Photos by Mel D. Cole for Villageslum and Okayplayer
Let the history books record that on night 6 of Dave Chappelle‘s unprecedented 9-night (now 10-night) souled-out run at Radio City Music Hall he was joined by the band he referred to as “my brothers” (and we refer to as “our bosses”)–namely, The Roots. Perhaps the most reunion-like moment of a series that has had dimensions of a Block Party 10-year reunion throughout (up to and including a cameo from Kanye West), the night proved to be a legendary–dare we trot out that overused descriptor epic?–master class from two of the most powerful champions of the ‘independent artist’ spirit in popular culture.
DJ Trauma and Chappelle’s Show veteran Donnell Rawlings set the tempo right with high energy opening sets of hip-hop and stand-up, respectively, before the headliners took the stage. Chappelle’s set–largely the same material he worked with on opening night–was a lesson in the craft. Having had the chance to see him perform on 2 of the 10 nights it was a revelation to hear him work the same material and laugh at every bit the second time. For one thing, Chappelle never told a joke the same twice, even when he did. Besides the ad-libs–he started last night’s set by calling out some stragglers with “Take a picture, everybody! White people coming in late–haven’t seen that in a while.”–but every set up that has become part of his on-the-road material this year was reworked to include whole new punchlines and pay-offs. His “Tupac Island” bit about flight 370 closed this time with a new comparison with Asia and Black America’s ability to handle unsolved mysteries: “Now imagine if everybody on that plane kept putting out a new album every year?” In addition there were whole new news-related bits on Boko Haram and a whole new theme–whatever happened to Black Rage?–that he drew from his bits on race and gay equality.
The non-c0medic thesis underscores why Chappelle is the thinking man’s comedian–and maybe why he had to ultimately walk away from a hit show–he makes comedy out of where we’re really at as a society, instead of retreading the same tropes of black humor. In fact, the only bits that remained the same from show to show were those pitch-perfect phrases you want to hear repeatedly exactly the same way anyways–the comical “hooks” that for better or worse will soon attain “Rick James, b*tch” status amongst everyone who saw these shows.
The performance made a great introduction and parallel to The Roots performance. They came out swinging with “Web”–Black Thought winning over a crowd split between Roots and non-Roots heads with the sheer force of his vocal attack over a stripped-down break. A Things Fall Apart medley of “Adrenaline” and “100% Dundee” followed in quick succession, before a back curtain came up to reveal a full symphony orchestra behind the band–as the crowd “whoahed”–to finish the medley on a swell of strings.
Switching in rapid fire fashion from percussive breaks to sophisticated jazz arrangements that made good use of the orchestra and Radio City’s acoustics, the band seemed to be aiming to birth a new genre (go-go jazz?) that was like a ghetto-centric answer to NY’s famous Rainbow Room. They were in top form, which in The Roots’ case means consistently aiming over the audience’s head and then consistently winning them over with sheer, undeniable virtosity. It is pretty inspiring to see how their live chops combined with their mainstream TV experience have given this artsy-est of bands the will to win over any audience anywhere, hip-hop literate or not. There was a Dilla tribute, Rahzel redefined beatbox with his rendition of The Clipse’ “Grindin’.”
Chrisette Michele took the stage to join Black Thought on “Rising Up” and after getting the desired reaction from the songs’ fans, got everybody else out of their seats with her abstract vocal acrobatics, scatting her (formidable) ass off. The highlight of The Roots set however, was definitely Bilal, who jumped in for “Dear God 2.0” and “The Otherside.” The latter was maybe the best Bilal performance I have ever personally seen and that is saying something. Bilal is a prodigy and the worst you can say about him is that sometimes he is guilty of singing as if his jazz vocal coach was sitting just past the footlights. Last night he sang “The Otherside” like god and the devil were sitting just past footlights and that is all you can really ask of an artist…in a word, goosebumps.
The show was not over–we got more in the form of “Double Trouble” and “Next Movement” but the tour-de-force was completely shut down by Jeremy Ellis blacking out on the pads of his MPC (as he is wont to do), practically reinventing time and space as he broke the cowbells of “Double Trouble” and then the Mario Bros. calliope theme into patterns too intricate to follow. Even Chappelle came out on stage to bug out at Ellis’ flying fingers. When the music ended, the crowd was screaming in appreciation and starting the rhythmic “encore clap” and Chappelle joined them as Roots-stan-in-chief. The curtain came down, back up and down again as the band conspired and tried to decide whether they could really–as Dave urged them too–stage a mutiny by breaking Radio City’s 11:00 curfew for the demanded encore (there was even talk backstage of “It’s Bigger Than Hip-hop”). In the end the stagehands won and the audience danced and shuffled their way out the doors. But perhaps it didn’t matter anyway–The Roots had already broken hip-hop down to its very last compound.