By the time the Roots took to the stage at Woodstock ‘99, the now-notorious fest was already well underway. Slated between sets by Buckcherry and Insane Clown Posse on Friday, July 23rd, the group made the best of their time at what would become a chaotic mess, grooving their way through an hour-long performance featuring songs off their latest album, Things Fall Apart, released over 20 years ago. With a new HBO documentary revisiting the infamous Woodstock ’99, a new generation is learning about one of the most calamitous festivals of all time.
With a little help from Erykah Badu, who joined the band onstage to perform the album’s lead single, “You Got Me,” the Roots gave the crowd a public peek at the soon-to-be-legendary series of collaborations that were then in progress some 250 miles away at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village.
Along with the Roots, the studio also housed other like-minded artists, including D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Common, Slum Village, and Bilal. This collective, dubbed the Soulquarians, collaborated on a series of six albums that would go on to define the neo-soul genre — as well as the decade.
During a magical two-year period, along with Things Fall Apart, the Soulquarians would also appear on D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 2, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun and Bilal’s 1st Born Second.
Things Fall Apart marked a turning point for the Roots, as it became their first album to go gold, selling more than 500,000 copies in its first few months. Questlove’s soulful drumming paired with Black Thought’s masterful lyricism propelled the band to their first Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album. They also took home their first Grammy that year, as “You Got Me” won for Best Performance by a Rap Duo or Group. The song originally featured vocals from co-writer Jill Scott but was re-recorded with Erykah Badu, as RCA Records demanded a higher-profile singer be featured on the single.
Badu had previously worked with Questlove and the Roots on her 1997 debut, Baduizm, before going on to feature on “You Got Me” and then produce Mama’s Gun with the group’s help. In a 2011 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Badu recalled her eagerness to work with the Roots in the mid-Nineties. “I loved the jazz aspect of what they were doing,” Badu said. “It was a continuum of what A Tribe Called Quest was doing, and I was just into that sound,” she said. “It was very familiar to me, I felt like we were from the same tribe. Once we met, we all kind of jelled and understood each other.”
Twenty years later, the Roots are a household name, seen and heard by millions every weeknight on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Erykah Badu and the Roots have reconnected a few times throughout the ensuing years, including a headlining set Badu performed with the Roots in 2015 at their Roots Picnic in Philadelphia.
[Editor’s Note: A version of this story was originally published February 2019]