The Key’s Year-End Mania: Sameer Rao’s Top 5 Musical Gut-Punches of 2014 (Philly edition)

Brielle | Photo via

Year-End Mania is the Key’s survey of the things below the surface that made 2014 awesome. In this installment, contributing writer Sameer Rao talks about songs that make you feel.

In case you didn’t read and feel what I wrote and felt last year, let it be known far and wide that 2014 was yet another hell of a year for nerve-poking chords, chill-inducing croons, and all manner of music that brought on heavy cases of the feels. And since this was a banner year for local artists of all stripes, we’re making this one Philly-exclusive. Get your tissues out for this list. Continue reading →


RIP: Richard Nichols, longtime manager and “guiding spirit” of The Roots

Longtime manager, friend, and “guiding spirit” of The Roots, Richard Nichols, passed away today.

The Roots released this official statement:

“The Roots Family are devastated to announce the passing of Richard Nichols, the band’s longtime manager, after a long battle with leukemia. Nichols, 55, a Philadelphia native, managed the band from its inception in 1992, and was instrumental in every aspect of The Roots’ creative, cultural, and professional life  over the past two decades. Nichols is survived by his wife, Mercedes Martinez, his sons Amiri Nichols and Rakim Nichols, his sisters Rochelle Nichols-Solomon, Rebecca Dennis, his brothers Russell Nichols and Reginald Nichols, and the many individuals and artists he mentored in his lifetime.”

In Chapter Two of Questlove’s Mo’ Meta Blues, there’s an e-mail exchange between Quest’s co-writer, Ben Greenman, and the editor of the book, Ben Greenberg. In the e-mail, Greenman outlines the potential way in which Nichols can have an ongoing voice throughout the book. Greenman describes Rich:

Rich is supremely analytical, extremely verbal, and entirely determined to digest, process, present, and represent the Roots’ whole experience. He has been central to the growth of the enterprise – in helping to strategize the moments when they grabbed for the brass ring as well as the moments when they sat back and thought about what the brass ring meant. He conducts an ongoing interrogation about what it all means. What’s black culture? What’s hip-hop? What are the responsibilities of a society and the people in it? And his inquiry isn’t bloodlessly academic, either; there’s something very consequential about his approach.

I’ve had the privilege of a handful of dealings with Rich over the years, in the context of the music business and the various events and interviews WXPN has done with the band. When I read the above paragraph in Quest’s book, which came out about a year ago, I felt that Greenman expressed how I always felt about Rich, in the little that I did deal with him. What I noticed right up front when I did meet Rich for the very first time – I think it was at a Roots house party in Grays Ferry back in the early 90′s, I always admired Nichols’ thoughtfulness, as well as his incredible love of music. Perhaps it was the “consequential-ness” of his approach that I felt, but couldn’t articulate.

In addition to his work visionary work with The Roots, Nichols also held down production, mixing and Executive Producing duties for a number of records, including those by Al Green, Common, Jill Scott, Zap Mama, Jay Z, Elvis Costello, and others.

In his acknowledgments to Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove offers a thank you to Richard Nichols: “For being in the lighthouse. Actually, I think you are the lighthouse.”

Our thoughts go out to Nichols, family, friends, and the entire Roots crew.


Check out this cool behind the scenes video from last year’s Fourth of July Jam


On the latest edition of Vinyl Destination, a documentary series featuring DJ Jazzy Jeff, the cameras go behind the scenes of 2013′s July Fourth Welcome America event, featuring not only Jazzy Jeff, but also artists like Jill Scott and The Roots (I watched the first half of the video thinking it was from this year’s, but oddly enough, it’s actually from last year’s). The video shows conversations between the artists about Jeff learning to swim and Jill learning to drive, and interestingly enough, there’s a scene just around the corner of WXPN’s World Cafe live as Jazzy Jeff checks out the food trucks on 30th Street. Check out the episode below:


Watch the Philly 4th of July Jam with The Roots, Aloe Blacc, Nicki Minaj and more

Photo by Mark Stehle via
Photo by Mark Stehle via

Aloe Blacc, Jennifer Hudson, Ed Sheeran, Nicki Minaj and The Roots performed at the Wawa Welcome America on July 4th, hosted by Marlon Wayans. Joining The Roots were Philly R&B singer Bilal and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Earlier last week, Aloe Blacc stopped by WXPN to record a session for an upcoming World Cafe with David Dye.

Below, watch the July 4th Jam in its entirety via VH-1.


Tonight’s Concert Pick: 4th of July Jam on the Parkway

Questlove and The Roots  | Photo by Noah Silvestry |
Questlove and The Roots | Photo by Noah Silvestry |

For the 4th, the city of Philadelphia will host a giant free concert located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  At 7pm there will be live performances from The Roots, Nicki Minaj, Ed Sheeran, Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Granda and more! The evening closes with Fireworks over the Art Museum.  Find full information here.


Stage tested, listener approved: The Roots brought a not-so-common breakfast jam to NYC Kelloggs event last week

Photo by Dana distortion Yavin
Photo by Dana distortion Yavin | via

Philly heroes The Roots had some fun with guests of a Kellogg’s event in NYC last Wednesday, according to this report from Brooklyn Vegan. The band, whose talents now include skillful mastery of spoon-and-bowl-playing, promoted the breakfast company with some tunes (including Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie”) and complimentary bowls of cereal for each attendee. Head over to Brooklyn Vegan for the full gallery of photos from the event, which includes Tony the tiger grooving to their set. Check out some video below.


An introduction to the groundbreaking psyche of eclectic soul singer Cody ChesnuTT, playing World Cafe Live tomorrow

Cody ChesnuTT | Photo by Matthew Shaver |
Cody ChesnuTT | Photo by Matthew Shaver |

There are not too many musicians, especially in contemporary RnB, like Cody ChesnuTT. The Atlanta-bred, Tallahassee-based singer-songwriter has flirted with both stardom and DIY ethics in a way that places him very much outside of the institutional structures of many musical peers (well, at least, those who could even think to call themselves peers). For this reason, among others, his performance tomorrow night at World Cafe Live is a welcome introduction into his very peculiar and groundbreaking psyche.

After missteps with Hollywood Records in the early 2000s, ChesnuTT retreated from the specter of pop success and recorded his 2002 debut over two years while holed up in his bedroom. The Headphone Masterpiece, a double-disc album, essentially functions as a sort of career manifesto. His lo-fi approach and disregard for RnB convention, played out over a comically-long release filled with short and patchily irreverent songs like “Look Good in Leather” and “Bitch, I’m Broke”, is the sort of artistic move more associated with rock artists like Guided by Voices or Pavement.

His subversion, especially in a genre better known for epic gestures and high production quality, would be rewarded when The Roots picked him up for a remake of his song “The Seed”. The ensuring song, 2003’s “The Seed 2.0”, would go on to become one of the group’s biggest hits; even with this push, ChesnuTT eschewed fame and quietly released two albums before, 10 years later, emerging on Kickstarter and asking fans to contribute to 2012’s full-band Landing on a Hundred. In the interim, the legacy of Masterpiece continues to loom large over his eccentric and intricately brilliant releases.

If his live videos are any indication, tonight’s show at World Cafe Live promises a classic soul spectacle turned on its head, with ChesnuTT’s troubador-like storytelling and performance art theatrics taking center stage and illuminating why he’s always worth watching.

Cody ChesnuTT performs on the World Cafe Live stage tonight at 8 PM with opener Joy Ike. Click here for tickets and information


The Roots Picnic brings an inspired musical frenzy to the Festival Pier

The Roots and Snoop Dogg | Photo by Mark Schaffer
The Roots and Snoop Dogg | Photo by Mark Schaffer

The anticipation behind this year’s Roots Picnic could have easily evolved into a self-fulfilling letdown of high expectations gone unfulfilled. Fortunately for the sold-out crowd of over 6,000, the day met every benchmark for a phenomenal musical experience.

With the newly-renovated and sand-strewn Festival Pier as its home base, the all-day festival boasted an eclectic line-up of both upstart and established acts of various genres. All acts shared the Questlove seal of approval, bearing a heavy emphasis on rhythm and sunny-day vibes.

Janelle Monae | Photo by Mark Schaffer
Janelle Monae | Photo by Mark Schaffer

Although every act of the day put on a frenzy-whipping set (the strongest of them being, arguably, a sunset-backed and pitch-perfect Janelle Monáe), there were a few noteworthy highlights:

-    An inspiring group of sets in the first half of the festival (prior to most attendees’ arrival) with particularly strong ones from New Zealand RnB group Electric Wire Hustle, hip-hop/classical sequence-loops master Emily Wells, blues-rock guitarist and singer Roman Gianarthur (including soulful covers of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” and Radiohead’s “High and Dry”), West Philly’s own Chill Moody, and British drum-and-bass act Rudimental (during which this reporter felt bass shocks that almost stopped his heartbeat)

-    Guest appearances from Philly’s own Freeway and Harlem’s Jim Jones during a DJ set from legendary producer Just Blaze, with Freeway performing State Property hits like “Roc da Mic

The War on Drugs | Photo by Mark Schaffer
The War on Drugs | Photo by Mark Schaffer

-    A searing performance from WXPN favorites The War on Drugs, during which frontman Adam Granduciel gave Program Director Bruce Warren a heartwarming shoutout (referring to him as “The Other Boss”)

-    The aforementioned strongest set of the day, starting with The Electric Lady herself being wheeled out on a stretcher in a straitjacket before tearing through most of her hits with uncompromising intensity

-    The Roots (post-Snoop Dogg) bringing out Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie, and former member Rahzel for an epic rendition of several popular songs showcasing all three of their legendary beatboxing.

Check out photos from the day’s festivities, taken by local musician and photographer Mark Schaffer, in the gallery below.


Six artists to watch at the 7th Annual Roots Picnic

Photo of Rudimental at Made In America by Dana Distortion via
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.

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