Six artists to watch at the 7th Annual Roots Picnic - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Photo of Rudimental at Made In America by Dana Distortion via

Stories of old gigs from The Roots are the stuff of legend around Philadelphia. Throw a stone and you’re bound to hit a Gen-X music lover with memories (perhaps false ones) of surprise shows at now-defunct Old City venues and happenstance Questlove sightings at Northern Liberties brunch spots. These stories might be all that is left of a bygone era in which The Roots helped shape the sonic and ideological imprint of left-of-center hip-hop culture, all the while centering it in a series of extinct local hot spots.

Well, not all that’s left. They may have abandoned a rigorous touring regimen for late night glory, but Quest and co. remain committed to creating awesome moments of cross-genre delight and enlightenment for Philadelphians of all stripes. The clearest definition of this mission statement – one which has followed them into numerous genre-bending albums and collaborations – is the annual Roots Picnic, the 7th installment of which goes down at Festival Pier this Saturday. Few festivals pack such an eclectic and kinetic punch in a small, relatively inexpensive experience. While this year’s lineup is one of its strongest yet, we here at The Key have our eye on a few artists (including some lesser-known ones) who have had especially fascinating years and promise tremendous sets on Saturday.

The Roots

At the risk of sounding obvious, we’ll say that any set from The Roots is bound to set the mood for a day of gleeful head-nodding. Their reputation as a live act, honed through nearly two decades of constant touring and five years of sequence-scoring for Jimmy Fallon, is well-established. With the recent release of the excellent …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, the band also promises to deliver some searing live renditions of their epic new material.

Janelle Monáe

The first Made in America festival got a lot of mixed reviews from local concertgoers who were mired in large-scale and largely acceptable skepticism about how a festival of that scale would play out on the Parkway. Unanimous praise was saved, however, for Janelle Monáe’s classic soul-rooted, futuristically-oriented brand of music. After near-unanimous praise for her latest album, 2013’s The Electric Lady, the aptly named Electric Lady promises a solid set of fanciful festivity.

The War on Drugs

At least one prominent Roots Picnic slot is reserved for a buzzworthy indie act who, like The Roots, looks to bridge aesthetic boundaries instead of reinforcing them. Philly’s own The War on Drugs, riding on the success of this year’s acclaimed and dreamscape-y Lost in the Dream, fill big shoes left by genre benders like Vampire Weekend and TV on the Radio. But if their unique take on shoegaze-meets-Americana has a perfect home anywhere, it’s at an open air concert along their hometown’s emblematic waterfront.


If there’s any act who’s bound to capture new fans at this year’s concert, it’s London-based Rudimental. Even if we’ve passed the peak of America’s love affair with EDM, this group of exemplary young musicians promise to keep its hypnotic power alive for at least a few more years. Their sound is largely rooted in classic drum n’ bass but incorporates disparate influences from blue-eyed soul and power-pop into a potent mix that has gained them wide acclaim as a festival act. Check out the video below for “Feel the Love”, shot in North Philly and featuring cameos from kids riding horses as part of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club.

Jhené Aiko

Aiko’s downbeat RnB sound will instantly remind listeners of more popular artists like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, but the 26-year-old singer-songwriter from Los Angeles is something altogether different. She places her own nuancedly-agile vocals within her songs’ lush instrumentals in a way that makes her part of the broader soundscape, turning out a product as dark and haunting as it is relaxed and shimmering. Her Roots Picnic set will prove whether or not those songs’ live presentation does some form of justice to the intimate power of her recordings.

Jhené Aiko “My Afternoon Dream” from Jhené Aiko on Vimeo.

Chill Moody

We at The Key always love to see local artists get the shine they deserve, and there’s perhaps no other rapper more deserving of the Roots Picnic honor this year than West Philly’s own Chill Moody. Disseminating his brand through a series of single releases and hashtags, Moody’s fresh take on classic hip-hop sounds makes him the perfect candidate for this festival’s new musician hype element.  His just-dropped single “Concrete Jungle” gives the best approximation of the hand-waving joy that his set promises.

There are far more artists worth checking out this weekend, but if you have to make some tough decisions when pressed against hundreds of fellow human beings on what promises to be a packed Festival Pier, you can’t go wrong with these.

The Roots Picnic goes down this Saturday, May 31st. Click here for tickets and info, and check back with The Key in the coming days for photos and a review. 

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