Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
atching Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (and listening to the soundtrack afterwards), I found myself improbably filled with nostalgia for the passing era of indie-rap. Watching Common’s overemphatic double-arm windmilling as he goofily tries to hype the crowd during Kanye West’s “Get ‘Em High”; hearing Dead Prez masterfully slow down the second verse of “Hip Hop” to a deliberate near-crawl before winding it back up to full speed for the chant-along chorus; listening to Mos Def and Talib Kweli trade their hyper-verbose, overcrowded flows on “Definition”; all this energy and goodwill made me almost feel bad that the circa-2006 indie-rap scene is starting to look like the circa-2006 Democratic Party: marginalized, confused, and painfully dated. The sliver of college students and class-conscious black rap fans who supported it seem to have mostly decided that indie rap’s solemn, “serious hip-hop” posturing and vague social aspirations are faintly ridiculous, and are gravitating towards more charismatic, morally ambiguous figures like Cam’ron and Young Jeezy.
So before we dump the last shovelful of dirt on indie, backpacker, Okayplayer, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it rap for the time being and get back to bumping Clipse’s We Got it 4 Cheap mixtapes, let us count a few of its salient virtues, as evidenced by Dave Chappelle’s lovingly assembled concert film/soundtrack.
1) It often used live instruments. I was always irritated when people argued for The Roots’s greatness by pointing out that they played instruments; this was an argument that didn’t have much respect for hip-hop’s indigenous language, and anyway made about as much sense as claiming that Alicia Keys was a serious artist because she could play the piano. However, independent rap records helped broaden the sonic palette of what could be considered hip-hop by regularly bringing in jazz musicians and session drummers, and in that spirit, this was mostly a good thing. Of course, The Roots are the crack house band here, and they demonstrate again that they might be the most lithe, flexible, on-point outfit in the music industry. Their finest moment might be on “Boom,” when they shift from a blaring, Vegas-revue horn cadence into a stutter-funk groove, complete with staccato guitar lines, which vets Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap punish with completely unimpeachable speed raps.Now said college kids are moving on. Just scan the blogosphere: these people are digging on harder stuff now, and I’m sure they would like nothing more than to put memories of awkward dancing at Jurassic Five shows behind them. Fair enough. But I never like seeing an entire subculture sacrificed to groupthink, even when I agree, for the most part, with Village Voice blogger Tom Breihan when he calls indie-rap “rap reimagined as half-articulated boho worldview rather than, like, a way to have fun.” There used to be a sense of promise, of new territory, in indie rap’s earnest positivity, but it got silly, and now it’s going away for awhile. Now we’re off to enjoy the lethal punchlines of nihilistic coke-rap kingpins like Clipse and Cam’ron, to Lil Wayne’s “Trip and that 40 make a chip / Outta potato head wimps / And like ranch I dip” and Pusha T’s “I’m a thousand grams wrapped neat in Saran / Label me landlord, I keep ki’s in my hand.” But we’ll be back here again someday.
2) It was admirably pan-stylistic. Artists like Mos Def, Common, and Wyclef tried to throw the whole range of black music into the blender—smooth jazz, reggae toasting, Afro-Cuban rhythms, rock guitar—and while it sometimes washed as anonymous hodgepodge (or worse, a wretchedly ill-conceived misfire, as in Common’s 2002 hokum opus Electric Circus,) sometimes it struck gold, finding momentary joy in the unfamiliarity of a fresh sound. The best example of that here is Mos Def’s “Umi Says,” a nine-minute, down-tempo blues-rock vamp that would probably sound familiar to my Dad, who was at Woodstock.
3) Indie-rap artists were community-minded, i.e. anybody can, and often did, work with anybody. One of the most rewarding elements of DCBP is the congenial atmosphere that allows Erykah Badu to sing back up with Common; for Talib Kweli to just sit and watch, nodding his head and echoing a word or two during Mos Def’s “Umi Says”; and for Jill Scott and Erykah Badu to engage in a thrilling, loosey-goosey improvisation with The Roots on “You Got Me.” Hardcore and gangsta rap is so consumed by factionalism that fans and DJs have to create their own, wishful collaborations by their favorite rappers through splicing together verses from disparate songs. Busdriver doesn’t have beef with Aesop Rock (although the thought alone of the resulting diss tracks is hilarious.)
4) It provided an inviting entry point for thousands of uninitiated, white rock listeners like myself into revered but less accessible rap like Nas, Ghostface Killah and Wu Tang, Notorious B.I.G., and others, whose elusive slang and multilayered ghetto mythology demands a sharper ear and a closer study. This might sound like the ultimate in damning with faint (or backhanded) praise; I’m sure no one on this soundtrack, least of all Dead Prez, would relish the thought of their music serving as a hip-hop primer for white kids. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid point or an important function. Beats and rhymes can be for everybody, even herb-y college kids in sandals.