Essays from 116th Street

Self-therapy, since 2004...

Location: New York, New York

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

You Better Thank Dave Chappelle

I was sitting in the world's worst movie theater, on 86th Street, watching the first two-thirds of Dave Chappelle's Block Party, when the picture suddenly cut out. As the boos from the audience poured in, and the technical crew scrambled (unsuccessfully) to get the movie back on, I thought to myself how transcendent the experience of watching the first 2/3 of this movie, with this audience, had truly been.
It was 2000, and I was in my college apartment, watching BET's Rap City, when the video for Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek (Reflection Eternal)'s "Move Something" video aired for the first time. Having already been forever altered by the lyrical brilliance of Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, as well as moved by Mos Def's solo debut, Black on Both Sides, I was thrilled to see the less-famous half of the groundbreaking duo get some shine (Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek [Reflection Eternal]'s 2000 album, Train of Thought is also a must-listen, by the way). "Move Something" was an average song/video (in true Kweli fashion, the second single, "The Blast," was far superior), but there was one thing about it that I couldn't shake: what the hell was Dave Chappelle doing in this video?
The thought of Dave Chappelle, hilarious albeit obscure comedian, not to mention the guy from Half Baked, somehow being down with Kweli, at the time a seriously underground rapper, was beyond the realm of comprehension. My first thought was that the label had arranged this, to make Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek seem more recognizable. Then, I realized that both Chappelle and Hi-Tek were from Ohio, so that must have been the connection. Still, my questions lingered: was Dave Chappelle secretly a backpacker? Was he down with the Soulquarians? Could he even be (gasp) an Okayplayer?
It is now 2006, and much has changed. The laptop has replaced the backpack, and the Soulquarians (the true ones, at least - Jay Dee [R.I.P.], ?uestlove, D'Angelo and James Poyser) are less closely associated with each other than they once were. As for Okayplayer, their artists are no longer underground, Angela Nissel is a best-selling author and Aaron McGruder has a hit TV show you may have heard of. The underground of 1999 has become the mainstream of 2006, enabled by a number of forces, among them the rise of Kanye West (who successfully attempted to merge underground sensibilities with a mainstream sound, and whose various collaborators have included representatives of both camps), the popularity of Erykah Badu and Jill Scott (who brought their brethren in the hip hop world along for the ride) and the best efforts of... Dave Chappelle?
Dave Chappelle, fairly obscure comedian and star of Half Baked, did a number of guest spots on Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek (Reflection Eternal)'s fantastic 2000 album, Train of Thought, in which he spoofed a few public figures, including Nelson Mandela and Rick James. He followed this with a hilarious opening to Talib Kweli's 2002 release Quality, confirming at the very least his fandom of Talib Kweli. When Chappelle's Show debuted in 2003, his experimental nature and commitment to personal authenticity carried over to his selection of musical guests. His very first musical guest was Mos Def (who later would become a regular sketch contributor), performing "Close Edge" from his forthcoming album, The New Danger. As the show progressed, it became a forum for some lesser-exposed artists to gain a new audience, and Chappelle's Show became the biggest showcase for alternative hip hop since MTV's short-lived (and probably not very good) Lyricist Lounge Show. Chappelle's Show featured a back-in-the-game De La Soul, a reunited Mos and Kweli as Black Star, and, perhaps most famously, a live performance of Common and Kanye West's "The Food," the recording of which was actually used on Common's 2005 album Be. By the time Chappelle appeared on the cover of XXL magazine in 2004 with Common, Kanye West, Talib Kweli and Dead Prez, his mission of bringing conscious hip hop to the mainstream had become clear as day.
Dave Chappelle's Block Party is undoubtedly the biggest and boldest of Chappelle's hip hop endeavors. In 2005, he organized an all-day concert at a secret location in Brooklyn (which I tried to get tickets to and failed), featuring Mos, Kweli, Erykah, Jill, The Roots, Dead Prez, Kanye, Common and (gasp!) a reunited Fugees, and had Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) shoot and direct a documentary of the event. Chappelle referred to it as the concert he's always wanted to see, and I'll be damned if it isn't the concert I've always wanted to see, too. With his comedy sprinkled throughout, and a positive vibe presiding over everything, the movie is an incredible event, especially if watched with an appreciative audience.
As I watched the first two-thirds of the film, I wondered to myself whether or not this is the end of an era, or merely another transient period. Very little of the artists' newer material made it into the film footage, causing me to think that the best work of their movement is already behind them (Erykah Badu's "Back In The Day," from her latest, Worldwide Underground, was especially compelling, however). At the same time, I also noted how critics were amazed to discover this pocket of artists previously unknown. Perhaps an entirely new segment will discover the genius behind Black Star, Things Fall Apart or Like Water For Chocolate, and we won't even need more classic material. Or maybe the best is yet to come for all of us, whether backpackers, Soulquarians, Okayplayers or partially-employed temps. All I know is that the horrible theater on 86th Street gave us two free passes each for #*^%ing up our movie, so me and Joe went back to make it through to the end. It was so much fun, it made me want to go to my job and tell my boss, "#*^% you, give me my money - HIT ME!!!"


Blogger Just-I-C-Equality said...

Peace Sistren,
Beautiful and impressive to share the mind and vision of an insightful and intelligent sister. Keep doing what your doing and express yourslef-the world needs to hear you!

Father Just

4:12 PM  
Blogger Z. Jackson said...

As delightful as a woman who is well-versed in soccer, hip hop and video games sounds, I am most definitely a man...

9:25 PM  
Anonymous Brock said...

Great write up. I too tried to get tix to the filming. Can't wait for the DVD. My dream would be a 3 disc edition which includes the whole concert. I agree that this movie could mark the beginning of the end or a take over of hip-hop music but the second of much less likely.

My moment in the sun on okp:

1:31 PM  

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