Though we are parting ways
We shall come around to touch eyes again
If love is the foundation
Purpose be to recycle life
Promise I’ll bring us to one
Beating heart in the end
—Cody Chesnutt, “Parting Ways”
2004 was the Year of Chappelle. It was the year of Rick James degrading Charlie Murphy and women and cocaine-white suede couches, of Cambodian breast milk, Ashy Larry, Tyrone Biggums’s triumphant appearance on Fear Factor, and late-night pancakes at Paisley Park. It was the year Chappelle became a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, signed a $50 million contract with Comedy Central, and then walked away from Season 3 of Chappelle’s Show and never looked back.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this—during the summer, a few weeks before Comedy Central announced his landmark deal—Chappelle hit up his show’s talent supervisor, Corey Smyth, and instructed him to rent Wattstax, a 1973 documentary about the famed benefit concert honoring the anniversary of the Watts riots. Amid performances from artists including Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, the Bar-Kays, and Albert King, Wattstax splices footage from a Richard Pryor stand-up set and depictions of everyday Black life in the Watts neighborhood: bustling sidewalks, churches, mosques, pawn shops, barbershops, folks riding the bus and washing their cars in their driveways. Jesse Jackson, the concert’s host, tells the audience that Wattstax is a “day of Black awareness, a day of Black people taking care of Black people’s business. Today we are together, unified.” Soul, gospel, rhythm, jazz, blues—all those are simply labels, he explains. “Our experience determines the texture, the taste, and the sound of our soul.”
“I watched it and then I called [Dave]. I was like, ‘This is dope,’” Smyth says. “He said, ‘We’re going to create THAT. This is going to be an inspiration for a film we’re going to do. And we’re going to call all our friends, everyone that did Chappelle’s Show, just get our core group of people together, and we’re going to make a film.’”
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is the story of Dave Chappelle’s dream concert, which took place amid torrential rain in September 2004 in Brooklyn, on the western edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant. The concert featured performances from Kanye West, the Roots, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and dead prez, and culminated with the Fugees reuniting to perform for the first time since 1997. At the end of the film, Chappelle declared the concert the “the best single day of my career.”
By the time Dave Chappelle’s Block Party hit theaters 15 years ago this week, Chappelle’s Show was dead as a doornail, and Chappelle had moved permanently from New York to Yellow Springs, Ohio, a tiny hippie town where his father once worked as a professor at Antioch College. Even upon release, Block Party appeared as a time capsule that captured Chappelle at a crucial inflection point in his career. His audacious racial humor was still on display—in one scene, hanging with Questlove at a Brooklyn rehearsal studio the week of the concert, he brags he’d predicted the Beltway Sniper was Black, “because he was taking weekends off. What kind of white sniper is gonna do some shit like that? A white sniper is up early, killing!” But Block Party cast him in a different light—with a softer and more intimate glow—than the performer who captivated audiences of his Comedy Central show and stand-up specials with virtuosic toilet humor and razor-sharp insights into the absurdities of race and masculinity.
Directed by Michel Gondry, the famed music video director who was coming off of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Block Party was as much a concert film as it was a celebration of everyday people and the power of live music to bring them together for a fleeting, indelible moment. Unlike Wattstax, which held Pryor’s stand-up, the vignettes of daily life, and the concert in separate containers, Block Party integrated those elements using Chappelle as the through line. Whether hovering over two old men trying to jump-start a car, beatboxing for a rapping waiter inside a Junior’s Cheesecake restaurant, or roaming around his hometown giving away “golden tickets” to the concert, he engages people on their turf, in the spirit of amity and the disclosure of his more authentic self. Block Party remains a portrait of Chappelle at a moment when he was not simply the funniest man in America but also the most charming, by way of his warmth and quick wit, the types of people he sought out and associated with, and his desire for normalcy in the face of incredible success. (Chappelle’s representatives did not respond to requests for an interview for this piece.)
Nearly all the artists who performed at Block Party can be categorized as a core or extended member of the Soulquarians, the collective of alternative hip-hop and R&B artists that introduced a sensuality to the Native Tongues’ Afrocentrism and exploration of the relationship between jazz and rap. Chappelle’s relationship with these artists began a half-decade earlier, during a time when he was primarily known as the dude from Half Baked. In 1999, he met Corey Smyth at a De La Soul and Talib Kweli concert at Kenyon College when he asked Smyth, who managed those artists at the time, whether he could watch the show from the side of the stage. They exchanged numbers, and a while later, they bumped into each other in Greenwich Village outside Electric Lady Studios as Chappelle was skateboarding to the Comedy Cellar. “I introduced him at that moment to everyone I was with at the studio,” Smyth recalls. “You know, we kind of started coming around and he got to meet the Roots and Erykah and D’Angelo and Common and Mos and Kweli and J Dilla. And everyone was there working on music. He had never been to Electric Lady.”
Chappelle was a kindred spirit with this community of artists, which was a foil to hip-hop’s Shiny Suit Era and peaked in prominence in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Block Party represented a culmination of that time, a grand encore, an exclamation point on the thousands of jams, performances, and studio sessions these artists had logged together. In his 2013 memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove wrote of the Block Party concert that “that kind of experience, with everyone all around me and music in the air, was nostalgia at short range, a perfect snapshot of life as I had known it from 1996 to 2001. We had been doing it for years but we just hadn’t been filming it.”
“To talk about the block party, I would have to talk about the family of artists that are glued together by Dave Chappelle,” says M-1 of dead prez. “This is out of Dave’s mind. This is his mixtape happening in real life, these are people who he hangs around with and respects totally. He knows their lyrics by heart. Nothing of it is business. Everything is personal and it makes him happy.”
In the early to mid-’90s, Bed-Stuy was overflowing with rap talent—Mos Def, Big Daddy Kane, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Lil Kim all grew up in the neighborhood. In the late ’90s, many of the Soulquarians resided in Bed-Stuy and the surrounding area; dead prez came into the orbit of artists who would perform in Block Party. They met a young Lauryn Hill while vending at an event called the African Street Festival. “We became friends, and we used to kick it and go to the studio and exchange vibes,” dead prez’s stic says. They befriended Mos Def and Kweli in the middle of a Blackstar concert they were attending. “They were like, ‘Yo, we got dead prez in here!’” stic remembers. “And they just opened the floor up for us to come rock. They really shared their platform. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I got my crew and you got your crew.’ They was like, ‘Yo, y’all one of us.’” Stic knew Common from their battle rap days at Florida A&M University, and soon after Common started dating Erykah Badu, Badu had her first experience as a doula overseeing the birth of stic’s son. They ate vegan food, smoked copious blunts, and hung out at Nkiru Books, a venerated Black bookstore that Kweli and Mos would ultimately buy.
Dead prez met Chappelle in 2000 backstage at a Roots concert as dead prez were about to go on stage to perform their song “Hip Hop” to close out the show. When Comedy Central picked up Chappelle’s Show, the comedian chose “Hip Hop,” a call for revolution over a filthy, squirming bassline, as the theme song. He also asked Smyth to be the show’s talent supervisor. “We weren’t underdogs, I don’t want to say that, but we had our own little bubble,” Smyth said. “And I wouldn’t say we were the most popular kids in music. Dave at that point, I wouldn’t even say he was the most popular comedian. Dave’s star from Chappelle’s Show rose, and he shined a light on a lot that was already bubbling in the world.”
Comedy Central wanted them to book commercially viable musical talent for each show, but Smyth was striking out, and the pilot shoot was coming up. “And then in one of our meetings, Dave sat me down and said, just book our friends,” he says. “Dave was like, ‘Let’s just tell people, forget the single. We’ll support a B-side.’ And that became our go-to.” The performances they recorded placed artists in unconventional, sometimes claustrophobic environments, reaffirming the show’s unvarnished, low-budget aesthetic. Mos Def rapped in the passenger seat of a car; De La rapped on their tour bus; Common and Kanye rapped “The Food” in the kitchen, delivering such a spirited performance that it wound up making the cut on Be.
Chappelle was almost always somewhere in the frame, vibing along like a low-key hype man. As he sat in the engineer’s chair, watching GZA perform “Knock Knock” in the booth, he abruptly screamed, “I love this shit, son!! That’s why I’m in show business!” The irony of this exclamation is that the Chappelle’s Show musical performances possessed none of the glam of show business. They stripped away the sense of spectacle so that each video hinged on the performer. And they positioned Chappelle as the lone audience member—the host and the fan.
According to Questlove, it was Gondry who approached Chappelle with the idea for a 21st-century take on Wattstax. Chappelle was evidently so into the concept that he personally bankrolled half the budget. Smyth played the crucial role of securing artists to perform. Though De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest couldn’t make it due to scheduling conflicts, Smyth says that most artists who were available agreed almost immediately. “Lauryn was going to do it, but she couldn’t because of [her contract with] Columbia Records,” he remembers. “She called me on the phone. She said, ‘The only thing I could say is maybe we could do the Fugees.’ She asked if it was something that we would be interested in. She was like, ‘I’ll wait for you to tell me what Dave says,’ and I was like, ‘Trust me, I already know what Dave is gonna say: Yes, let’s do the Fugees.’”
Smyth estimates that Block Party began pre-production no more than two months before the concert. “Everyone told Dave there was no way we were pulling this off,” he says. The film leans into the notion that it came together at the last minute by using Chappelle, an improviser by nature, as a lens to establish its two most important worlds: southwestern Ohio and the block in Bed-Stuy where the concert went down.
Yellow Springs is an important part of not only the story of Block Party, but Chappelle’s story, too. Situated about an hour’s drive from Cincinnati and the Kentucky border, that corner of Ohio has been an interlocutor of race in America. Yellow Springs was an abolitionist town during the Civil War. Before Chappelle was born, his mother worked at nearby Wilberforce, the country’s first private HBCU, and in 1974, she founded one of the country’s first PhD programs in Black studies, at Dayton’s Wright State University. She relocated to D.C. and brought young Dave with her, but when he turned 11, she sent him to Yellow Springs to live with his father for three years. Today, he calls Yellow Springs home; last year, he told David Letterman that the silver lining of his painful fallout from Chappelle’s Show was landing there in 2006. “This is when I started to fully realize the value of being part of a community,” he said.
Three days before the block party, Chappelle was in Yellow Springs riding around with Gondry and crew in a 15-passenger van, chatting people up and giving out golden tickets to anyone willing to brave the 600-mile bus ride to Brooklyn for the show. “He was doing interviews, lunch, and hanging out. We were just walking around town,” says producer Julie Fong. “And that’s what he wanted. We were at his favorite little drugstore, a store where he’d buy his cigarettes. The sun was setting and I said, ‘Wow, we really don’t have anything.’ And then we heard about a car wash happening at the school. Dave said, ‘Let’s go check it out.’”
What followed was one of the defining scenes of the film. As the crew pulled into the car wash, they saw the Central State University marching band walking across the street. Chappelle hopped out and approached the band members as Fong hastily hooked up a lavalier mic to his shirt. Within a few minutes, he invited the band to come perform at the block party, and a few minutes after that, the school administration approved the trip. The band went absolutely wild upon hearing the news, but no one was more excited than Chappelle.
“And next thing you know, we’re scrambling,” Fong says. “I was calling saying, ‘OK, you need to find a hotel for a hundred people. They’re coming on Friday.’” She flew back to New York that night with Chappelle and Gondry, leaving behind a cameraman and line producer to take the bus to Brooklyn with the band.
Back in New York, Chappelle spent time getting to know his venue. The site had been selected by Gondry’s location scout, Gayle Vangrofsky; searching for a dead-end street somewhere in Brooklyn where people could soak in the music from front doors and fire escapes, she came across Downing and Quincy, an intersection shaped like an L. At the base of the L rose the Broken Angel House—a DIY gothic cathedral of “chutes and ladders” wobbling out of an old tenement and rising over 100 feet above the street like a Bed-Stuy Sagrada Família. “I remember Michel called and said he’d found this spot,” Smyth says. “And I remember thinking, this looks crazy. But it was perfect.” In the context of Block Party, the Broken Angel House echoes the Watts Towers, pillars of rebar, wire, colorful glass, ceramics, and tile that the artist Sabato Rodia spent three decades building. (The Watts Towers appear in the opening shots of Wattstax and on the film’s promotional poster, but the actual concert took place at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.)
“I knew them people for years,” M-1 says of the Broken Angel’s owners, Arthur and Cynthia Wood. “They would tell us not smoke weed in front of their spot.”
Block Party follows Chappelle’s whimsical travails, as though he’s a reporter, to paint a granular portrait of Downing and Quincy. The Woods give him a tour of the Broken Angel House (“If I was a location scout, and we needed a crack house, I might refer that place,” Chappelle says); he interviews Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Lil’ Cease, christens a virgin cushion in the block’s furniture warehouse, and plays a Monk tune on a piano at the Salvation Army. At the daycare center that Biggie Smalls attended, he engages the neighborhood 4-year-olds in playful banter. Since Block Party, the block has gentrified heavily. The daycare center and Salvation Army have both closed, and the Broken Angel’s been torn down and replaced with condos. Cynthia Wood died of cancer in 2010, and a few years later, Arthur Wood, facing foreclosure, sold the Broken Angel property, which he’d bought for two grand in 1979, to a developer for $4.1 million, and moved upstate.
At the block party, crew members handed out ponchos as it drizzled intermittently throughout the afternoon. Chappelle kept the crowd entertained between musical acts. At one point, he brought a pair of bongos to perform a 10-minute-long improvised beat poem. “Five thousand black people chilling in the rain,” he hummed. “Nineteen white people peppered into the crowd.”
Those who were present at the block party all speak of the rain. Earlier that week, Hurricane Ivan had ripped through the Gulf Coast, causing dozens of deaths and an estimated $20 billion of damage in the United States. On the morning of the block party, the remnants of the storm hit New York. Over two inches of rain fell on the city before noon. Between 8 and 9 a.m., Central Park recorded 1.15 inches of precipitation.
“It was insane,” Smyth says. “It rained so much that morning that that whole area was covered in more than two feet of water that had backed up the sewer. We had to get the fire department to come and literally drain the thing out with the fire pump. Like, they put a pump with a hose and shot the stuff over a block away to another sewer system so we could get the water out of that block where the stage was.”
But it was all systems go. “We didn’t have a contingency date,” Smyth says. “It was one day of shooting. Whatever we captured that day was going to be it. if we didn’t capture anything, the money was spent.”
Gondry, though, saw the potential for something cinematic. “It was raining. And everybody was like, ‘Ah man, this is gonna be a mess,’” Roots keyboardist James Poyser says. “And I remember Michel Gondry, he said, actually ‘No, this is going to be perfect!’”
The director and his team had convinced the daycare to turn over the whole building to them for the weekend. They’d set up a makeshift command center upstairs, where they monitored cameras and cut a live edit. The barbecue they’d set up on the roof of the daycare was only temporarily halted by the threat of rain, and they used a converted classroom as the primary green room.
In the film, Chappelle advertises the concert via megaphone, driving around the borough in a Prius encouraging people to come out. (“Attention, Huxtables. There is a block party jump-off on Quincy [Street]. Bring Rudy, Theo, and Denise.”) But the truth is, the concert’s secret location was too well-kept. Though it was a free show, the producers were concerned there wouldn’t be enough people—because of the rain and because the location had been kept under such intense wraps. Even some of the performers didn’t know the location until the night before. It got to the point that Chappelle hopped on Angie Martinez’s radio show on Hot 97 shortly before the concert to get the word out.
Kelefa Sanneh, who covered the event for The New York Times, was an early arrival. “I do remember before the show started the sense of anticlimax,” he says, “like maybe this is going to be like the hip-hop Woodstock and like blocks and blocks are going to be taken over by people. And instead, it’s like a reasonable but sort of smallish concert crowd.”
The producers of the film curated a crowd through the ticket distribution platform 1iota.com. Ticket holders were instructed to gather at the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan to await school buses that would whisk them away to the secret location. One attendee was J. Cole, then a 19-year-old sophomore at St. John’s, who remembered waking at the crack of dawn with his roommate and waiting for the bus for 30 minutes in the pouring rain in Queens to get downtown to the buses. In line with Cole was a woman named Kim Jefferson. “The weather was terrible,” Jefferson remembers. “There were tons of people and a constant sense of like, are we sure this is still happening? We’re all shivering and cold. A couple buses show up and they drive off and there’s still lines and lines of people. We were like, are we going? What’s happening? People are getting sick of it. People are leaving the line.”
Eventually, their patience was rewarded. “We make our way to Bed-Stuy and as we get closer, we can hear the music,” Jefferson says. “There’s a crowd of people out in the street and as we’re passing this L-shaped block where the concert was on, we can see the crowd, we can hear Kanye West [performing]. We were getting really hyped, we were like, ‘We’re here, we’re here, this is it!’”
At this point in time, Kanye’s star was ascending rapidly—his landmark debut, The College Dropout, had come out seven months earlier, and his schedule was packed. He was on tour with Usher, and he flew from Memphis to New York the night before. Shortly after his Block Party set, he left to fly to Chicago to perform with Destiny’s Child that night before reuniting with Usher the following day.
Kanye did a quick combo soundcheck/rehearsal with the Roots as the first concertgoers began to trickle in. Questlove said, reflecting on the block party in 2019: “We were sound-checking Kanye’s moment for ‘Jesus Walks.’ Kanye was the only figure in that particular film that wasn’t in the original nucleus of the fable … and so even at soundcheck, he had such an energy about him that just brought the audience alive. And then as I was drumming, I was like, ‘Oh no.’ It was like a sixth sense moment. Like, ‘I’m dead!’ Like, ‘This is it for me.’ Like, ‘I’m no longer the spiritual epicenter of this clique. He’s about to be.’”
Kanye’s backup singer was a then-relatively unknown John Legend. “I remember when we were doing the soundcheck and John Legend went up on stage and all of us looked at each other and said, ‘Who the fuck is that?’” Fong says. “I mean, the voice was amazing.”
Over the course of the afternoon and evening, the crowd eventually swelled and packed out the block. Jill Scott and Erykah Badu thrilled the crowd with a vocal duel on the Roots’ “You Got Me.” Chappelle’s guests from Ohio mingled upstairs in the VIP area with Big Daddy Kane and Mos Def. Rumors of a Fugees reunion circulated in the audience, and a lengthy wait didn’t detract from the moment when Lauryn Hill came skipping out in heels and a sideways Yankees cap. (“I’m not a huge Fugees fan, but it was incredible,” says journalist Joseph Patel, who was covering the show for MTV News.) After she sang a sublime rendition of “Killing Me Softly,” the crowd yelled out to Hill, demanding to know where she’d been. She pointed to her child, hanging directly backstage: “That’s where I’ve been.”
Hill’s absence from the spotlight foreshadowed the step away Chappelle was about to take himself. In hindsight, Block Party provided the blueprint for nearly everything he’s done since, outside of his stand-up. His 2014 Radio City Music Hall run and the series of events he’s hosted in Yellow Springs in the past year, including his socially distanced Fourth of July concert, inherit Block Party’s celebration of friendship through music, and attempt to decouple from corporate interests. In his 2006 interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio a few weeks before the release of Block Party, Chappelle remarked that, when art and corporate interests meet, “just prepare to have your heart broken.” He echoed the sentiment in his November 2020 monologue “Unforgiven”: “This industry is a fucking monster.”
Chappelle has said that his decision to walk away from Chappelle’s Show had little to do with fame, which he usually enjoys, and more to do with misinterpretations of his work, the sense that Viacom saw him as a pawn, and his own personal happiness. “When you become successful, your humanity diminishes and you become something else to people,” he told Lipton. When Lipton asked him about Block Party later in the interview, a huge smile spread across his face. He said, “One of the first things I did when I made this big deal was I called my friend Corey.” Block Party reflected Chappelle’s twin desires—to answer to nobody and to be a regular person, to put on ”the concert I always wanted to see” and enjoy the performances from a sea of broad collars and boot-cut jeans.
“He was like the biggest fan on that block,” Sanneh says of watching Chappelle on stage at the concert. “There was something really contagious about the joy he took from that where he was just so excited that it was happening and that the stage was like a rec room for him. I think that gave it the double sense that we were witnessing this concert, but we were also watching this guy who was like having the night of his life. And I think that joy that he had of being there was very contagious.”
It’s an open question whether the performances of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party matched the firepower of those of Wattstax. But Block Party surpasses Wattstax as an event that could never be truly replicated; the film evokes a poetic sense that that rainy concert on Downing and Quincy represented a precious moment in time, some kind of pop-up village, a confluence of Dave Chappelle, the performers, and the audience members, and that after the show, everyone diverted into their own eddy and drifted off down a different slipstream. Part of the reason for the visceral reaction to Chappelle’s sudden departure from Chappelle’s Show was that it offered little closure. By contrast, the feeling of closure at the end of Block Party is nearly absolute. Cody Chesnutt plays his song “Parting Ways” for Chappelle and Common, almost like a quasi-Chappelle’s Show musical performance; Chesnutt likens the song to the moment in church when “you greet or you give your fellow member the hug and express how you’ve enjoyed your time together.” As the song plays, the film shows a montage of Chappelle shaking hands with members of the Yellow Springs delegation, as if to thank them for coming out and send them on their way back to Ohio. For all intents and purposes, he got on the bus with them.
Danny Schwartz is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone.