by Julian Kimble
When Dave Chappelle’s Block Party arrived in theaters 10 years ago, it marked a moment of significance. Aside from being part of Chappelle’s reemergence after Chappelle’s Show, as the world knew it, ended, the film captured a moment of accidental genius from a man famous for his deliberate manifestations of it. Block Party is the midpoint between storied concert documentaries like The Show and this year’s J. Cole Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming, and, in retrospect, a poignant snapshot of hip-hop’s transformation into what it is today.
Hip-hop in 2016 is multifaceted, but the current climate is the product of a long evolutionary process. 1995’s The Show and 1997’s Rhyme & Reason captured a more clearly segmented era: West Coast rap sounded like it was made in a warmer climate; Southern rap was equally distinct, and New York City rap sounded like New York City rap because dwelling in a five-borough bubble didn’t hinder artists creatively at the time. There were fewer blurred lines, as subsequent documentaries would illustrate. Backstage, released in 2000, recalls 1999’s Hard Knock Life tour, Jay Z’s victory lap after Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life made him a star the previous fall. And where Backstage was a toast to Jay’s newfound prominence, 2004’s Fade to Black was the encore to his short-lived “retirement.” Combining The Black Album studio sessions with footage from his legendary November 2003 Madison Square Garden farewell performance, Fade to Black was a look at Jay stepping away and passing the torch in the process. It’s speckled with his parting insight, including the joking — but justified — denunciation of the music industry for convincing rappers that they have to manufacture pseudo-thug tropes to the public. As Jay bluntly puts it, “Niggas don’t think people are gonna accept them [as themselves].”
In contrast, Chappelle sought to make Block Party a welcoming atmosphere where everyone present was comfortable being themselves. Block Party was filmed in 2004, shadowing the development of a Wattstax-inspired gathering/concert that took place one month after news of Chappelle’s infamous $50 million Comedy Central deal went public. Perhaps his effort to make Brooklyn the magnet for a free concert was motivated by a last-ditch grasp for normalcy in light of the extra disposable income, as well as his wish to organize what he described on camera as “the concert [he] always wanted to see.” As evidenced by Chappelle’s Show’s performers, his musical taste has always leaned toward Okayplayer darlings and similar ilk, so the bill reflected that: The Roots, Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def), Talib Kweli, Common, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and one of the most important artists in music then and now, Kanye West.
The filming of Block Party coincided with Kanye’s early ascension. The College Dropout, his initial disruption of popular music, was released that February, and its success was a middle finger to everyone who told him to stick to production. He was the upstart act compared to Block Party’s other performers, but his rising star illuminated the film more than anyone else did. The first three songs heard onscreen — the Brooklyn Steppers’ rendition of Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity,” which he produced and appeared on; “Two Words”; and “Get Em High” are all Kanye-related. He was the tie that bound, uniting longtime collaborators Bey, Kweli, Common, and Questlove onstage to perform his songs. The man who recently (kind of) released The Life of Pablo, his version of a “gospel album,” even made his grand entrance to perform “Jesus Walks” a procession involving Central State University’s marching band.
Kanye was forced to depart early, but his impact on the day and the film were equal to what he’d soon have on the genre. Where Block Party’s other performers spoke to hip-hop’s past and present, Kanye was emblematic of its destiny, which he’s had a direct role in shaping. Prior to The College Dropout, the semi-regular black-dude-as-rapper existed (A Tribe Called Quest, of which Kanye declared himself a quasi-incarnation on “Last Call,” for example) but was sometimes erroneously categorized as “conscious,” and was less commercially viable than his more ostentatious counterparts. Kanye changed this, although his intangibles — as toxic as they may be at times — made him all but regular. His ego was as big as the most successful rapper’s, his ambition maybe larger, and the scope of his vision possibly more vast than anyone’s. By simply discussing his life and goals, he harnessed the dissonance between two of hip-hop’s extremes — awareness and materialism — and became the purveyor of the Benz and the backpack. The product was “woke stunting” that he’s always admitted to, and it resonated with critics and a demographic that grew up on hip-hop without being as close to the streets as, say, Jay or 50 Cent.
By the time Block Party arrived in March 2006, Kanye was even bigger than he was when it was filmed. He had won six Grammys. The guy once sartorially inspired by Jay Z’s Iceburg fascination during the Hard Knock Life tour days was now receiving the same acclaim as his older-brother figure. The guy so eager to please Jay and sell him on his ideas in Fade to Black was well on his way to establishing an influence on hip-hop that’s just as noteworthy and just as patent. The crowd’s reaction to Kanye in Block Party showed the bubbling potential of his sway, which is now validated by the number of popular artists who owe him varying creative debts; one of them was in the crowd that day.
As Black Star performs “Definition,” the camera cuts away to the audience, briefly catching one young man’s intense stare. Tall and baby-faced, he nods his head to the music but looks focused — almost like he’s analyzing. Like he’s studying. J. Cole was a sophomore at St. John’s University at the time, and though he went on to graduate with honors, he’s been up front in saying that college was his way of getting from North Carolina to hip-hop’s birthplace, New York City. When Chappelle puts out a request for rappers in the crowd, J. Cole can be seen, long arms extended, attempting to get his attention. His time would come at a later date.
In Backstage, Jay Z joked that there was a kid out there writing exquisite rhymes while eating Apple Jacks and plotting a run at his throne. He’d rather sign the kid than contend with him, he added. J. Cole sampled this on “Rise and Shine” from his 2011 debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, because Jay made him that kid in 2009. The college graduate, however, has always been more of the college dropout’s disciple. He followed Kanye’s rapper/producer model, he’s made direct and indirect tributes to “Last Call,” and Kanye becoming an iconoclast by doing what Jay advocated in Fade to Black — being himself — created space for J. Cole to have immediate commercial success by doing the same.
J. Cole is earnest, possessing such genuine everyman qualities that he’s often accused of being banal. But criticism hasn’t inhibited his career in the least. He’s been so successful, in fact, that he warranted his own documentary, J. Cole Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming, which premiered on HBO in January. Footage of him performing 2014’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive in his native Fayetteville, North Carolina, is intercut with interviews with him and other Fayetteville residents discussing the performance’s magnitude in relation to the town. In this account of his life coming full circle, fans are seen crying during the concert. There’s a faction who view him the same way he viewed Kanye during the Block Party period, and Block Party — which J. Cole told Rolling Stone was “probably the most awesome show [he’d] ever been to in [his] life” — is unique in that it captured a vital part of hip-hop’s metamorphosis. Kanye was the catalyst, J. Cole the offspring of change, and Block Party revelatory of evolution in motion.
The year after Dave Chappelle’s Block Party was released, Kanye West bested 50 Cent (and, in turn, an entire subdivision of rap) when Graduation’s first-week sales topped Curtis’s. His second disturbance of the status quo arrived the following year with 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, and his aspirations have carried him — and hip-hop, to an extent — in different directions since. He’s worked with a number of the artists seen in Block Party, including Common, Talib Kweli, Yasiin Bey, A-Trak, and J. Cole. And the reason J. Cole could move the release of his second album, 2013’s Born Sinner, up one week to compete with (and, at one point, outsell) Kanye’s Yeezus is because of what Block Party displayed. Where The Show and Rhyme & Reason focused on hip-hop snowballing into pop music, Backstage and Fade to Black revel in that position. Block Party showcases hip-hop’s variety, gestation, and potential to the point that Kanye can now sell out Madison Square Garden for an album listening session–cum–fashion show and J. Cole can not only exist but abruptly release an album with minimal promotion and no features, have it go platinum, earn a Grammy nomination, and inspire an HBO special.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party was Dave Chappelle resurfacing just long enough to let everyone know he was all right. Chappelle’s Show ended the day he signed that contract, and there are subtle hints throughout the film that he may have been aware the end was coming. But the full purview of Block Party’s legacy is more broad and more ironic. It spotlights hip-hop performed at a dead end in Brooklyn, but ultimately frames the genre’s future possibilities, worldwide, in progress.