Dave Chappelle’s Block Party: Bigger Than Hip-Hop

Dancing, not shufflingOne of the elements that a lot of current mainstream hip-hop seems to be missing—and one of the things that historically has made the music most exhilarating—is the element of pure joy. You wouldn’t necessarily think this in light of his recent disappearing act and slow reemergence into the public eye, but Dave Chappelle knows how to find joy, especially in hip-hop.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party answers the age-old question of “What would you do with a million dollars?” just by merit of the title—throw a giant, all-day free concert on a block in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. This, however, is much more than a party. It’s an examination of an extremely popular and troubled comic in the days before his troubles began. It’s a coming together of a huge roster of some of the most well-known, talented and creative figures in hip-hop music. It’s funny and political and a vanity project and a gift to hip-hop fans everywhere. It makes you want to crawl into the screen and hug Dave Chappelle for getting it exactly right.

The film opens in a seemingly incongruous place: Ohio. There’s Chappelle, a megaphone, an open field, a marching band, and two guys with a dead car. Chappelle tries in vain to assist with fixing the car— the two gentlemen don’t seem to know who he is, which is either a comment on celebrity in Ohio or how you may have a zillion dollars but that doesn’t help fix your car, son—and eventually he breaks away from the scene and uses the megaphone to announce the roster of the show, which is illustrated in bright, seventies-inspired fonts as he shouts the names. The roster itself is incredible, and Chappelle himself says gleefully later in the film “This is the concert that I always wanted to see!” From the Roots to Dead Prez to Kanye West to Jill Scott to Talib Kweli to Mos Def to Common, the lineup reads like a who’s who of modern hip-hop.

From the opening, the film basically goes everywhere. There’s no linear structure to it, and that’s part of its charm. It intersperses scenes of Chappelle bestowing “golden tickets” on his hometown neighbors (one of the most touching scenes is found when he invites the entire Central State University Marching Band to perform—their glee when they find out they can attend knows no boundaries) with rehearsals and the actual performances. He wanders a Salvation Army trying on suits, he reveals a talent for playing “Round Midnight” on piano, he goofs around with preschool kids, he rehearses Yo Momma jokes with a full band backing him including Mos Def on drums.

The only weak point (for fans of the music) is in the seemingly arbitrary edits of the performance. Jill Scott’s set seems to go on for an eternity, while an astonishing rendition of “Umi Says” by Mos Def gets cut short. One assumes that the DVD release will include all the full-length performances, but the cuts still sting a bit. However, they also keep true to the spirit of the film—never lingering in one place for too long and switching rapidly back and forth from what goes on behind the scenes to the end result.

The performances are absolutely mesmerizing, grin-inducing, faith-reaffirming. Everything is backed by the Roots’ live band, which shoots down a common complaint with people who don’t enjoy the genre (that everything is canned or done by a DJ, that it’s not even music). There are countless shoutouts to Brooklyn from the stage, and the highlight of many people’s experience seemed to be the surprise reunion of the Fugees. Now that the Fugees have gotten back together (at least for the sake of recording crappy songs for Verizon Wireless) it’s a little anticlimactic, but that doesn’t diminish the power that the three Fugees have onstage together. The Roots themselves also deliver a chilling, gorgeous (and nearly unedited) version of “You Got Me” with both Erykah Badu and Jill Scott on backing vocals.

Of course, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party isn’t going to please everyone. A disgruntled group of frat kids walked out of the screening that I saw about a third of the way through. It brought to mind something that Chappelle himself said to Time Magazine in regards to breaking his contract with Comedy Central: “I want to make sure I’m dancing and not shuffling.” This film is many things, but at its core, it is guided by Dave Chappelle neither dancing nor shuffling. It’s Chappelle as a real person, not a persona, and it’s Chappelle as a fan of music. It’s the music, which speaks louder than anything any critic or comic could write. It’s infectiously good.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

2 thoughts on “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party: Bigger Than Hip-Hop”

  1. Well done, Sarah. I agree with all you said. When I heard about the concert even happening (a day before the actual show, and I missed it!), and the names involved (Chappelle, Michel Gondry, the performers), I knew the movie/event would be fool-proof. In the midst of all this conversation regarding whether or not Chappelle is insane, the movie proves that really all he values over the money and fame is the chance to have a good time and help others do the same.

    And for a great time, he did right in his choice of performers. By picking the collective of artists he did–lifelong friends who grew up in the industry together and avoid the anger and pessimism of most hip-hop–he provided the perfect lineup. I do hope the DVD’s got the full concert, but as a love-letter to not only Brooklyn, but the human race, Block Party is nearly untouchable.

Leave a Reply