Imagine a block party that swallows an entire city. Block parties are synonymous, it often seems, with shootings and violence, but this block party is peaceful; it's as though the entire metropolis has been transformed, briefly, into a gigantic speakeasy. You wander along streets, in and out of strangers' homes, and the chill vibe is all pervasive: different LPs spinning on different hi-fis, senior citizens enjoying breakdance spectacles, cops joking with junkies, tough guys teaching kids to shoot hoops, red plastic cups dangling from everyone's hands. As you walk, the soundtrack changes, shifts, and mutates with an almost intoxicating ease: lite jazz, snippets of funk, blaxploitation soundtracks, classic Pete Rock cuts, Chitlin' Circuit comedy bits, Herbie Hancock thunder, and much more besides.
Such is the delerious ambiance generated by "Live at Chocolate City," a Madlib mix I listened to almost obsessively in 2007. At the time, I lived with my mother during the weeks in Owings Mills, Maryland, while still working at SAIC; I'd drive up to Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania to stay with Alecia and Nodin in our rented townhouse there. On weeknights, I'd aimlessly wander suburban Queen Anne's Village, immersing myself in "Chocolate City" while tracing sidestreets and cul-de-sacs. Madlib's alchemy had a relaxing, drug-like quality; it allowed me to put aside the various stresses associated with constantly hunting for work closer to home with no success, with wearying commutes, with the indignity of being 30 years old and sleeping on my mom's lumpy couch most of the time. Owings Mills suburbia can be pretty lonely, empty, and anonymous; the rows upon rows of late 70s/early 80s-era townhomes are depressingly uniform, and, generally, nobody's out after 6 or 7 p.m. except for other folks similarly determined to work constitutionals into their busy schedules. With Madlib wafting up from my iPod headphones, I could make believe, for an hour, that I was somewhere else: a warm, inviting somewhere, glowing and familiar and conciliatory, where a sense of acceptance and good feeling intensified with each successive stride.