The Roots’ annual holiday jam session focused less on the holidays and more on the jam session last night at Brooklyn’s Brooklyn Bowl, where Big Daddy Kane and Wu-Tang Clan‘s Raekwon helped push the night to a hip-hop themed climax. There was one holiday song, though, courtesy of unannounced guest Sufjan Stevens, along with comedy from Hannibal Buress and Reggie Watts. Other notable musical cameos came from beat-box maestro Rahzel, R&B singer Bilal and a medley of reggae songs by Mr. Vegas.
The event was billed as Okayplayer’s Annual Holiday Party, marking the 15th anniversary of the Okayplayer website that Questlove himself helped found. The Roots started a yearly winter jam session in 2007 and past guests have included Mos Def, Q-Tip, Patti Labelle, TV on the Radio and John Legend.
This season’s edition featured a stage decked out in suitably festive fashion: Green lights shone on a red velvet backdrop with gold trim, while tinsel decorated mic stands and oversized stockings hung from the DJ and percussion booths. But the musical performances began on a less seasonal note when dancehall figure Mr. Vegas jumped on stage and announced, “We’re gonna take it to Flatbush!” He then launched into his uproarious “Heads High” before bringing out reggae artists Christopher Ellis, Addis Pablo and Bunji Garlin, who performed his soca hit “Differentology.”
The night took on a lower-key tone when Sufjan Stevens performed, as he offered up a tender rendition of his song “Holland” while backed by Questlove and the Roots. Stevens, who made his own contribution to the seasonal canon with his 2006 five-EP box-set Songs for Christmas, then announced, “I’ll do one more and it’s got ‘holly,’ ‘jolly’ and ‘Christmas’ in it. It’s a sing-along.” He performed the sole seasonal staple of the night as he sang a genial version of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” while the Roots added a backing groove that included a chirpy keyboard riff.
It was the closing rap section of the show that resonated most with the crowd. Black Thought was first up, strutting around in his signature flat-cap during his performance of “The Next Movement.” He then brought out Big Daddy Kane and the two of them ran through Kane’s golden-era hits “Just Rhyming With Biz,” “Set It Off” and “Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” with Black Thought acting as both amped-up hype man and savvy impromptu rap impersonator as he took on Biz Markie’s role in the first song.
The night took a final twist before winding down when Raekwon rushed onstage. In tandem with Black Thought, the Wu-Tang staple ran through a trio of tracks from his classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… album: “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” “Ice Cream” and “Guillotine (Swordz),” with the Roots MC taking up mic duties in place of Ghostface, Method Man and Inspectah Deck where needed. For their part, the Roots pulled off a canny live re-creation of RZA’s original warped production on the songs, leaving the assembled Brooklyn crowd with a special hip-hop holiday memory for the ages.