(Photo Credit: Ray Flotat)
The Roots are undeniably one of the most influential contemporary hip-hop groups – arguably the most influential of all time. Never afraid to voice opinions, talk politics and be real, the group was started back in 1987 by Tariq Totter (Black Thought) and Ahmir Thompson (Questlove) at the Philadelphia High School of Creative and Performing Arts. Now almost 3 decades later, The Roots have 10 studio albums, an annual music festival entering its ninth iteration and a residency as the house band on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon under their belts. I had the absolute honor of speaking with the ever inspiring, Tariq Totter about the full circle of his career and The Roots going back to their roots in Philadelphia for the 9th Annual Roots Picnic on June 4th.
mxdwn: As a creative, a thinker, a performer and a musician, how has your experience been in the industry thus far?
Tariq: My experience in the industry has been golden thus far. It’s been a blessing! When I was 18/19 years old and we embarked on this mission, I didn’t want to regret having left college in my junior year to pursue a music career and I have yet to regret it! I guess we’ve done something right! We started at that point and we haven’t looked back, so it’s just been a blessing. We’ve been able to work with – in some shape or form and collaborate either on stage, screen or in studio – with most of the artists that we’ve ever aspired to. My career has been above and beyond my wildest dreams.
mxdwn: That’s truly amazing that you came into the industry with mission to not any regrets because you’ve done some amazing work that has inspired so many.
mxdwn: The Roots have performed at countless music festivals throughout the world and were at this year’s SXSW, where the group not only played, but hosted the Bug Light sponsored event “The Roots SXSW Jam” featuring performances by X Ambassadors, Big Grams, Ashanti and many more. How was amazing was that? How was it to put it all together?
Tariq: it wasn’t a super difficult task to put together. The lineup was put together as an event because at this point that’s what we do. The jam session concept is something we started about 10 years ago, actually more than 10 years ago, but that we’ve done at least 10 times out in LA for the Grammys. What we did this year with the first annual SXSW version was take the Grammy jam concept on the road, and I feel like that is something we can do now any place. It’s artists that we respect and there’s a mutual respect for the music and one another, just kind of coming together and being willing to do something that’s a little off the cuff and out of their comfort zone for the sake of the audience. It was dope, it came off! We do it in LA for the Grammy’s, the night before the B.E.T. Awards also in LA every year with kind of a different twist, it’s usually more conceptual when we do the B.E.T. Award version, and we just took the concept on the road.
mxdwn: You said you’ve been hosting events for more than 10 years now, what was the original transition like from going from a musician to an event producer and organizer? What aspects of being a musician do you believe provided beneficial insight into running events?
Tariq: Yeah, there’s an undeniable insight that is gained from being knowledgeable of both sides of the fence, so to speak. When you’re putting together a festival, it’s particularly dope to be able to approach it from the perspective of the artist, as well as from the production side. The lessons that we’ve learned from trial and error, what to do and what not to do on stage, what to do and what not to do at the drawing board in the initial meetings when we are actually booking the artists and putting together the bill, is all invaluable information.
mxdwn: Definitely! I’ve helped with productions myself, but I have no performance experience, so when I was putting the interview together and I was looking into the festival, I could only imagine that there are a lot of beneficial insights to being a musician and being able to know what you like and what you don’t like and how to adjust that for other artists. To me, it’s priceless to be able to do that.
Tariq: Yeah, it’s definitely priceless. Like, our very first big show, long before we signed with Geffen Records, the main reason we recorded our first album Organix (which essentially is our demo) was so that we would have merch to sell at a gig we were doing in Germany which was a huge festival, the Jazz Festival. From that point on, we always had a festival life. Earlier on in our career we played and continue to play the staple European festivals like Montreux Jazz Festival, North Sea Jazz Festival, the Phoenix Festival and all the festivals in Britain. So, the lesson that we kinda learned in the experience we gained throughout our career from playing all these festivals regularly, like we did Lollapalooza and we’ve grown with some of the festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella, and I think that there was an element of “we should do this on our own- it would be amazing if we could have one of these to represent our own interests”. You know, you kind of always nitpick when you’re on a bill, and you say “this is a great experience, but if it were mine to do, I would do this different or I would change this or that”, so to be in the position where it is all up to us is really a dream come true! I feel like we’ve paid our dues over the years and around the world, so who better than The Roots to be at this point of our festival brand.
mxdwn: You’re a group that actually has something to say, you have the talent to back it, and smarts to put together a festival, so it all just falls into place.
Tariq: Yeah, we came from like wallowing through Glastonbury in waist deep mud to go and play the entry level stage [laughs]. We came from Roskilde Festival in Denmark when our stage was a tent and our credentials wouldn’t even get us to the backstage area of the main stage to, a few years ago, when we played the main stage of the Roskilde Festival with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It represents the circle of life. It really just makes sense in the natural progression of the band that we could have something that we could call our own at this point.
mxdwn: And I have to say that it’s truly inspiring, as someone who’s trying to make it in the industry, to hear your story and be reassured that paying your dues can eventually pay off if you stick to it.
Tariq: Yeah, I think The Roots are a testament to the hard work paying off, to be put simply. We’ve always worked really hard and I feel like it’s paid off and continues to.
mxdwn: And to go along with the progression of hard work paying off, in the nine years of putting on The Roots Picnic, what would you say are the more visible differences between the festival at year one and now at year nine?
Tariq: Yeah, the thing that stands out is the scale of the event. When we started The Roots Picnic and sponsors didn’t want to rock with us and everyone kind of told us “no, this isn’t something that we should be doing,” and we had lots of naysayers and non-believers, but it’s grown from 5-6 thousand people to, this year we are expecting close to 20,000 people. Every year has been bigger and better and the brand continues to grow. Like, I have a charity called the GrassROOTS Community Foundation that I’m chairman of, and this is our fifth annual 5K hosted the morning of the Roots Picnic. So, that morning I do a 5K and all the proceeds benefit the kids of the local schools. And the fact that I’ve been able to do that 5 years… it seems like it was yesterday that that was a concept, that that was in high gear that was being tossed around and now it’s something that’s become a staple and it’s just a blessing. It’s something that we’re really thankful for.
We’ve yet to do the Roots Picnic where there’s a lawn, we’ve never had grass where you can have an actual real picnic, but it’s definitely always a family affair. There’s never been a crazy emergencies and in the history of The Roots Picnic, we’ve only had one artist that ever was a no show and I think that was due to some flight situation, think a plane broke down or something, but it usually comes off without a hitch. The city, The Roots, all our supporters and all the artists involved are always better for it and we are so happy that it’s able to continue. The scale continues to expand and it’s evolve, this year in this one day we’re gonna see close to 20,000 people!
Like the history of Glastonbury and Bonnaroo and Coachella and Lollapalooza, I picture The Roots Picnic being a multi-day festival and being held on a space large enough for there to be camping grounds and that whole deal. I feel like The Roots Picnic has officially alive when I see an ocean of tents for the long haul, for like a week’s time, out there with trailers… that’s when I feel we’ve officially made it, so to speak.
mxdwn: And do you think it will still be in Philadelphia?
Tariq: Hopefully it will still be in Philadelphia, but I feel like the possibilities are endless now. The same way we spoke about taking our jam session concept on the road, like the jams that we do for The Grammys and stuff, I feel like The Roots picnic concept is something that would travel well. I feel like we can go any place and do what we do. I feel like as long as the key elements are still there, which is our team and our production team, I feel like we can take it anywhere- it could become something international, it could take place in any other state. I feel like timing is key and location. But whether The Roots Picnic takes place anywhere else other than Philadelphia or if it remains in Philadelphia, Philly will always be the foundation. If we were to take it any place else, we would be taking the Philadelphia spirit on the road. When we are presenting The Roots Picnic, we are presenting the soul of Philadelphia.
mxdwn: I hope that if you do decide to make it travel, you bring The Roots Picnic here to LA.
Tariq: Oh, yeah! I would love to come to LA or someplace near LA. We want to take the picnic to LA, but it’s so huge now that there would be no place to do it in the city, so we would have to do it out in the desert, but I’m fully with that. It’s onward and upward and hopefully that sort of thing is what the future holds for us.
mxdwn: I’ll be looking forward to hearing news of The Roots Picnic travelling! Currently, you are holding the Picnic at Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware Waterfront on three stages. To someone who may know very little about the festival or possibly just learning about it for the first time, can you paint a visual of what the festival is all about and what a fan can expect to do, see and hear?
Tariq: In short, The Roots Picnic is about providing for the concert goer what is missing in other festival settings. It’s a certain type of diversity, it’s a certain range of artists not only of very different genres of artists and musicians and DJs represented, but also different generations. The Roots Picnic is the only place where you will come and see Afrika Bambaataa or Grandmaster Flash DJ and then you’ll see an upstart of artists who are on the verge, you know, artists that are going to be trending 8-10 months from now, hit the stage afterward. We’ve always brought into play a legendary aspect… the Picnic is like where the spirit of legend meets the spirit of youth and it’s a chance for us to reintroduce artists to some people, those artists who may not be putting out as much music or who may not be trending as hard as other artists are at this point in their career, and we can get to introduce some of the elder statesmen to some of the younger gents and vice versa… we can also introduce some of the younger artists, who they should be checking for, but might not be checking for yet, to the older generation. The Roots Picnic is the one festival that, I mean nothing is all things, all people… but The Roots Picnic comes damn close. It’s most things to most people.
mxdwn: This year’s lineup features artists ranging from Usher to Leon Bridges to Migos to Blood Orange. Can you walk me through the artist selection process?
Tariq: It’s a painstaking process, but there weren’t that many people involved. It boils down to The Roots, who we want, what’s our number one wish list, what will it take to get everyone we dream of having all at once and then we have to boil it down based on practicality, scheduling and on what makes the most sense. We don’t want to put two artists who represent the same sensibility on the bill all at once. We try to make sure that every department is represented and once we have something that feels whole and complete, then we announce the lineup. It’s that simple… I mean it’s really not simple [laughs], but we make it work. Sometimes we have some knock downs, drag outs, arguments amongst ourselves as we are trying to prove a point of why this artist really should or should not be booked this year, but it all works itself out and we’re always happy with the end result. Every year thus far, I’ve felt like it’s been the best year and this year, I really feel like it is going to be the best one to date!
mxdwn: You definitely have some all-stars on the lineup, it’s gonna be amazing! Is there an artist you are most excited to see live this year?
Tariq: I’m excited to see everyone, but I’m excited to be performing with Usher I think it’s gonna be dope! He’s a really cool guy and whenever we work together or have him on the Tonight Show or whenever our paths cross, it’s always been a great experience, so I’m looking forward to that. I’m absolutely looking forward to Future, I feel like he’s gonna shut it down! I want to see DMX do a stellar performance, I really rooting for him to come back and for us to play a role in his return to greatness. I’m excited for Blood Orange- I think he’s gonna kill it! Metro Boomin! I know Philly’s gonna be excited for Migos, for Philly’s own Lil Uzi Vert.. Anderson .Paak is trending right now… the list goes on and on! I’m really excited for everyone and I’m excited for the world to get to see Tish Hyman, she’s been killing the game and she did really well at our Grammy Sessions in February and she performed at SXSW and they were two stellar performances so I’m excited for her to bring what she does to Philly. I just feel like Philadelphia is a great testing ground, a great test to figure out what it is that you want to do, what you may or may not be missing performance wise and how to reshape and how to really fine tone your set. I feel like Philadelphia is an unadulterated audience. We’re not an audience of yes men, so to speak, you have to show up, show out and really give it your all because the Philadelphia audience can definitely tell if you are giving it your all and that’s really when they give their all back to you. You get what you give at The Roots Picnic! If you survive The Roots Picnic stage than you’re ready to take your tour on the road!
mxdwn: At this point are there any artist you wish to have at the 10th annual Roots Picnic? Are you starting to look at people for next year?
Tariq: Yeah, there are quite a few artists that we’re already checking for, that we’re already discussing the possibility of putting on the bill for the next Picnic, but I can’t speak on it at this point. [laughs] But yeah, you have to be this far ahead of the curve. As soon as we announce what the bill is going to be for whatever particular year, you immediately start thinking about who you can incorporate the next time around. It’s not the sort of thing that you can rush and it’s not the sort of thing that you can wait until all the potential artists that you will be booking become what they are going to become. The Roots Picnic has a lot to do with artists that are on the verge, so you have to have an eye and ear for talent to really be able to understand the potential of these artists to really understand what their trajectory is going to be. That’s the only way you are going to be able to get them at a time when you can afford to pay. [laughs] you know what I mean? So we are already thinking about next year’s Picnic and have been for months at this point.
mxdwn: To sort of circle back, you mentioned that The Roots will be performing with Usher this year. Will the group be christening the festival as the first performers, wrapping it up as the last or be somewhere in between?
Tariq: What we tend to do with artists of that caliber is we’ll essentially headline as the sun goes down, or depending on the schedule, it can be well into the night. When we take the stage with Usher, it will probably be one of the last performances of the day.
mxdwn: What is the experience like being on stage and seeing the festival come to full fruition literally before your eyes as you perform at your very own festival?
Tariq: It’s unreal! Especially for someone who is a Philadelphian, to be standing on the stage, looking at the audience and I see so many familiar faces and some people who’ve I known all my life… I see relatives, I see old schoolmates, I see people that I’ve made music with in the past… it transcends generations and race and it’s really a coming together. The Roots Picnic brings the city together and brings a certain level of commerce, comradery and fellowship to the city that’s tangible – you can taste it, you can feel it and there’s something in the air during the Picnic. It’s surreal for me because we’re right beside, almost performing underneath… if you look at our first full album Do You Want More?… the bridge that you see in the background on that cover is the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Roots Picnic takes place essentially right beneath that bridge. So, my career feels like it comes full circle every time I take Picnic stage and it’s like the ultimate homecoming and you really feel like a hometown hero!