A jam is many things. It’s fun. Loose. Liberating. Social. But it’s also a chance to just make some music, no questions asked, and that was the prevailing vibe Monday as the Roots played the seventh annual Okayplayer Holiday Jam at Brooklyn Bowl.
Okayplayer is a hip-hop website brought to life by Roots drummer Questlove in 1999. Its yearly invitation-only holiday event is notorious for drawing serious, unannounced talent (the only act advertised ahead of time is the Roots).
After two hours of opening acts MC’d by comedian Hannibal Buress, the Roots gave 90 minutes to a set that clearly had three parts: the first was an energetic, Questlove-free reggae affair, featuring, among others, Mr. Vegas; the last part consisted of unfiltered hip-hop, courtesy of Big Daddy Kane, Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan, and Black Thought. Sandwiched in between was an anything-goes sort of chapter, including appearances from multi-instrumentalist Adrian Younge, the bluesy Valerie June, and singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, whose performance of “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” is below.
Bilal’s deep rapport with the group came easy; Poyser and Questlove co-wrote “Sometimes” and appeared on the 2001 studio version. Another standout passage from the set found the Roots on their own for a pair of songs. Fronted by the tough, magnetic rhymes of Black Thought, the band whipped up hard, gritty sounds, approaching “The Next Movement,” especially, with punch and power. The music was consuming in its size and aggression; afterwards, one wished the band wasn’t so generous with its time.
The best part of the sprawling, six-act lead-up to the Roots’ set was a thirty-minute comedy segment. The first ten minutes or so unleashed the hallucinatory antics of Reggie Watts. Armed with remarkable beatboxing skills, a muscular, versatile voice, and a sampler, Watts laid lyrics over his own bass lines and drumbeats, to an effect that was somehow both comedic and serious, mocking and admiring. Dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans, Chicago Bulls cap, and glasses, Buress was as laidback as Watts was animated, riffing on masturbation and the lies that rappers tell in their rhymes.
Though some artists could have been given more time — June, for instance, was gone too quick — the evening was never dizzying. And its unwillingness to settle on any one idea didn’t feel scattered, really. Comedy, reggae, hip-hop, soul music — it’s all art aiming to bring people together. It’s important to have focus and a destination, but sometimes you’ve got to just forget all that and make something.
Video: Sufjan Stevens with the Roots (left) and Reggie Watts (right)