Captivating, well-balanced and at times, painfully honest, actor Michael Rapaport‘s directorial debut, the documentary, “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” is much more than a music doc about the seminal ’90s hip-hop group; it’s an engrossing and moving portrait of brotherhood, unity and how the strongest of friendships can be susceptible to breakdown if unacceptable levels of rising toxicity run unchecked.
For a brief history lesson, A Tribe Called Quest were a (now-recognized-as-seminal) ’90s New York hip-hop group that formed in 1985 comprised of four individuals Q-Tip (Kamaal Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor), Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and in its early days, rapper Jarobi White. The group found success in 1990 with their debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm that introduced an innovative, layered, jazzier and laidback sound with a afro-centric conscious, thoughtful and yet carefree and playful lyrical flow — perhaps the antithesis of the angrier sound that came out of Public Enemy and NWA in the late ’80s. With like-minded groups, De La Soul and The Jungle Brothers they would form a larger posse known as The Native Tongues and would appear on each others records, tour with one another and support one another through a genuine friendship that was forged early on. A Tribe Called Quest would release three bonafide hip-hop classics; their aforementioned debut, their jazz-base-heavy and more sparse, The Low-End Theory and their third record, the hooky and uptempo Midnight Marauders.
Things would then unravel both personally and musically for the band after the Marauders record. Phife moved to Atlanta and the scattered group waited three years (and lost momentum) to release their darkest record Beats, Rhymes and Life in 1996; their first album that introduced production and beats by non-Tribe Called Quest members. Unfocused and distracted, this pattern would remain the same on the group’s final release, The Love Movement, released in 1998 by a record label beginning to lose interest (and patience) with their ill-defined outfit. Ironically, tensions within the group were at an all time high and the unit was anything, but a love movement. Frustrated by their label’s growing indifference for their music and lack of aggressive campaigning for their latest album (perhaps dissatisfied with themselves and their out of focus sound) , the band announced that The Love Movement would be their last even before it came out. The band’s internal strife was kept discreet between the group and animosity that grew only became public years later in the press, to the great surprise of their fans.
Actor and devout fan, Michael Rapaport attended their last show at Tramps in New York in 1998 and that event eventually sparked a question for the Native New Yorker who grew up with their sound: what happened to the band and why did they suddenly disappear?
While well-rounded, fair and balanced, if you want to put it into simple digestible (or reductive if you like) terms, the four rappers boil down to this: Q-Tip comes off as the driven, ambitious musical force of the group. There’s pluses and minuses to every trait of course and Tip essentially wanted to make music 24-7, and without him it seems there would have been no A Tribe Called Quest. But to others that ambition felt relentless and pushy, as if the rapper became the self-appointed leader of the group. Phife on the other hand seems much more laidback, moving on hip-hop time and much more interested in sports. He essentially admits that Tip had to drag him to the studio often, but when the rapper would arrive (usually late by his own admission), he would kill it on the mic and the rest of the group would have their jaws agape. He unfortunately also seemed to have a tendency to be passive-aggressive, never articulating or communicating his needs (or the issues with his disease — diabetes) to his bandmates, but always expecting them to be empathetic and aware to his needs. Jarobi, the “heart and soul” of A Tribe Called Quest, yet the member who went MIA earliest, only to appear intermittently on albums over the years, seemed like an important element of harmony that put the group into disarray when he left. The tall, dreadlocked actor, softspoken and articulate was one of Phife’s best friends and yet couldn’t tolerate the “rules” which Q-Tip would constantly remind him of as the group became bigger (noting that an audience was listening and he had to take responsibility for his words; a burden he said he was too young to deal with at the time). And finally Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the quiet DJ/producer, another soulful and peaceful individual who unfortunately seemed caught between the Pfife/Tip tension that was exacerbated after Jarobi left.
So this was essentially the dynamic over the years, but the wounds between Phife and Q-Tip only seemed to fester as the band grew older. “Basically It’s like a love/hate relationship,” Phife said at the top of the documentary, announcing early on, that this wouldn’t be your typical, A-to-B-C, greatest hits rock doc or hagiography. And while the fascinating, extensive and deep ‘Beats, Rhymes & Life’ does delve into much of the aforementioned history of the band, Phife and Tip’s growing up as best friends from the age of 2 in Queens, New York, and their journey to what became near stardom, etc. the documentary is often just as much of a depiction of friendship, frenemies and brothers, as it a standard musical chronicle.
And as evinced by early nervous pre-drama that arrived before the documentary debuted at Sundance earlier this year, where bandmembers seemed very reluctant to endorse the film — particularly QTip — this is very personal documentary, one that pulls no punches and is often hard to watch. Without exploiting any of his subjects, and yet still exploring and asking the tough questions, Rapaport gets to the bottom of why A Tribe Called Quest imploded and then some. In fact, the documentary not only nakedly depicts why the band collapsed in no uncertain terms — because of the bitterness and resent that seemed to grow between Phife and Tip over the years that was never really addressed between the two — but openly portrays the animus and ill-communication between the two friends who were once thicker than thieves.
No stone is left unturned, the film peers frankly, yet not brazenly, into Phife’s health issues — another unspoken group problem that was never fully addressed at the time that lead to hard feelings and grudge harboring on both sides — Tip’s solo career (a sore spot for many), Jarobi’s tearful recollection of trying to get Phife’s health back on track and several accounts of passive-aggressive and just plain aggressive accounts of still-existing acrimony. Through it all is a quietly pained Ali Shaheed Muhammad, watching from the sidelines, trying to bring balance to the group and softly trying to listen and be there for both his warring friends and much of it is heatrbreaking. While not “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” (which seemed to just backfire on the band), there are certainly some similar themes of internal discontent and how the unspoken word can be one of the biggest threats to comradeship (Phife’s wife at one point suggest that a therapist could solve his and Tips problems, and in reality, one probably could, but he bristles at the suggestion as if hit with an electric cattle prod).
A straw that breaks the camels back (again), is a 2008 reunion for the Rock The Bells tour that only irritates every issue within A Tribe Called Quest almost as soon as the tour begins. We even see Trugoy of De La Soul sadly admit that he’d rather not see a Tribe reunion continue if it had to continue under these antagonistic conditions. And yet throughout, despite the bitter words and flare ups, at the end of the day there is a tremendous amount of love between the members of A Tribe Called Quest and Rapaport effortlessly swings the documentary back near the end to a place which isn’t quite victorious, but one that will have you practically cheering along nonetheless. Like a lyrical flow that commands respect, the tempo, pace and rhythm of the picture is very much on-point and in the director’s hands.
Utterly engaging, completely infectious enough to bring out a sense of giddyness in you, raw and thrilling, “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” is simply one of the best music documentaries that has come along in a long while and it’s no surprise a rather big studio like Sony Pictures Classics scooped this picture up when they did. It is a vibrant, full of life, pain, tears and heart. A poignant look at kinship, estrangement, and some unforgettable music made between all the sparring, it turns out A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes & Life album was a prescient album title for their compelling and must-see story. [A]