At the 2006 Academy Awards presentation on March 5, the audience witnessed a shocking event, one that I thought could never happen: Three 6 Mafia, a crude Southern rap group, won the Oscar for their song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” The only question I had while watching their raucous acceptance speech was how long it would take before that Oscar was hang- ing-from a gold chain around Three 6 member Juicy J’s neck. Host Jon Stewart couldn’t help but poke fun, pointing out Three 6 Mafia’s lead over Martin Scorsese in number of Oscars won. Stewart’s reaction, as well as my own, reflects the common misconception of the modem rap star: all bling and no talent.
Underneath the Widespread image of violent, greed~ sexist, and “krunk” rap stars dominating the mainstream rap and hip hop industry lies an underground hip hop scene which combines intelligent lyrics with jazz, blues, and funk rhythms to deliver a constructive message for black culture. In his witty, upbeat documentary, “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” the host of Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show” issues an open invitation to anyone who wants to witness the energetic performance of these lesser-known hip hop stars. Leaving his racially driven sketch comedy behind (for the most part) Chappelle creates a casual atmosphere which relaxes the audience and allows the music to take hold.
Chappelle loves hip hop music and is not afraid to share it with anyone willing to listen. Throughout “Block Par~” director Michel Condry alternates between the two elements of the party: the live musical performances themselves and Chappelle’s inviting the public to attend his free bash. Setting the tone for the later musical performances, Chappelle is clearly being himself when speaking to the public. Everything is impromptu, light, and free as he invites members of his Ohio community to board a charter bus to his party. This includes everyone from an all-black marching band to the 60-year- old white woman who sells him cigarettes. Despite Chappelle’s willingness to invite people of all demographics, however, the audience at the show is almost exclusively black. Chappelle even comments on stage that he sees “five thousand black people … twelve white people peppered in the crowd . . . can anyone find a Mexican?”
The contrast between the audience’s makeup and the high percentage of white people who purchase hip hop albums brings up the question: if white people love the albums, why aren’t they coming to the concert? No matter the answer, one thing is certain: they missed a great show.
An element of hip hop overlooked by the casual observer is that many hip-hoppers actually possess musical talent. ?uestlove (pronounced “Questlove”), the afro-sporting drummer for hip hop group The Roots, arranged all the music for “Block Party” and plays drums throughout the film. ?uestlove assembles a racially integrated house band that fuses jazz influenced by the improvisation of Thelonius Monk, blues in the Chicago style of Muddy Waters, and funk a la James Brown to create a smooth, relaxing groove over which each emcee (vocalist) delivers his or her performance. Vnfortunatel~ the innate problems of recording a live concert prevent the film audience from fully experiencing the energy of a hip hop concert; on film the songs tend to be vocally driven, whereas in person the music drives each song. Despite these problems, ?uestlove’s house band provides excellent backup for the lyricists.
The lyrical content in “Block Party” is almost exclusively directed towards the black communi~ despite the different directions each emcee takes in presentation. One of the highlights of the concert is Mos Def’s “Shine Your Light
If white people love hip hop albums, why aren’t they coming to the concerts?
on the World,” a song urging black people to rise above stereotypes and show others what they are capable of. This song’s encouraging message is in stark contrast to the incendiary “Hip Hop” by Dead Prez, which places blame for racial injustice on both white society and the greedy rappers who would rather have”a Lexus than justice.” Un- fortunately, Dead Prez suffer from the same problem that plagued Bob Dylan: great lyrics, but unintelligible delivery.
While rap and hip hop are usually thought of as disdainful toward women, this concert emphasizes the love that these particular artists have for their female counterparts. The musical numbers are marked by an emphasis on female participation. Erykah Badu and Jill Scott provide soulful additions to a male-dominated music scene, while Lauryn Hill reunites with her old group, the Fugees, and finishes the Block Party with the beautiful and ethereal song “Killing Me Softly.”
As “Block Party” comes to a close, director Michel Gondry cannot help but add some politics to this mostly fun movie. Wyclef Jean of the Fugees asks several of the black marching band members what they would do if they were president. The kids give back the usual answers of those who believe in an all-powerful government: scholarships to everyone who needs one and health care for all. All the other band members cheer for those answers. At first, I was disappointed that such a poorly thought out answer was being promoted, but then Wydef gave these college students a more profound message. He said: every ghetto still has a library. If kids in the ghetto use their minds and stop blaming problems on others, they can rise above and still achieve great things.
“Block Party” is a different kind of hip hop than that which is reviled in the mainstream media. Intelligent, comical, and fun, it gives an all too rare look at the other side of hip hop.