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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

Fiasco-Gate and Nine Other Times When "Smart" Rappers Schooled Themselves

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I was pretty surprised when I finally caught Lupe’s little mess-up at the Vh1 ‘Hip-Hop Honors’ and it was just that, a little mess-up. He screws up a few lines, laughs off the fuck-up and tries to recover on ‘Scenario’. Of course, it was Lupe’s obnoxious damage control which turned a faux-pas into a sincere but misguided attempt at canon dissection and then devolved into some Andy Kaufman “I’ll sue you all” type shit. There’s plenty to dislike about Lupe, he’s always seemed a bit insincere and trend-grabbing. How that older song he recorded about selling-crack didn’t demolish his integrity, I’m not sure. That too was an example of poor damage control, as it took rap nerds to “uncover” the track and when they did, rather than just address it honestly, Lupe used it as an example of how “bad” he wanted a rap contract, which still sort of deflects its sell-out connotations. Dude’s a whiner and pussy and it’s fun to see him get shit because he’s the classic intellectual-type who dishes it out, in condescending songs like ‘Dumb It Down’ or the legendarily obnoxious verse on ‘Daydreamin’ and then punks-out when a bunch of overzealous diehards get offended because he stumbled through their gospel.I’d be lying if I didn’t sort of relish the sequence of events.

Because I’m as full of shit as the next guy, I spend time babbling about those self-satisfied “conscious” rap fans even as I self-satisfyingly make fun of them. The only cliche more grotesque than “conscious” rappers that are boring and not saying anything new would be people like me complaining about those rappers for being boring and not saying anything new. Yet, it’s more than that, some of my self-satisfied anger comes from disappointment, the way these high-minded type rappers continually screw-up, fuck over their fans, or just embarrass themselves. It is events like “Fiascogate”, over the past decade or so that increasingly distanced me from giving political-type rappers any interest as they, not only disappoint musically (like most rappers) but can’t even maintain their ideals…and of course, when they do sell-out those ideals, it’s the Jew-run industry that forced them to sell-out or this damned system of Capitalism…

Below are the ones that have really stuck with me. I’m an asshole fan like the rest, so sometimes my disappointment is premature or it took me awhile to understand. Common’s falling-off musically, although depressing just sort of makes sense, especially when I get some real-life experience in me and while in 1999, I bitched about Q-Tip’s selling-out with ‘Vivrant Thing’, I get it now, it’s just a good fucking song. Others examples however, still sort of hurt…it’s an autobiography of disappointment!

10. Lupe’s Lame Damage Control Over Some Forgotten Lyrics
I already talked about this above but let’s quickly talk about just the idea of “Fiasco-gate”. A lot of people make sure to mock the term but it’s clearly used ironically by everybody. It’s also funny in a linguistic way because it’s basically like calling something “Gate-gate” or “Fiasco-fiasco”…but yeah, Lupe’s lame not because he screwed up some lyrics or doesn’t know about Tribe, but because the whole thing seems offensive to his fans and fellow musicians. Usually, I don’t care about what rappers do or say but when they have defined themselves as a healthy alternative to crack-rap and dumbed-down pop-rap, you expect them to handle themselves a little fucking better.

9. Kanye West’s ‘Late Registration’
This entry explains it well and for me, on a nerdy, homo personal level, ‘Late Registration’ was a huge disappointment, but I put it at 9 because Kanye, unlike many others on this list, was smart enough to not make too many grand statements about this or that, so when he made an album that sounds like it was designed for Rolling Stone and TIME magazine to celebrate, it’s more annoying than hypocritical.

8. Stones Throw’s Continued Raping of Dilla’s Corpse
While I appreciate the re-release of ‘Ruff Draft’ a whole lot, I’m nothing but annoyed by this “independent” label’s exploitation of the dude. This is a little too fresh in my mind for me to have any real sense of perspective, but those pathetic approximations of ‘Donuts’ made by Madlib and now his little brother Oh No and the occasional appearance of a bunch of rappers crappily rhyming over a Dilla beat really kind of hurts. It is especially frustrating because it is one more way that the independents suck almost as much as the majors. Dilla is Stones Throw’s meal-ticket and they are slowly milking it for all it’s worth. No one else on that shitty label can really do anything except for MF Doom and he’s been too lazy to rap properly in years, in part because of Stones Throw’s partnering up with garbage like Adult Swim (oh-so indie guys…) which adds so many levels of novelty, the music no longer needs to be listenable.

7. Little Brother’s ‘The Minstrel Show’
‘The Listening’ was pretty exciting as far as feeling and sounding like those old Native Tongues albums but it was not as derivative as many said. It was only after ‘The Minstrel Show’ that Little Brother really began to look like humor-less jerkoffs, even though the album was supposed to be a satirical look at modern hip-hop imagery. The album’s jokes never penetrated because they were caught-up in a haze of condescension and obviousness.

6. Cee-Lo’s Involvement with Gnarls Barkley
Cee-Lo can be (or was) way more of a political rapper than any of the explicitly political rappers out there or Kanye “I’m kinda political and know a bit about the C.I.A’s involvement in the cocaine trade” West. Cee-Lo has certainly devolved since Goodie Mob’s genius mix of political anger and empathy, but Gnarls Barkley is another level of bullshit. Noz perfectly explains it here but I’ll add a few thoughts…By becoming part of something as terrible as Gnarls Barkley, it has the ability of somewhat altering Goodie Mob’s message or making one feel a little less hopeful about ‘Soul Food’s real-life viability. Is there anything worse than retroactively rendering your own message meaningless?

5. Talib Kweli’s ‘Beautiful Struggle’
I’m not concerned with Kweli’s inability to stay on-beat or a bunch of other stuff, because Black Star, ‘Reflection Eternal’, and ‘Quality’ were pretty fucking good. When the formulaic ‘Beautiful Struggle’ came out, it highlighted all of Kweli’s problems and none of his strengths. On ‘Quality’ in particular, he had something resembling a connection to popularity without sounding too pandering but on ‘Beautiful Struggle’, he just tries to recreate his previous album’s successful songs. ‘Get By’ becomes ‘I Tried’ and he grabs the Neptunes for a shitty, super-obvious anti-drugs tale. The worst part for me, is that it’s a classic manipulation of the fans. Kweli sells-out halfway, as to not alienate anybody but hopefully get a hit.

4. Common Drops Out of the ‘Touch the Sky’ tour to Be in Some Post-Tarantino Bullshit
This one is more hilarious than anything else. Common seems to have a genuine hit and popular album and is going on-tour with another smart, super-popular rapper- it sounds like the perfect reaction against Jeezy, et. al- and Common drops out to act in some stupid-ass flashy crime movie like ‘Smoking Aces’; you know the movie’s hack when it’s a rip-off of Guy Ritchie who is a Tarantino rip-off himself. It just makes anybody wonder what a man of the people like Common really cares about when he drops out of a tour to pursue some Hollywood cash.

3. Mos Def Releases ‘True Magic’ without Artwork
I don’t know what kind of statement this is supposed to be if any, but it’s big “fuck you” to your fans, not your record label or whoever else. Similar to Common or even Kweli’s half-hearted attempts at selling-out, it’s really fun when rappers that speak out against Capitalism and Tall Israeli’s are too concerned with record label problems to drop a real album with real packaging This, coupled with Mos’ focus on acting in bad Hollywood movies, should totally ruin anything else he ever has to say. Also see ‘Dollar Day’ which takes Juvenile’s ‘Nolia Clap’, a song that simply through regionalism and context is implicitly political and making it way-too explicitly political.

2. Chuck D’s book ‘Fight the Power’
Oh boy, Chuck D’s book about “rap race, and reality” exposes him as the ill-informed sloganeering idiot I couldn’t admit he was until a year or two ago. It puts him in-line with other “inspirational” political guys that talk out of their ass (Bob Marley, Joe Strummer, Bob Dylan, etc.), which he may or may not like to hear (it seems, depending on the page, Chuck’s a hardcore racist or a classic liberal democrat). His anger might be appealing and even inspiring if it felt at all real or earned as it did for the black radicals from which he steals. As you’re reading, it’s all that you’ve heard before and probably agree with, but actually presented less-articulately with no semblance of a real solution!

1. Common Does a Coke Ad with Mya
I don’t know why this one killed me so much but I guess around 2002 or so, a Pepsi commercial with Common rapping in a cool club as Mya sang, started popping up on television and worse, before movie trailers at your local multiplex. Again, it’s annoying because Common presents himself a some paragon of virtue and integrity but that’s all obvious. What really hurt about this one was, that it involved rapping and the slogan was something invoking real-ness. Depressing. Let’s not also forget the song was some messed-up interpolation of ‘Compared to What’ which I always connect to Roberta Flack.

Other very recent fiascos (potential gates?) that are genuinely depressing: Ghostface dropping an album the same fucking day as the Wu, The crossover/grab for street cred hustle that is ‘American Gangster’, KRS-One’s support of 50 Cent over Kanye West, Nas calling his album “Nigga” and think he’s making some kind of statement…

Written by Brandon

October 16th, 2007 at 4:50 am