Cinema Sounds: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party Soundtrack

In his 2004 concert documentary, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, the comedian played several roles. As concert impresario, he assembled a who’s who of backpacker hip-hop and neo-soul: The Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Kanye West, Common, Jill Scott, Bilal, Erykah Badu. As matchmaker, he reunited the erstwhile Fugees, one of the 90’s best bands. And as all around merry maker, he put together a quasi-impromptu block party one September day, a fete that included people from the surrounding neighborhoods of Clinton Hill and Bedford Stuyvesant, and from his native Ohio.

Helmed by video auteur Michel Gondry, Block Party was released shortly after Chappelle’s much publicized decision to abandon his $50 million Comedy Central contract for Chappelle’s Show. This timing meant that the film was one of the few glimpses Chappelle’s public would get of his quirky comedy at that time.

Most of the film’s fun derives from watching Chappelle organize the concert. He knocks on doors in the Brooklyn neighborhood where the concert will be held. He travels to Dayton to recruit the middle-aged white ladies who work at the corner store he frequents. He surprises the marching band at Central State University with a bus ride to the show (the band later accompanies West on a blistering version of “Jesus Walks”.)

But as fun as it is to watch Chappelle bring the show together, the actual performances sometimes get lost in the mix. That’s where this soundtrack comes in. It recalls the spirit of the film, while allowing listeners to experience the full breadth of the performances. Listening to the film’s accompanying live versions brings to mind scenes from the film, like Scott singing along backstage while Def and Kweli perform on stage.

The album opens with a hilarious concert planning conference call between some of the proposed participants. A hip-hop geek can thrill to hear Scott, Kweli, et al. greet one another on the phone like old high school chums. Dead Prez’ “Hip Hop” gets things going smartly before Def and Kweli launch into “Definition” from their critically acclaimed Black Star album. Separately, Def works his quicksilver flow on “Umi Says”, while Kweli’s stinging version of “The Blast” is enhanced even more by the presence of Badu.

Later, Scott brings it on a stirring performance of her single “Golden”. Common, Badu and Bilal reunite briefly for “The Light”. And not surprisingly, The Roots hold it all down with the kinetic “Boom”, featuring Big Daddy Kane & Kool G Rap.

Perhaps the best performance is The Roots’ rendition of their Grammy-winning hit “You Got Me.” Both Scott and Badu sing the hook that Scott wrote and Badu made famous.

Given the significance of The Fugees’ reunion in the film, the omission of their performance is jarring, as is the absence of West’s “Jesus Walks”. But even with these omissions, this soundtrack is still a stellar snapshot of a terrific film and one heck of a time capsule for hip-hop fans.

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