And on Saturday at the Festival Pier on the Delaware, the group hosted its sixth Roots Picnic, which both unofficially starts the outdoor summer music season in Philadelphia and allows the band to act as tastemakers, programming their own festival to reflect their take on the state of contemporary pop, hip-hop, and indie rock.
This year, the 17-act show started at noon with singer-songwriter Jennah Bell and finished 11 hours later at the close of the Roots' own dazzling two-hour set, performed in tandem with old-school rap heroes Naughty by Nature, plus unbilled guests Meek Mill, Marsha Ambrosius, and Rahzel the Godfather of Noize. The 6,700-capacity venue was sold out, testimony to the festival's brand, which has established that even on a punishing 90-degree day, the Roots Picnic is the coolest place to be in Philadelphia on a June Saturday.
Ample credit for its popularity this year also goes to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the Seattle hip-pop duo who have scored zeitgeist gold with "Thrift Shop" and "Same Love," hit singles that support clothes shopping on a budget and same-sex marriage, respectively. In their late-afternoon set, the redheaded rapper and DJ duo owned the crowd.
There were more highlights, including Canadian one-woman band Grimes, who pushed buttons and twiddled knobs while manipulating her own vocals on catchy indie-electro dance songs. Teenage Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ lived up to his name with a tight set of neo-old-school rap, and DJ Premier moved the crowd with actual old-school rap.
Like the Roots themselves, the picnic is hip-hop at its core but embraces a range of styles. That was apparent in the presence of jazz experimentalist Robert Glasper, and, as the sun mercifully set, Gary Clark Jr., who in one interlude made his blues guitar echo the record-scratching sounds of DJ Premier moments before.
It had already been a long day by the time Clark departed, but there was no rest for the weary. "Philly, Philly! Stand up!" Black Thought commanded as the sonically omnivorous octet leapt into a trademark medley that included "Table of Contents, Part 1," and "The Next Movement" without the perennially underrated rapper stopping to breathe for 20 minutes or so.
With deep grooves cushioned by James Poyser's and Kamal Grey's keyboards and snapped to life by the kick of ?uestlove's snare drum, the Roots are a perpetual-motion machine that shifts seamlessly in whatever direction they choose.
It's nice to watch them in their role as America's band on TV every night - and it might be even nicer in an earlier time slot when they become The Tonight Show band next year. But it's even more of a privilege to hear the Roots stretch out in their hometown, showing the full range of what they can do. "Roots crew from Philly, how you loving that?" Black Thought queried at one juncture, asking a question he already knew the answer to. "All right," he replied. "We loving you right back."
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.inquirer.com/inthemix.