Phonte Coleman and radio host Laiya St. Clair, the Picnic version of the pod featured Philadelphia author and Uncle Bobby’s Coffee &Books owner Marc Lamont Hill.
The lively conversation that ensued included Coleman grilling Hill on why he encouraged people to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, whether or not Kanye West has been “canceled” (the consensus: pretty much), the ongoing rap feud between Drake and Pusha-T and whether black people like The Wire (the answer: no).
Along with the Podcast Stage, this year’s Picnic had a Gaming / Culture stage. Early in the day, that meant the area was full up with dudes in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons jerseys playing NBA video games. Late in the afternoon, it transitioned into lifestyle and fashion discussions, culminating in a Barrier Breakers panel moderated by ESPN commentator and The Undefeated columnist Jemele Hill. Panelists — who were asked about things like “being your full black self” at work — included music executives Amber Grimes and Shari Bryant, fitness entrepreneur Anowa Adjah and Uber exec Bozoma St. Jean. Hill, who became a polarizing political lightning rod after she called President Trump a white supremacist on Twitter last year, led a discussion about their career paths and the sexism and racism women of color face in the workplace, saying that a day doesn’t go by when “someone doesn’t tell me to go back to Africa or tell me to go write for Cosmo.”
Black Thought, the star
The Roots themselves haven’t put out a new album since 2014’s … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, but after threatening to do so for years, the band’s frontman, Tariq “Black Thought” finally released music under his own name in the form of Streams Of Thought, Vol. 1, which came out on Friday.
That release — and the viral 10-minute-plus rap freestyle that the emcee did on New York’s Hot 97 radio station last year — gave even more weight than usual to what has become of the Picnic’s most anticipated annual attractions: The Black Thought & J. Period Live Mixtape. That’s the late-afternoon interlude in which the Roots emcee shows off his abundant verbal and rhythmic skills along with a host of guest rappers joining him on their own hits. It’s invariably a boisterous party that leaves would-be rap connoisseurs scratching their chins and muttering: Damn, Black Thought is really underrated.
So it’s was on Saturday afternoon, when BT was joined by both announced guests Fabolous and Jadakiss and unannounced emcee Styles P of The Lox.
The camaraderie on stage was apparent and the energy infectious on cuts like Fabolous’ “Breathe.” But there was no question that Black Thought was the star of the show, whether comparing his way with words to the great Russian novelist in “Dostoyevsky” from Streams of Thought or announcing that he’s “so ahead of my time in counter click wise” or reaching back to the Roots 2006 album Game Theory to proclaim he was representing “downtown Philly, where it’s realer than a heart attack.”
Philly’s own Lil Uzi Vert
Philly rapper Lil Uzi Vert was the final act before the headliners and drew an oversize crowd to the South Stage. He whipped the younger demographic into a frenzy with his sweaty emo-slash-mumble rap, stripping down to red leather pants accessorized with what looked like a harness across his chest to an untrained fashion eye. He reached an emotional peak with his despairing 2017 hit “XO Tour Llif3” and its spooky repeated mantra: “Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead.”