The Roots’ Goodbye to The Highline Ballroom
I guess I owe Jimmy Fallon a thank you card. I can remember the initial horror I felt when it was first announced the Roots would be the house band for Fallon’s Late Night show, circa 2008. “Are they still going to tour and record albums?” were the first questions into my frantic mind. Looking back, it’s easy to forget how unprecedented it was. Not just a band, but THE band as far as Hip-Hop is concerned, seemingly signing up for a 9–5 gig. In hindsight I was foolish to be worried, we now know the Roots were THE thing that made Fallon’s late night show stand out initially. Besides crushing it as the house band, they often performed alongside guests, appeared in sketches, and were seamless weaved into the DNA of the show. As a diehard Roots fan, all that was great, but for me, the best part of the Roots joining Fallon was their residency at the Highline Ballroom.
NY1 News hired me right out of college in 2008. The 24-hour New York City-centric station’s studios are located in Chelsea Market, a former Nabisco factory turned television production facility, slash tourist-infested destination for food and shopping. The market itself was never my favorite destination, due to it being overpriced, overcrowded and serving as the portal to a job I would stagnante in for over 10 years. (Fun Fact about NY1’s studios: HBO’s Oz used to film in that space and if you used your imagination it sometimes felt like a maximum security prison.) However, the surrounding area made up for it, because located right next to Chelsea Market was the Highline Ballroom. Once it was announced the Roots, now tethered to NYC through their Fallon job, would be doing a modestly priced weekly jam session right across the street from my job, I knew luck had smiled upon me.
It would have been impossible to prevent these nostalgic, reflective thoughts upon entering the Highline Ballroom on February 4th, 2019 for the venue’s final show. The Roots took the stage with no frills, no introduction, no opening act. Familiar sights abound, an eager loving packed audience, photographer Mel D Cole stalking iconic shots from the stage, the band flanked by the ?uesto half hidden in the shadows. The end began with some selections from Black Thought’s recent Streams of Thought, Vol2. project with Salaam Remi was all the warm up ?uest, Tariq and the crew needed. They peppered in some Roots classics like Respond/React and Dynamite, staples found in any well balanced boom bap diet. By the time they got to the Marvin Gaye-sampled Conception I was fully swept up in the horns, drums and memories of countless evenings standing in that crowd mesmerized by the greatest band in Hip-Hop.
For a band well known to fans as the Legendary Roots crew, their weekly shows at the end of the previous decades more than lived up to the moniker. Dubbed the Jam, Wednesday after Wednesday the Roots and an ever changing roster of guest musicians and performers would commandeer the Highline’s stage and provide the crowd with entertainment well beyond the $10 they paid. And I made sure I was at every one of those shows I was able to attend. My dedication was rewarded with appearances from Q-Tip, Big Krit, Janelle Monae, John Legend, Estelle, John Forte, Boot Camp Clik, Wale, Vernon Reid, Bilal, Common, essentially whoever was in town.
Many of my my favorite live music moments stem from these jams. I saw Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello do ungodly, amazing things with a guitar, at one point playing the feedback from his guitar cable as its own instrument. I’ve seen the depths and extensiveness of Black Thought’s lyrical library. One of my favorite example of this occurred during a Styles P. cameo. Appearing on stage to rap his verse on the title track of The Roots’ Rising Down album, “the Ghost” struggled to recall his own lyrics. Thankfully Tariq Trotter, the one man streaming service, was there and easily supplied the absent bars. I’ve seen Captain Kirk make guitars cry and Tuba Gooding Jr display the kind of breath control during tuba mastery that would make Michael Phelps jealous. Or at least pass a blunt in disbelief. I remember FINALLY catching one of the drumsticks ?uestlove’s throws into the crowd at the end of shows at the very last edition of the Jams.
While on the subject of drumsticks…
As they ran through their set at the Highline finale, each song drew forth a significant memory. During “Proceed” I recalled the time I got ?uest’s autograph. I’d encountered him out and about before, and my general celebrity policy is “don’t bother them”, but this time was one of those exceptions. The encounter occurred in the aforementioned Chelsea Market, where ?uestlove had opened a short-lived chicken spot Hybird. They cleverly specialized in drumsticks, although I was more of a fan of the biscuits with honey butter. But one day at work I got word he was downstairs at the restaurant and rushed down on my break. Quickly spotting him downstairs and seeing him appearing annoyed by a handful of other fans I realized if I didn’t want to be similar nuisance I’d need to differentiate myself. Luckily his book ‘Mo Meta Blues’ had recently been released and there was a bookstore in the building. I ran to the rear to quickly purchase a copy and returned swiftly to find ?uestlove freeing himself from the crowd and preparing to leave. I caught his eye and held up the book. Unable to deny a paying supporter he nonverbally conceded defeat kindly and asked my name. “Dillon”, I replied handing him his book and probably totally hiding my giddiness successfully. He signed it, I thanked him and let him go on his way. I opened the front cover to see the spoils of my effort. A classic ?uestlove silhouette sketch and a dedication of appreciation to his loving fan, “DYLAN”. Probably what I deserved for purchasing the book to guilt him into signing it. Well played Amir, well played.
“You Got Me”, arguably the Root’s most notable song is always a transcendent experience to catch live. Because they’ve had to perform it so many times over the years it’s not surprising to hear a different version every time. On this evening Captain Kirk geniously incorporated some Sicko Mode before spinning into a breathtaking rendition of Hotel California. During I flashed back to all the times I attended (or attempted to attend) the Jams with a lovely date in tow. Ah the hopeless romantic I was. Emphasis on hopeless. Because the Jams were so cheap I’d often by two tickets and worry about who to invite later. If you want to see an embarrassing twitter search, check my twitter @-name and Highline Ballroom/Roots Jam circa 2009 you’ll see many desperate “Got an extra ticket, DM me if you want to go” pleas. There were no “baby don’t worry, you know that you got me” replies.
Bittersweet isn’t enough of a description for that final show. The Roots pack so much into a performance. Even amongst the weight of saying goodbye to this beloved venue and closing a chapter, they keep their hand on the current pulse of pop culture. Playing 50 Cent’s 21 Questions while Thought evoked the “21” ad lib of recently detained 21 Savage was a thoughtful nod to Hip-Hop’s latest political prisoner, as was the undoubtedly deliberate selection of Roc da Mic the day before their fellow Philadelphia brethren Freeway underwent kidney surgery. Those kind of thoughtful musical acknowledgements the band loves to hide as Easter eggs to their fans in their performances will be missed on that Chelsea stage.
The Highline’s closing isn’t an isolated occurrence. Over the last few years iconic and beloved venues in New York have shuttered their doors victims to real estate prices and changing demographics that many New Yorkers themselves have fallen victim to. Any time I walk down West 16th street, I’ll recall my evenings with my favorite artists, Foreign Exchange, Jean Grae, The Internet, Big Krit, Yuna, K-Os. Hell, I even saw The Air Sex World Championships there. (It’s what it sounds like) I’ll think back on the nights lined up outside Western Beef next door or evenings I went to crash on the couch at work after leaving a show at 2am for a work shift at 4am. I’ll remember being mad I couldn’t leave work to make it to J. Cole’s a Dollar and a Dream shows. And I’ll remember the Jams.
As the word “residency” implies the Legendary Roots Crew made themselves a New York home in the Highline Ballroom. They were also essentially in t-shirts, loungewear and sweatpants for their final performance. A clear visual cue that this space felt like home. That’s kind of what you have to do in New York. Carve out a little portion of it for yourself. It’s sad to see such a great venue close but nothing lasts forever. I moved on to a new job last year and am in the process of moving to a new apartment now. So if ?uest and friends want to start up a new residency I can offer some suggestions that would be convenient for me. In the meantime, I’m glad I got to be there for the goodbye and the close of this chapter. *cue The Next Movement*…