“Hey, man,” Chappelle says to me, “I’m going to Australia!”

It is his last night in four days of SF Jazz Center performances. All eight performances have been sold out. The Jazz Center, with its Miner Auditorium, comfortable seats and great views, is a marvelous place to perform.

I’ve just entered through the Center’s Green Room.  When a bouncer stopped me at the door, one of Dave’s facilitators stuck his head out of the door, recognized me, and gave the bouncer the nod.  Slipping in, I now stand in a large room with ten to fifteen people holding glasses and talking.  It looks like a New York cocktail party.

cecil chapelle selfieThese are not the dingy dressing rooms that Richard Pryor had to contend with back in the 1970s, when I hung out with him in Berkeley at Club Mandrake and at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. In those days, the Green Room wasn’t much more than a hole in the wall.

No, this is a real Green Room, with a bar, soft sculptured lights, and tasteful music. Dave Chappelle, though stripped down to a white T-shirt, is in the cocktail party mode.

Before I can respond to his news about Australia, he grabs my hand and introduces me to the white couple he has been shooting the breeze with.

I have known Chappelle for a few years now, ever since an old friend, Stan Latan, the director of Def Jam, introduced us some time ago. Chappelle heard that I ran with Richard Pryor and liked to keep me around to hammer me with questions about what Richard was like.

Now, Chapelle tells the white couple we’re talking with that I have written a book on Pryor, and then takes off to talk to some more guests.

Generous with his time here in the Green Room, he does photos with anybody who wants a picture with him. Next time I see him, he has a plate of chicken and is smacking his fingers, telling everybody they could get some in the back.

Getting back to me, he tells me again about Australia, where he’s going to tour. He’s very excited about it.

He is not tied to the past, as some journalists have written.  Since he walked away from Comedy Central’s offer of $50 million in 2006, his  motive for refusing that much money has always dogged him.

He stayed out of the public eye for a few years, only doing a few acting projects (notably, ‘Block Party’), and recently began making a comeback in stand up comedy. When he performed at the Miami Night Club, he was booed.  A few months back, he performed in Hartford Connecticut, where he was booed again.

But that’s all in the past. Right now, he’s the perfect host. “Would you like a drink?” He motions to the bottles of liquor sitting on the counter. I do get a drink. He excuses himself because he has to go on in a few minutes for the last show.

“I got to cut out,” he says, “I gotta do this last show!”

On the way upstairs to my seat, I read a sign that forbids heckling.  This is a direct reference to the concert he had back East in Hartford, Connecticut.  Young white men began to heckle him and he walked off before finishing his routine.

I sit down.  There is a band on stage.  After a few minutes, somebody comes out and says, “Ladies and gentlemen–”

Then, Chappelle strolls onto the stage.  Instead, of a comic routine of spit-fire jokes, he just looks at the audience, and takes a drag on his cigarette.

He is not exactly a master of ceremony. No, he is more like a guest at his own party. There is no narrator or host. The evening narrates itself.

Instead of a monologue, Dave interacts with the audience. He turns to the band and says, “Play that song you played yesterday!”

The band–the white band—play a funky, walking blues. Why does he have a white band? Because they can really play black music.  Prancing around on the stage, he presents a funny sight. The audience, high-strung with excitement, sends a geyser of laughter to the ceiling.

“I was thinking about that shit all day. For real. It was like walking down Haight Asbury and seeing a guy taking a shit right in front of an Indian Restaurant. It makes me think I was in India.”

On paper, this is not funny. That night, as he said it, we all laughed. There was no punchline; but there was the presence of a Black man playing with language, gesture, and music,  and that was funny.

The audience is into this kind of associative non-logical connections.  He hops from one off-the-wall non sequitur to another, from one ludicrous image to another.

“I always wanted to go to India, though!” The audience enjoys imagining him in India. “I would love to be in a Bollywood movie!” He would look so ridiculous in a Bollywood movie, right?

“I’d just like to be in the end of the movie– They always have somebody laughing  and dancing in the end, no matter how sad the movie is.”

Everybody cracks up.  It’s not a joke, but it’s funny. “I just wanted to be in that part. It would be like Precious (heroine of the movie Precious) at the end of the movie– laughing and eating chicken.”

Now, he turns back to the band. “Hit me!”  The band hits him with a sharp James Brown riff…“Hit twice!”  The band hits him twice–Bang, bang!

The audience is so hip and so fly that when he says, “I could have said ‘hit me’ twice, but I wanted to whiten it up!” They get it.

So now I’m checking out the audience. Most of them are not black, only about ten percent I would guess.  Yet there are these others. They are the people who love Black Comedy and Culture. His comedy suggests that rap music, hip-hop, blues, jazz, black comedy are all useless categories from the point of view of the people inside the culture. For everybody else, the culture is a “show.” Whether it is music or comedy, the significance is that it is a black ritual–a ritual that is so cool that they would like to be a part of.  To be a part of black culture is to imitate it, pantomime it; it is to be cool.

Dave Chappelle is the master of being cool. I suddenly realize something was missing, though. Then it occurred to me what it was. Monologues. Comics do monologues. In 1970, across the Bay, in Berkeley, I watched Richard Pryor deliver a monologue that would catapult him to fame.

The first great, black monologist was Flip Wilson.  Then, came Bill Cosby, then Richard, and then Eddie Murphy.  They were all master of monologists.

Today, Dave Chappelle has, for the most part, abandoned the monologue.

Chappelle intersperses his riffs with music and other performers. Now, he brings out the Jazz harmonica player Frederic Yonnet.  Chappelle stands back and checks out Yonnet as he improvises on a jazz motif. At the end of Yonnet’s melodic journeys, he bows to us as Chapelle comes back to the center of the stage.

Switching between music and comedy is the symbolic equivalent of switching from the right brain hemisphere to the left brain hemisphere. This interplay between the brain hemispheres produces a cool effect.

“And this is a lady  here–” Now, he turns to Goepele standing in the wings. “She grew up in Oakland.–Goepele!”

Goepele comes out in a stunningly short skirt, displaying her long brown legs, to a thunderous applause.

“She ain’t bad to look at either,” Dave comments.

Smiling and beaming under the shower of clapping and laughter, she sings a song. Then the Frederic Yonnet joins her and they duet together.

At the end of the duet song, Dave comes back with a cigarette in his hand. Now, leaning into the audience he asks, “Anybody got a light?”

He gets a light.

“Did you guys think I was going to light a joint?”

Just the word “joint” gets them giggling.

“This dude–”He points to a guy. “—He said he would go to his car and get some weed and bring it back. What a real participating audience!”

After a few seemingly improvised jokes he brings up rapper, Martin Luther.

Martin Luther, dancing in stingy brim, and red trousers, comes on blasting. “Get Up y’all!” and everyone jumps to their feet.

Martin Luther, does his piece, Chapelle cracks a few jokes and then it’s on to the next. “Say hello, to the man, that started it all! Talib Kweli!”

Talib Kweli comes on to great applause and Chappelle takes his place on the sideline in the wings and listens to him. The best way to praise your friends is to give them the whole stage and let them do their thing.

After Talib, Chappelle reemerges from his place and begins to tell some hip hop history about the first time he met Kanye West. Kweli  introduced him.

“The first time I met Kanye,” he tells us, “was when I was going to have him on my show, and I didn’t know who he was, and I said who is Kanye West? My producers said he was the one on that mixed tape that Talib gave you. I said, ‘oh.’  He rhymed on the mixed tape, on the ‘Get by’ beat Kweli gave. So Kanye came on the show. I knew he was going to be a star. He had energy like Mohammad Ali in the Olympic village. ‘I am the greatest!’”

Somehow his story bleeds from one about Kanye to another about Jay Z and the many circles of influence between the different rappers and himself.

“Remember how Jay-Z said, “I rapped like Common. Common sense.”  He recites some lines from  “Moment of Clarity,” a cut from the Black Album:

 “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars/ they criticized me for it, yet they all yell ‘holler’/if skills sold, truth be told/I’d probably be /lyrically/Talib Kweli/Truthfully I wana rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 million/I ain’t rhyme like Common since.” Chappell wants you to understand the oral connection and oral comedy. Here the pun is on “Common Sense” and “Common Since.”

He laughs with the audience now. “Common didn’t know how to take that,” he comments.  Rappers love to pun, as do comedians. Why? Because they are doing the same thing.

Turning to the jazz band, he requests some music. “Play some crazy bass line.”

Now Chappelle is talking over the bass line to the audience in a serious tone of voice, like an oral historian. Instead of a comic with a brilliant monologue, Chappelle transforms himself into a griot, a historian, who is more interested in improvising than he is telling jokes.  He begins to describe one of the most important cultural phenomena of rap history, Jay Z and the creation of the Black Album.

Producer, 9th Wonder, who collaborated with Jay Z, made a helpful observation: “He [Jay Z]  stands in the corner and writes his rhymes without paper, just saying it over and over again, mumbling to himself.”

Then Jay Z left the producer with the sample and his ThinkPad and said, ‘’’I want you to produce the record while I’m gone’!’  Jay Z comes back 25 minutes later, put the headphones on, and that was it.”

They did not need writing. Now Chappelle’s finishes up the bit. “That was it!” this was a moment when Jay-Z went to the boardroom audience, not just the little street customers. This was the moment when Jay-Z went global. So it was with Jay-Z, and so it was with Kanye West. And so it was with Chappelle. All four of them–Jay Z, Chappelle, Kweli, Kanye West–were breaking out at the same time.  Without writing.

This was what he was laying on the audience. Did they get it? When I later read the review  of that night in the San Francisco Chronicle, I could see that the author Peter Hartlaub (January 31, 2014, “Rambles and riffs at SF Jazz) didn’t get it. He is a white man who works for a newspaper that excludes Black writers.

All of this is positively black. Whites are, at best, temporary guests. At worst, their “understanding” of black culture can become “cultural theft.”

Cecil Brown is the author of Pryor Lives!: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor Or Kiss My Rich, Happy Black…Ass! A Memoir (Paperback)


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5 Responses

  1. Noah

    “All of this is positively black. Whites are, at best, temporary guests. At worst, their ‘understanding’ of black culture can become ‘cultural theft.'”

    I was really feeling this article until you decided to slap on some boilerplate racist bullshit at the end. Good to know that the color of my skin dictates what kind of art and culture I’m qualified to appreciate and participate in. You don’t know me, you don’t know my life, and you don’t know what kind of struggles I’ve had to deal with. You don’t know how my experiences inform my relationship with and understanding of different aspects of black culture. You need to take a long hard look in the mirror and reevaluate your attitude on racial politics. Reductive bullshit like this is what keeps people divided in the first place.

  2. Mema

    I appreciate this article. Dave Chappelle is a comedic genius, people don’t often understand his skill and his love for the profession. Love him and wish him nothing but the best.

  3. Tom

    Race has always been a topic for this writer because in reality race is the elephant in the room that many white folks want to shove aside because they don’t have to deal with it on a day to day basis like many brown folk and specially like the parents and grandparents, who saw some real cruel stuff go down. Great job Cecil, keep exposing truth to power.


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