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Remember 2004?: The Continued Relevance of ‘Block Party’

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One of the few recurring but hardly frequent “bits” on this blog is something I’ve called “Remember 2004?”. Basically, I look at some of the- in my opinion- many great rap albums or singles that came out in 2004. Why 2004? Well, because for reasons I know are barely half-valid but still believe, there seemed to be something going on in 2004; big dumb pop rap and conscious, backpacker type stuff seemed vaguely conflated on the radio and BET and MTV and even non-music television, as something like ‘Chappelle’s Show’ or Chappelle and Michel Gondry’s 2005-released, but shot in 2004 film ‘Block Party’ might attest…

I work part-time at a big bookstore that isn’t Barnes & Noble (but has a blogging policy that won’t allow me to mention them by name) and the other day, as I passed by the MUSIC section, a Jewish woman in her 40s, in exercise spandex, and a pretty Botox’d out face- in short, she could’ve been one of the weirdos Chappelle offers concert tickets to in ‘Block Party’- was politely but loudly requesting help.

She was trying to scan Black Star’s debut- or ‘Mos Def and Talib Kweli…are Black Star’ as nobody in the world ever calls it- into one of the store’s listening stations but it wasn’t working; I explained to her that it was programmed not to play because of its ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker. Because of who she was, I assumed she didn’t know what she had or it was for her son or something and I condescendingly said, “It’s good. It’s good but you know, it’s a rap album”.

She knew. She told me she was public school English teacher and wanted to use Black Star’s ‘Born & Raised’ which she heard on the ‘Block Party OST’ for a poetry lesson and excitedly rattled off all of the poetic terms the song employed. As I tried to help her find the soundtrack, we had a brief discussion about teaching, then Mos Def’s solo albums (“they’re good to work-out to” she said), and just the overall greatness of ‘Block Party’. She introduced me to her high-school aged son, a top triathlete in the county with some kind of learning disorder, and informed me that they often stop at the bookstore after nightly visits to the Maryland Athletic Club. I talked to her son about Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ and Kraftwerk’s ‘Minimum/Maximum’- his work-out music.

Ordering the soundtrack to ‘Block Party’ would’ve taken about a week, so I told her to keep it quiet but I’d just burn her a copy and she could stop in and pick it up tomorrow. She also said if I knew of any “Good electronica, like Thievery Corporation” to give her a list. So, two CD-Rs, one of the ‘Block Party’ soundtrack and one of Manuel Gottsching’s ‘E2-E4′ sit in my locker if she ever actually comes back.

Now, the asshole part of me could get real cynical and mocking about some older Jewish lady who likes to work-out to hip-hop (and uh, “electronica”) and uses the embarrassingly sincere “rap’s poetry too” angle to 10th grade students, but her sincerity and our brief bonding over ‘Block Party’, made me think “What Would Chappelle Do?”: He’d take her seriously, on her own terms, and offer her a ticket to his block party!

Dave Chappelle’s ‘Block Party’ is a purposefully inclusive, near-utopian concert movie, intended to invoke the thematic qualities of earlier concert movies like ‘Wattstax’ and to some extent, the 1970 documentary of ‘Woodstock’. The movie’s heavy on 70s cinema signifiers like grainy-as fuck hand-held cinematography, ‘Easy Rider’-like lens flares, and shaky manual zooms, but the movie’s hardly a throwback, it just shows proper respect for the past. Erykah Badu playfully pays respect with an over-the-top afro wig, the appearance of Fred Hampton Jr. rightfully reminds concert-goers (and viewers) of the importance of late 60s/early 70s institutions like the Black Panthers, and the use of buses for transport subtly invokes the Civil Rights era, but ‘Block Party’s main theme is inclusion. Chappelle’s trots through the Ohio town he lives in, looking for a proper mix of people that do and don’t give a shit about rap and get them to come to his “block party”; All- even some pretty batshit crazy white people- are given the proper dose of respect.

‘Block Party’s sense of inclusion is perhaps, most easily represented by the DVD packaging. The front of the DVD is the same as the theatrical poster, a brilliantly-designed 70s throwback poster, with Chappelle in the foreground and all of the performers scattered behind in collage. When you flip the DVD case around, you get a similar collage, but it’s all of the real people we’ve encountered throughout the film. One gets the sense that if DVD or poster designs weren’t made solely to advertise and sell the film, Chappelle would’ve stuck crazy hippie lady who co-owns the “Broken Angel” home or effeminate weirdo marching band director aka according to Dave “first black man named Milsap”, next to dead prez or ?uestlove…

One of the more interesting aspects of ‘Block Party’ is how it really does seem to be a touchstone for many people that wouldn’t necessarily embrace a hip-hop concert film. What you see in the movie seems to have had a similar effect in real-life. Obviously, there’s my new Jewish Black Star fan friend, but it’s also become something similar for another person for whom ‘Block Party’ should be off their radar. I saw the movie in the theaters with one of my college professors, a white Literature professor in his sixties born in Atlanta, GA. Our interests intersect on many things- especially politics- but rap (or “hip-hop” as older people seem to call it) was not one. Yet, this professor’s mind was open enough to have a social interest in rap and pointed out that although it wasn’t his thing, the energy and rawness of it was something he certainly preferred over say, Coldplay (his example). He recounted being a guy in College and Grad school during the sixties and finding more solace in the 50s music of his youth, like Hank Ballard & the Midnighters than everyone’s fucking favorite in 1967, the Beatles.

Out of interest, he accompanied me to ‘Block Party’ and was engaged by the music, the film making, but most of all, the film’s message. It’s nearly three years later and ‘Block Party’s still rattling around in old dude’s mind. A recent e-mail about his excitement over Obama connected his message to Wyclef’s scene in ‘Block Party’ where ‘Clef belts-out the darkly cynical ‘President’ and then, follows it up with a purposefully too-perfect speech about not blaming “the white man”. It’s the film in a nutshell: a sincere acknowledgment of the negative but a good-intentioned, maybe even a little too idealistic attempt to move beyond those negatives.

‘Block Party’ is a success outside of its immediate audience because it’s a movie about doing rather than saying. We witness Chappelle organizing the event, interacting with actual people that may come to the event (with no hint of condescension), and then, legitimately enjoying being a part of it all. There’s none of the cool distance so many other politically-minded celebrities have, because Chappelle’s message isn’t distant or theoretical and his decision to presumably remove any parts that might be disturbing or negative, isn’t some “I’m a hero” spin control but to maintain the ideal nature of the event for its intended audience. There must have been some cranky people who responded angrily to Chappelle’s question of “You like rap music?” and I’m sure organizing the thing was hell-ish but it’s smart not to waste running time on martyr-like scenes of organization; I’d much rather see a visit to Biggie’s daycare center or the scene where the joyful screams of Central State University’s band blow-out the microphones or the brief history of the Broken Angel Home or the birdman-like waiter dude dropping a freestyle…

Written by Brandon

March 17th, 2008 at 8:33 pm