When The Roots and its manager Shawn Gee wrapped the 11th iteration of The Roots Picnic at Columbus Boulevard’s Festival Pier last June, every hometown player was pleased with the results.
They were also grateful to have made it through another year, a newer-feeling fest with a fresh emphasis on local culinary delights, live podcasts, and expanded mixtape stage sessions – to say nothing of the musical offerings on the main stage.
“When I took over with The Roots, fully, after the passing of Rich Nichols, rest in peace, my first goal was to make sure these guys were happy no matter what,” said Gee, The Roots’ longtime pal, founder of the management consortium Maverick and partner in Live Nation Urban.
As the lead manager of both The Roots and Jill Scott – the latter’s Summer Block Party is coming up at the Mann at the end of June – Gee has a busy spring and summer planned with locally-based artists, in addition to his role as handler for Lil Wayne, who is also touring this summer. “The Roots Picnic, though, comes first,” he says, “and we had some changes in mind for [the 12th season].”
Perhaps the largest change to the world-renowned Roots Picnic is as simple as the ground it will stand upon once it kicks off June 1. During the proceedings, Questlove, Black Thought and the rest of The Roots crew finally get to play on grass, with audiences lolling in the sun, the shade and on the long, wide lawns of The Mann Center.
“Greener pastures” is how Quest referred to the picnic’s move on Instagram.
The Roots may perform the entirety of "Things Fall Apart" for the album release’s 20th anniversary, and sensations of nu-soul (H.E.R., Ari Lenox), sleek vintage R&B (Raphael Saadiq), AutoTuned hip-hop (21 Savage), pop rap (Lil Baby, Blueface) and Afro-conscious podcasting (Joe Budden) may hit up the picnic’s three stages dedicated to music, gaming, art and dialogue. But this time, and for the foreseeable future, cool grass and hot breezes high atop Parkside are the stars of The Roots Picnic.
That was always supposed to be the case.
The Roots’ and Gee’s artistic and social vision for the event emerged before its start, when The Roots were gaining traction while touring throughout Europe and its smartly-done festival scene.
“Here we are, in 2019, and the festival phenomenon in the United States is full-blown without being saturated,” said Gee, remarking on the wealth of increasingly lifestyle-oriented, live music fests such as Coachella, Bonnaroo, Firefly and, presumably, Woodstock 50. “With that comes a wealth of artist-curated festivals,” he said of parties such as J. Cole’s recent Dreamville Fest in North Carolina and Jay-Z’s upcoming Made in America bash in September. “We started doing the latter 12 years ago based on our experience with the former, and our travels in Europe in the late 1990s.”
Long distance travels and lengthy musical sets in European countries all but solidified The Roots’ reputation as being one of the preeminent live ensembles of the 21st century, at a time when record sales may have been precarious. “This was pre-Coachella and pre-Bonnaroo,” Gee noted. “We wanted that feeling. So when it came time to discuss something that we wanted to do in our hometown, we sat down with my partner Richard, and decided to bring back that European vibe to Philly, but with the artist curatorial twist.”
It’s essential to note that, since day one and continuing on through the present, it is Gee and The Roots’ brain trust – Ahmir Thompson and Tariq Trotter – who find and select every aspect of what goes into a Roots Picnic.
“We pore over all the acts, definitely,” Trotter told PW from the set of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, where he and the rest of The Roots play house band and comic foils. “We choose every podcaster. We sit, eat and lay hands on every food truck and chef offering.”
11 | Number of years The Roots Picnic has become the unofficial kickoff of summer in Philadelphia at Festival Pier
Before The Roots and its management could get to a point where they could determine who had the best vegan burgers and who had the smartest podcast, they had to start from the ground-up. Twelve years ago, The Roots didn’t have all the clout they have at present, not locally and not in terms of driving star power to its picnic, like Pharrell, Snoop Dogg, Usher and Public Enemy in subsequent years following the inaugural festival.
“When we first started to look for a suitable venue, we searched around from a business perspective, got with the city, sought out brand partners. And we ended up in a conversation with Geoff Gordon,” noted Gee, referring to Live Nation Entertainment’s current Regional President who, 12 years ago, also was gathering speed when it came to clout and influence. Gee, Thompson and Trotter told Gordon what they wanted to do, and the Live Nation chief made it happen. “He agreed to be our partner, as well as fueling and funding the picnic in its early years. At the same time, Festival Pier was coming up, just a pier with a core concert venue, and we went there to launch because of Live Nation. And that was cool.”
Live Nation’s ever-growing position of power within the city eventually allowed the increasingly-mammoth Roots Picnic to expand its footprint, stages and audience size into accompanying lots around Festival Pier. “Yeah, I think we pissed off a lot of people in need of parking since we took up several employee parking lots in the process,” said Gee, stifling a laugh, about the expanded, super-sized Festival Pier used exclusively for the Roots Picnic and, by 2017, fellow hometown heroes Daryl Hall and John Oates’ HoagieNation.
But make no mistake: The Roots always yearned to play in a park. “We wanted to be on grass,” Gee said.
Thompson told me in a previous interview that he had longed to make the Roots Picnic something worthy of a DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince video on Belmont Plateau and the Osage Avenue block parties of his youth. “I dreamed of The Roots Picnic as something akin to the annual WDAS-sponsored family event on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Super Sunday,” he said. “I guess I’d like the picnic to be like the old Super Sunday. That was a great day in October.”
“Grass was the original plan: that was the whole idea behind calling it a ‘picnic,’” Trotter said.
“But we just couldn’t get the right locations or the permits to do so,” said Gee of the initial iterations of the event. “We couldn’t fight through the politics to make it happen.”
Gee acknowledges that Gordon, Live Nation and he would sit down at the end of every successful Roots Picnic and plan out the next one, and every year, according to The Roots manager, they would discuss the inevitable: is this the year the Picnic becomes a picnic?
“We looked at Belmont Plateau,” Gee said. “We looked at The Lakes across from the Wells Fargo concert and sports complex. We looked at several park facilities in the city, but just could never lock onto any one.”
Fate wound up nudging The Roots crew and Live Nation for a quick decision and a somewhat sudden change in the trajectory of the picnic on Columbus Boulevard when Festival Pier got sold 3 years ago. The intention of growth and change is the reason for the sale. The usual retail, condo, restaurant border blend could, at this point, help push the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation’s plans to finally transform the entirety of Penn’s Landing into a public playground and living space with the recently-remixed Cherry Street Pier and its lit-up theatrical offerings as the initial step in a ten-year plan. With that, and as of March 2019, Festival Pier is closed. “Festival Pier was good to us,” Gee said. “It had an inbuilt infrastructure in place, and it allowed us to grow organically.”
9,000 | The capacity Festival Pier holds [and held] for fans of The Roots Picnic weekend festival.
What was once an easily accessible (by public trans, by foot, by cheap Uber) to downtowners, Port Fishingtonians, South Philly-ites and South Jersey travelers is now a thing of the past. Immediate plans to replace the outdoor, asphalt-and-sand venue that held upwards of 9,000 attendees is uncertain as a long-rumored new venue further up in Fishtown or along South Philly’s shipyards are unclear.
“Look, we grew as large as the footprint at Festival Pier would allow us to grow – we were busting at the seams and took all of the adjacent lots,” said Gee. “All that was left was to play on Columbus Boulevard. We could have stayed there forever if they just let us take over more and more lots. We always put off the move. The sale pushed us to make the move to the lawns, especially considering that as the picnic was growing, we were growing as individuals and wanted to find ways to further make this festival ours.”
“We had Scott Storch one year,” Black Thought said. “We hosted one of the last appearances of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy before he passed away.”
Along with pushing Trotter to heighten the potential of his mixtape specialty stage, Gee and Thompson focused on the idea that the podcast concept and consumer consumption of it could exist in a live, real-time manner at the picnic. “To my observation, it is those lifestyle options that are making festivals around the country complete,” Gee noted. “So, let’s build stages beyond live music and DJs, for how consumers are engaging with media on a regular basis – a podcast stage. We tried it out on a smaller level to see how podcasts could exist in the Philadelphia festival environment, and I think it worked. Festivals are loud and bright. Podcasts are personal and intimate.”
The challenge became how to blend those polar opposites, which is where the Silent Philly crew came to play as avatars in the quiet disco phenomenon. Several hundred headsets later, and The Roots Picnic had a podcast stage. Along with the quiet came the thrum of post-8 bit technology and video gaming, which required yet another stage. “People are consuming music in any number of ways; gaming is one of the best, a wide environment in which to hear what you love,” Gee said. With that, The Roots Picnic hosted gaming competitions from 1-4 p.m. in the afternoon, with a transition from 4-7 p.m. in which to hear panels and speakers discuss the newest elements of gaming innovation.
“Having the picnic downtown was convenient, but I think moving to the Mann will create even more of a for-the-city, by-the-city feeling,” Trotter said. “It’s more of a community effort being off Parkside. Granted, we’ll lose that central location, but the people who converged upon the Pier… it’s not like they were just hanging around. They were there for the picnic and would probably go wherever it was. The look that it will have being in a real section of the city – a neighborhood – is going to do something for that area’s morale and economy. We always wanted that created-for-and-by feeling. This is a dream come true.”
Owing to the fact that The Roots Picnic ground will add square footage and height to its operations (the Skyline Stage at the top of the Mann’s grassy knoll is a large entity unto itself, to say nothing of the Mann’s principal stage), Gee stated that the new location will feel bigger, yet more intimate – organically so. “Having The Roots Picnic at the Mann is growing the festival out, and we have our vision for the next five years out,” he said. “This iteration will be a great bridge between The Roots Picnic as you’ve known it for the last 11 years, and now, going into the future, into the next 10 years.”
Though logistical specifics were not available at press time, Gee said that the Mann’s usual footprint will be “greatly expanded,” with additional adjacent lawn-scapes surrounding the center being utilized for the picnic, and therefore, quarantined for Roots business. “You’ll see how big it is the minute you get through the gate,” Gee noted. “The Roots Picnic is expanded, and this June’s event is just the first step.”
14,000 | The capacity allowed for the Mann Center according to its website, of which just a little over 4,500 can sit under the cover of the amphitheater, according to the Mann’s website.
Then again, everything about The Roots – period – is about expansion. Of course, there is the distinct possibility that their long-awaited new album, “End Game,” the one rumored to contain some vault-discovered beats from J Dilla, will drop in 2019. “Go ask Tariq that question,” said Gee, laughing, a query that prompted Black Thought to say that the new album is coming along nicely.
Along with a relationship with Amazon for an animated series (“where we’re elementary-school females—think the Muppet Babies,” said Questlove) and a live-action series based on their teen years, there’s a documentary series on AMC entitled, “Hip Hop: The Songs that Shook America,” based on the 2015 book “The Rap Yearbook.”
The marketing of that docu-series commences in Philadelphia. “You’ll see a huge activation regarding our partnership with AMC at the picnic in June,” Gee mused. “We’re debuting in October, right after the start of the new season of ‘The Walking Dead.’”
The Roots’ music is also part of an upcoming film from a major name director whose work The Roots Crew is producing, as well as another collaboration on an upcoming Broadway musical. “And we’re touring,” Gee stated. “There’s a lot of secondary and tertiary businesses that have been born from 44 weeks a year, 5 days a week, on The Tonight Show. We build opportunities based on the guys’ passion that you’ll see more of as 2019 progresses.”
You want passion? While Thompson is going strong with the sales of his Vegetarian Cheesesteak at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia (so much so, 40 additional Live Nation venues across the country are picking it up as a stadium munchable), Trotter is readying his new solo EP, “Streams of Thought, Vol. 3,” for June release, hopefully in time for the picnic.
Beyond The Roots’ roles on The Tonight Show where Trotter plays hard comic foil to Jimmy Fallon’s soft doofus, the stern MC has added “stand-up comedian” to his catalogue. Not only is his “Delirious” event at Punchline before The Roots Picnic self-curated with comics who pass through the halls of NBC Studios (Saturday Night Live’s Chris Redd is the headliner May 31), but Black Thought promises that he’ll jump on Punch Line’s stage with his own comic bits. “I keep it short for maximum impact,” he said. “Always leave ‘em wanting more than less.”
Talk to Trotter about some of the more personal touches that he’ll bring to the 2019 integration of the picnic at the Mann, and the MC who surprised viewers with his comic ease, says he has long imagined a “food village, a culinary concept,” that he might even cook within to compete with other name chefs.
“I cook, man,” he laughed. “I can do it all.”
With all of their interests and expansion going on with The Roots, Thompson told me in an earlier interview that there could come a time when The Roots might not play its own picnic. “We’ll always curate, but will we always play – that’s a question,” Questlove stated. “I’ve always strived to make the picnic about more than music. The last step in the process would be taking The Roots out of the equation and having it be the Philadelphia Picnic that stands on its own without the training wheels.”
While Trotter seemed to bristle at his longtime partner’s suggestion (“I think we’ll always look for new ways to play and innovate in a live setting at the Picnic”), Gee walked a diplomatic middle ground. “That’s a possibility,” he said. “At the end of the day, The Roots Picnic is a standalone, self-sustaining entity. Maybe there will come a time when we aren’t headlining. Do I see a picnic where there’s NO participation from The Roots? I doubt it. Do I think there will come a time when that last set of the evening belongs to them? More than likely.”
Ask Gee and Trotter how any and all growth, green and otherwise, affords The Roots Picnic its international allure as a go-to music festival while maintaining its dedication to all things Philly, and they’re certain its due to the love of the hometown crowds.
“To be honest, we’re all about staying organic,” Gee said.“[This may sound corny but], it takes a village to do that. We’re looking at the picnic with the Live Nation team – especially for local vendors and Philly acts they might be hosting at smaller venues like The Foundry – and we’re leveraging our kids for younger ideas.”
Gee remarks that while Trotter’s son is 18 years old, his own is 14 years old and keyed into new sounds and sights. When filtered through the lens of The Roots’ mothership, these extend into the next generation of Roots-dom.
“We don’t know everything that is hot,” Gee laughed. “We were built on the backs of discovery and collaboration. Our kids, the whole team, help keep us cognizant of everything that is out there. Then we get to work with our own research.”
Gee noted how he paid one-time picnic side stage star Kid Cudi $10,000 and had the likes of Migos and Lil Uzi Vert as early afternoon acts one year, only to make them each co-headliners more recently. As for The Roots own Picnic stage collaborations with some of hip hop and soul music’s greats, Gee & Co. want to keep those pairings as one-of-a-kind, one-time only events. “The Roots doing a history of Pharrell or uniting with The Weeknd and Erykah Badu together? You’ll never see that again.”
Having Grammy-winning, multi-instrumentalist H.E.R. and top-tier rapper 21 Savage will surely be their last times on smaller stages before each is arena-bound. “It’s rare to see someone so young with so much talent – between her and Ari Lenox, this is the next wave of R&B in the manner in which we launched Jill Scott years ago,” Gee said, referring to H.E.R. The 20th celebration of The Roots’ “Things Fall Apart” will always be a collaborative event worth remembering. “You’ll sing along with the old stuff, be amazed by the new artists and come away amazed,” Gee said.
“Look, we grew as large as the footprint at Festival Pier would allow us to grow – we were busting at the seams and took all of the adjacent lots. All that was left was to play on Columbus Boulevard. We could have stayed there forever if they just let us take over more and more lots. We always put off the move. The sale pushed us to make the move to the lawns, especially considering that as the picnic was growing, we were growing as individuals and wanted to find ways to further make this festival ours.”
– Shawn Gee, manager of annual The Roots Picnic
Trotter finished the conversation by musing how much time it has taken for The Roots to imagine its original topiary plan for its picnic.
“This is the ideal time for us to graduate from Festival Pier to our original concept,” he said. “Back in the day, we always imagined it would be at the Plat. This is as close to that dream as you could get. I always imagine that The Roots Picnic would be closer to a group of smaller festivals within a larger framework – a larger festival umbrella – and now it is. And we have the room to make it all happen without running on top of each other. And we’re on grass, finally. We had to agree to be more a part of such a bold move, moving to park from pier – which we always were a part of, anyway – but that’s our involvement and investment in Philly.”