Day 2 Roots Picnic NY photographs taken by Pip Cowley for Okayplayer.
Roots Picnic NY completed its first year this past weekend, offering an entertaining roster of performers that culminated in a shared headlining set from New York’s very own David Byrne, Chic and the Wu-Tang Clan.
Roots Picnic NY separated itself from its Philadelphia counterpart not only in location, but aesthetic too. Nestled in Bryant Park the music festival features signs designed like subway letters, letting you know you’re in a particular section of the festival grounds. Creating a backdrop to the festival stages are the high-rises of midtown Manhattan which surround the park and serve as a constant reminder that you’re in the heart of it all.
The multiple stages kept the festival’s musical train running on schedule; start the day off with Kyra Caruso on the 6th Avenue Stage, then walk on over to the 5th Avenue Stage for “Bitch Better Have My Money” songwriter Bibi Bourelly. Because of this the festival maintained a certain pace until the very end, insuring that every performer had a substantial audience for their set.
The atmosphere of the event’s last day was relaxed but festive. Grits & Biscuits provided an eclectic DJ set that featured everything from Kendrick Lamar to 2 Live Crew. Immediately following was Swizz Beatz, who started off his set with Kanye West‘s “So Appalled.” After performing Drake‘s “Fancy” and bringing out his children for some onstage fun, Swizz Beatz finished out the rest of the set, with the audience immediately making their way to Black Thought & J. Period‘s renowned Live Mixtape.
Once again, Roots Picnic NY isn’t only refreshing because of location and aesthetic, but because of the tastemakers behind the event. We’ve come to cherish The Roots bandleader Questlove for his extensive, encyclopedic knowledge of music, celebrating both sounds from the past and present that span genres from across the board.
The same can be said about Roots rhyme-smith Black Thought. Referring to his Live Mixtape set as a “love letter to New York,” the rapper used the opportunity to pay homage to some of the most important MCs the city has ever birthed. After providing a freestyle over Jay Z‘s “Public Service Announcement,” Black Thought proceeded to bring out a number of rap heavy hitters from across New York. Original Juice Crew members Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap; Pharoahe Monch; Smif-N-Wessun — new NYC rap pioneers continued to take the stage every second, it seemed, with Philadelphia’s Freeway and Detroit’s Royce Da 5’9 also accompanying the New York centric set.
The sounds of Trombone Shorty and his mighty band followed after, his distinct New Orleans sound bringing a lively energy to Bryant Park. Towards the end of his set he brought out Mystikal who — of course — performed “Shake Ya Ass,” and had everyone doing exactly that.
Then came DJ Jazzy Jeff. In an age of “press play” EDM DJs, Jazzy Jeff is a reminder of the art of DJing. DJing is storytelling: bringing certain songs together to create a mood and narrative which, in Jazzy Jeff’s case, seemed to be the story of rap. During his set the DJ performed soul and r&b tracks, before transitioning into the rap songs that sampled them. The set doubled as both a dance party and educational course, where class was in session with the one and only DJ Jazzy Jeff.
From the story of rap then came the story of New York from several of its artists. This was the moment we all came for: The Roots, David Byrne, Chic and the Wu-Tang Clan. The 5th Avenue Stage presented itself as a metaphor for New York: this city that creates a creative culture and brings together the most unlikeliest of people together.
Witnessing David Byrne take the stage and perform a trio of songs (including Talking Heads‘ “Born Under Punches”), then pass over the performance to Chic, was a once in a lifetime moment. Through Nile Rodgers‘ guitar you get history: you’re transported to the era of disco, when Chic reigned supreme and their music soundtracked every bar and club in New York City.
So, it’s fitting that Rodgers and the rest of Chic began their set with “Le Freak,” the song inspired by Rodgers’ unpleasant experience at the famed Studio 54 nightclub. Then came the hits: “I Want Your Love”; “I’m Coming Up”; “He’s The Greatest Dancer”; and “We Are Family.”
Then came “Get Lucky,” Rodgers’ collaborative track with Daft Punk that figuratively and literally brought him back to life. After being diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer in 2010, Rodgers told the audience that from that moment forward he continued to dedicate his life towards making more music, and playing more shows.
“After the diagnosis I get a call from Daft Punk, who are recording at Electric Lady Studios,” Rodgers recounted. After inviting them over to his home and listening to the demos, the musician partnered with the producers to create “Get Lucky.”
Here, the song takes on a new context. When “Get Lucky” dropped it was the quintessential summer anthem: sunny days and warm nights, with Pharrell Williams serving as wingman and cupid to the titular getting lucky.
However, in Rodgers’ case, getting lucky takes on a much more significant message — surviving. To see another day, and to overcome something that often times, most people rarely do. We danced to Chic and New York but, more importantly, we danced to life.
After Chic was a surprise performance from Alicia Keys, which served as a nice come down before the Wu-Tang Clan took the stage.
Triggered samples from seminal debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) blasted through the speakers, before cutting into “Triumph.” Then the Clan swarmed: RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon — everybody. With Wu-Tang Clan it’s always a surprise because sometimes you never know what iteration of the collective you’re getting. But everyone was in attendance.
Following the celebratory opening of “Triumph” came hit after hit: “C.R.E.A.M.”; “Ice Cream”; “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta Fuck Wit”; and “Method Man.” As the most charismatic of the group (and considering his recent appearance in Luke Cage) Method Man had some time onstage to himself. Following “Method Man” he proceeded to perform “Da Rockwilder,” and brought out Redman, whose animated rap style hasn’t aged at all.
The group finished out their set with “Protect Ya Neck,” with RZA thanking the audience for celebrating such a momentous occasion with the iconic rap collective.
For it’s first year Roots Picnic NY went above and beyond. If this was the baby festival’s first steps, we can only imagine what legends will descend on Bryant Park in future years.