Inside Dave Chappelle’s perfect and mysterious ‘Juke Joint’ at All-Star Weekend
An impromptu Chance the Rapper set and a Snapchat-free zone made it the golden ticket
No drama. No political tension, at least for a moment. And to quote one of the party’s most recognizable guests, Chance The Rapper, “no problems.” Dave Chappelle’s famed, yet equally mysterious “Juke Joint” party was a reminder what a real Friday night felt like.
It’s tough to label one party or one experience as standing way apart from the rest — especially in a city like New Orleans, and especially during NBA All-Star Weekend. But Chappelle’s “Juke Joint” really is the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket of the weekend. As a steady stream of rain pelted New Orleans streets, a hundred excited, damp and anxious partygoers packed shuttle buses on Canal Place and were taken to an undisclosed location. Our phones were placed in pouches — locked away so we couldn’t use them.
The principle being: Every moment isn’t meant for Instagram or Snapchat. Some are meant to be lived in real time, appreciated via the images the mind creates and re-creates, not through filters and geotags. In a world where depressing and emotionally crippling news is the new norm, the responsibility for temporarily reversing that narrative sat on the legendary comedian’s broad shoulders.
Men and women of all ethnicities, cultures and races poured out of a continuous stream of buses into a barn that was temporarily a safe space — with a full bar and food options such as red beans and rice and bread pudding. DJ D-Nice manned the turntables. We rapped to each other as Jadakiss and Styles P told us “We Gon’ Make It.” We laughed and danced as Tupac recounted fun times on “I Get Around.” And when Jay Z’s “Public Service Announcement” vibrated the walls, we all reintroduced ourselves — per his request. But job titles, salaries and other forms of status were thrown in the swamp out back — a swamp with a visible “Do Not Feed The Gators” sign.
Chappelle arrived shortly after midnight, coming straight from a performance with Chris Tucker at New Orleans’ Saenger Theatre. You got the feeling he’d been waiting on this moment all week. All eyes rested on him the entire night. You wanted to be in Chappelle’s presence. You wanted to laugh along with him. You wanted to party along with him because you wanted to see him smile. And it was an innocent smile. There was no apprehension about the party landing on TMZ the next morning. The protected and nostalgic innocence of a scene without cellphones seemed to soothe him, as he chain-smoked the night away.
Celebrities danced and laughed with people without blue check marks on their Twitter profiles. Everyone was on equal footing, if only for one night. Tracy McGrady, Chris Webber, Ben Wallace, Robert Glasper, A Tribe Called Quest’s Jarobi, “Juke Joint” collaborator Frederic Yonnet and the Band with No Name, Vince Staples, the aforementioned Tucker, Kardinal Offishall, Estelle, Hannibal Buress, Michael Che, Anthony Mackie and Chance The Rapper not only made appearances, they immersed themselves in the night’s energy.
“What we need is love in this f—ing world now,” Estelle told the crowd as she spoke over a wickedly soulful live rendition of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved.” The statement represented the undeniable theme of the party that stretched far past late night and into the wee hours of Saturday morning.
“Can I kick it?” Jarobi asked, referencing A Tribe Called Quest’s legendary 1990 single.
“Yes, you can!” the crowd, myself included, returned in unison.
This went on for 30 seconds with Jarobi and Chappelle taking turns. Wu-Tang tributes and a steady stream of Phife Dawg homages transitioned smoothly into Nirvana’s definitive “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” during which Chappelle jumped off stage into a mosh. People who didn’t know each other on the bus ride over threw their arms around one another as if they’d been friends since grade school. Chance the Rapper and Rockie Fresh broke out in an impromptu cypher on a patio. Sobriety became less and less of a priority.
Around 3 a.m., The St. Boogie Brass Band took the stage. The culture, vibrancy, and history of New Orleans rained from trumpets, trombones and horns. Perhaps that inspired Chance The Rapper’s impromptu concert.
Not even a week ago did Chicago’s favorite son ascend to superstardom. Now he stood on a makeshift stage in a barn. Chappelle, Jarobi and the rest on the now-crowded stage took a step back as Chance did a 15-minute set. The live band brought the truest soul out of Chance the Rapper’s music.
All night, I been drinking all night/ I been drinking all night, I been drinking, ay ay. Chance the Rapper serenaded the crowd with “All Night,” a standout cut from his 2016 opus Coloring Book. The crowd hung on his every word, rapping and crooning along with him. Chappelle has rocked alongside Kanye West and Mos Def and now he’s doing the same for the younger generation. He clinked beer bottles with partiers as Chance the Rapper transformed the barn’s stage into his own version of 79th Street, the block that raised him in the Windy City.
Chance the Rapper covered both Drake’s “For Free” and West’s “Father Stretch My Hands.” He seemed to be genuinely tickled by the crowd’s unfiltered reactions. Chappelle rapped lyric for lyric with Chance the Rapper as he lashed through the biggest single of his career, “No Problem.” If one more label try to stop me, the crowd yelled under Chance’s direction, It’s gon’ be some dreadhead n— in ya lobby, huh huh! This led directly into Chance’s verse from West’s “Ultralight Beam,” a critically acclaimed confessional largely seen as the best verse of 2016. We all realized the depth of what we were witnessing. The continued arrival of a career that could go down as one of the all-time greats pending he continues to evolve in the manner he is now. One of the greatest comedians, social thinkers and balls of energy any of us had even see or will see — the reincarnation of Richard Pryor for a generation who missed Pryor’s prime.
He said let’s do a good a– job with Chance three/ I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy/ Let’s make it so free and the bars so hard/ That there ain’t one gosh darn part you can’t tweet, Chance the Rapper rapped. It’s this verse in particular that resonated with the crowd. The moment was incredible, but not daunting enough to get lost in and forget. We were all blessed to be in attendance. Nothing else mattered. We were living in the moment — the very reason the “Juke Joint” exists in the first place. We’ll have that moment together for the rest of our lives. We all joined in with Chance the Rapper: This my part, nobody else speak/ This little light of mine/ Glory be to God, yeah! No one wanted to leave. We didn’t want to leave the moment. There was no way to get it back once we stepped on the bus.
LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden and them have a tall task — if they want to put on the weekend’s most memorable event: Chappelle allowing people to remember what it felt like to have real fun. It’s tough to think of five better nights I’ve had in my 31 years. As we left the barn, Chappelle summed up the night.
“I don’t give a f— if this world ends tomorrow,” he said. “This is a good night.” Good luck finding anyone who disagrees.