Last week we premiered a chapter from Corbin Reiff’s Lighters in the Sky on Outkast having the best concert of 2000. Now we are premiering another chapter from the book that highlights Dave Chappelle’s Brooklyn Block Party as the best concert of 2004.
Read the exclusive excerpt below and purchase Reiff’s Lighters in the Sky here.
Dave Chappelle’s Brooklyn Block Party
The Roots, The Fugees, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Common, Mos Def and Kanye West
Madison Square Garden—New York, NY
September 18, 2004
As far as tickets go, this was a tough one to come by. Comedian Dave Chappelle, star of Chappelle’s Show on Comedy Central, had only announced his blowout block party 12 days earlier, but the lineup was one of the most enticing in recent memory. Lauryn Hill was going to be there. So were Kanye West, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Common and Dead Prez. “If all the surprises come through, this cannot be missed,” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots promised MTV. Boy, was he right.
The tickets were free. That wasn’t the problem. The real issue was the obstacles created by the organizers to obtain them, beginning with an online registry and casting questionnaire. Rapper J. Cole, who was a 19-year-old college sophomore at the time, described the arduous process on Reddit.
“Woke up that morning at 6 am to leave, and it was pouring. Some hurricane level shit,” he recalled. After talking it over with his roommate, they decided to brave the weather and make the journey anyway. “Had to walk to the bus stop in the rain, then wait on the bus in the rain. Now we’re soaked. Hopped off the bus, hopped on the train. Took the train to the bottom of Manhattan to the secret ‘meet-up’ point. Some random grocery store by the water. We were the first ones there. People showed up over the next couple of hours. Then finally, they put us all on these yellow school buses to take us to the real secret concert location. A random block in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn.” It was a long way to go, but the man behind the event was determined to make it all worthwhile.
2004 was a great time to be Dave Chappelle, at least from an outsider’s perspective. He was one of the biggest comedians in the world, flush with cash after signing a new $50 million contract in August with Comedy Central. Internally, however, he was a man torn apart. At a stand-up gig in Sacramento in June, he admitted to a crowd that kept interrupting his set with many of his signature catchphrases—like “I’m Rick James, bitch!”—that “the show is ruining my life.”
A planned third season of Chappelle’s Show never happened. The crush of fame and the stress of turning in a product that met his exacting standards caused him to flee to South Africa in the middle of filming. He later told Oprah Winfrey that he felt that he was “deliberately being put through stress because when you’re a guy who generates money, people have a vested interest in controlling you.” He added, “The hardest thing to do is be true to yourself, especially when everybody is watching.”
Before he reached that breaking point, Chappelle had one other project that he wanted to bring to life. “He had an idea for a kind of city party, something similar to Wattstax,” Questlove wrote in his memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, referring to a 1972 benefit gig hosted at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Determined to turn his proposed concert into an era-defining event, Chappelle brought in director Michel Gondry, most notable for his work crafting the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and assembled a roster of impeccable musical talent.
“All these people that are coming to this concert, before I ever met ’em, I was fans of theirs,” the comedian said in the subsequent documentary, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. “To work with these people, in this kind of setting, is a dream come true. This is the concert that I’ve always wanted to see.”
“Sometimes, there’s a moment that in retrospect it’s, like, ‘Oh, wow, that was pretty huge. That was a monumental occasion,” rapper Black Thought of The Roots told me. “But Dave Chappelle’s Block Party was something that, every step along the way, we could tell it was going to be a legendary affair.”
Because of the difficulty securing tickets, the block in front of Arthur and Cynthia Wood’s ornate, five-story Broken Angel House is far emptier than anyone anticipated. Only the diehards are present. “Five thousand black people chillin’ in the rain,” Chappelle observes. “19 white people peppered in.” Though the skies remain gray and full of mist, they refrain from opening up completely.
The show begins grandly. Chappelle takes the stage as the sounds of the Central State University marching band come to life down the street. “Throw ’em up!” Chappelle commands. “Give it up for none other than Kanyeezy, aka Kanye West.” Decked out in an oversized checkered blazer and black T-shirt with a large diamond-encrusted gold chain dangling from his neck, West strolls down the block toward the stage, the band trailing in his wake and blasting out “Jesus Walks.”
“I thought about how presidential he looked and how the black kids were responding to him,” Questlove recalled of West’s grand entrance. “I remember having a kind of out-of-body experience and investigation of the thought of my own artistic death. Am I dead already? I wondered. . . . I saw the rest of the plot stretched out before me. Kanye was going to be the new leader, and I was fine with that.”
West does his best to steal the show. Backed by The Roots, he rips into a tightly packed set filled with bangers from his debut album, The College Dropout. Two songs in and Mos Def appears to bring to life his verse on “Two Words.” After that Common and Talib Kweli hit the stage, guesting on “Get ‘Em High.” They’re followed by John Legend, who adds the soul on “Spaceship,” then Syleena Johnson appears to provide the hook on “All Falls Down.” West is a blur of energy, rapping and dancing as though his life depends on it. His set ends with a performance of “Jesus Walks” that leaves the poncho-adorned audience screaming for more.
After West leaves, Chappelle plays bongos and riffs on fake poetry before Dead Prez takes the stage. That’s followed by an incredible set of Afro-soul courtesy of Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and The Roots. “That was one of the rare occasions where we performed our song ‘You Got Me’ with both Jill Scott, who wrote it, and with Erykah Badu, who made it famous,” Black Thought remembered. When they’re through they cede the stage to the Black Star duo Mos Def and Talib Kweli, along with Common, who trade songs and verses with one another with an intensity that’s stunning to witness.
Then comes the kicker. All day long, Chappelle has been harboring a major surprise. Lauryn Hill was listed as the headliner, and that’s whom the crowd expects next, but then the comedian pulls the rug out from underneath them. “We were going to have Lauryn Hill perform tonight, but Columbia wouldn’t clear her songs,” Chappelle tells the crowd. “So, she came up with a better idea. Ladies and gentlemen, the Fugees!”
As far as shocks go, this is a big one. The group called it quits seven years earlier, shortly after dropping their multiplatinum monster album The Score. Following the runaway success of Hill’s even bigger The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the prospects of a reunion seemed grim. Yet here they are in the flesh, bringing hits like “Nappy Heads” and “Ready or Not” back to life for an audience that can hardly believe what they are seeing.
Writing for the New York Times, Kelefa Sanneh observed, “It was a shock and a thrill to see all three of them creeping through ‘Fu-Gee-La’ once again. A few songs later Mr. Jean rhymed, ‘Jay Z said, ‘The Fugees gon’ break up’/He ain’t even know, one day we’d make up,’ and the crowd ignored the form (the easy rhyme, the clunky meter) in order to cheer the content.”
Jean and Pras Michel eventually fade to the background, affording Hill time in the spotlight to croon out a powerful rendition of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” She begins a cappella and builds into a powerful instrumental tour de force, leaving her crying the three-word phrase “singing my life” over and over again. The effect is mesmerizing.
The next moment is even more incredible. With Jean playing acoustic guitar, Hill kicks into “Lost Ones,” singing the lines “Miscommunication leads to complication/My emancipation don’t fit your equation” right into her former bandmate’s face, while Pras feigns anger on the side. It’s a moment of shocking self-awareness. “Lost Ones” has always been interpreted as a shot at Jean, and the fact she can sing it directly to him now feels cathartic.
“Holy shit!” Chappelle says after the Fugees come off the stage. With his hands raised in the air like a championship fighter and with the crowd screaming their lungs out, the comedian revels in his glory. “We shook up the world,” he declares. “We shook up the world!”