Questlove Talks Roots Picnic 2012

Also: Why TV On the Radio and Gnarls Barkley won't be headlining anytime soon.

This weekend, Questlove, Black Thought, and the rest of the Legendary Roots Crew will congregate at Penn’s Landing along with a host of other musical acts and tens of thousands of their collective fans for the Roots Picnic 2012, thereby kicking off Philadelphia’s Summer Concert Season. I talked to Questlove about the festival, which has been extended from one to two days for this fifth annual edition.

Where did you get the idea for the Roots Picnic?
I collect—what do you call it—I collect a lot of old video tape footage. It’s weird now. In this YouTube era, you can get access to a whole bunch of stuff. But I have a pretty good, healthy, Smithsonian-like collection of concert performances from artists that were rarely seen. And my favorite was the Police Picnic.

As in The Police?
Yes. From 1980 to 1983, each member of The Police would curate his own fantasy lineup in Canada somewhere. Night one would be Stewart’s night. Night two would be Andrew Summers. And night three was Sting. The lineup was very diverse, from B.B. King to the Clash. I was rather shocked that there was a world in which the Clash could find space with Leon Russell and B.B. King and the Meters. It was very radical, at least for 1981.

And so you based The Roots Picnic on that?
I’ll say that … I’ll say that that’s definitely why we called it the Roots Picnic. We cut our teeth on a lot of established festivals before Bonnaroo and Coachella really laid their groundwork. America’s just now getting caught up in festival-itis, but festivals saved and established us as a group.

How did that happen?
We went into exile from the United States creatively in 1993 in order to find some sort of environment that was musician friendly. So we kind of just took our budget and publishing money and got a flat in London and an agent and just told him no matter what you do, just put us to work. Having very little time to work with—you have got to get booked six months in advance—we were thrown in the river and made to swim for our lives.

Any great examples of that?
Monsters of Folk. We played all folk versions of our stuff. It kind of prepared us. It was sort of how to camouflage ourselves and survive when we’re the only hip-hop in a pop or rock fest. We were thrown into every scenario. Our education on how to adjust to any audience temperature and climate, that’s where that came into play. Now, we’re extremely comfortable in front of every audience except for the one we’re tailor-made for. Hip-hop is one of the hardest to do now. Usually it’s, Who are we with tonight [on Jimmy Fallon]? Radiohead? We got that ready. Ween? We got that ready. We make adjustments for each and every audience we can think of. And so with the Picnic, we wanted to bring it back.

[Click … Dial tone … a few minutes later, my phone rings again.]

Hello? What, you hung up on me? The Amazing Kreskin recently tried that one, too.
[Laughs] Nah. It’s this Philly beard. My beard has the ability to press the stop button on the telephone.

So is it fair to call you the curator of the Roots Picnic?
I pick and choose. At the end of the day, we kind of start with our lineup, wish list-fishing, usually in October. That way we can at least have a good start and the adjustment and the rejection of certain artists. Usually Coachella and Bonnaroo are big problems in trying to get the acts that we want.

This is your first two-day fest. Did the previous years prove you can support that?
We had to go into multiple day by default, because there are entirely too many people to pack into this one day. That said, personally, my dream was always to make a weekend of it. And this will be the first time there won’t be events surrounding it. Before, we’re doing Mountain Jam the day before. In a perfect world, I would set up a club venue or club structure. Last year, we did the Black Lily reunion at the TLA and had acts come down and perform. Sunday, I do my mammoth live DJ gig as well. But as far as it being a weekend thing, I would like to get to the point where we do Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The lineup certainly seems different this year, perhaps less far-reaching in its variety.
This is probably going to be our most hip-hop centric. I have two demos in mind. Actually, three demographics. There’s the classic hip-hop set. I gotta have something to satisfy them, which I’m sure that De La Soul and the Roots will do. And just recently, we confirmed that we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of Paid In Full, so Rakim will do his entire Paid In Full set. And then there’s the newer hip-hop set. So Wale and Kid Cudi—we’re not really allowed to call him “hip-hop” now—will satisfy that portion. And usually I do what I call the Coachella-Bonnaroo-Pitchfork trick, but I don’t think it’s served us well.

How so?
We’ve had TV On the Radio, Gnarls Barkley kind of headline. But I’ve noticed that our fan base will shy away. And while Vampire Weekend could sell out the Electric Factory … it was almost like pulling teeth trying to get their fan base to want to see them in this environment. I don’t know if I’m down to go through 11 acts just to get to a 90-minute Vampire Weekend or Black Keys set. So we are playing to our strengths.