Exclusive: To say filmmaker Michael Rapaport hasn’t had an easy time in the press with his new documentary “Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” is a bit of an understatement, but don’t get it twisted. Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, reviews about the seminal ’90s hip-hop group — which included members Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi White, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad — have been glowing (it has an excellent 95% RT score). But like most longtime fans of the group, after they suddenly called it quits in 1998, actor and hip hop music aficionado Michael Rapaport was deeply affected by their split. “I felt like my parents were getting divorced,” he recalled. His curiosity caught up with him over the years, and when the band was reuniting for the 2008 Rock the Bells tour, he quickly jumped on board to document the tour. But past frictions flared up immediately, giving the actor-turned-filmmaker a window into a world of the drama which was to come. “I walked into a fucking storm,” he said of his first few days of filming the tour.
We think it’s one of the best documentaries of the year so far, and in our review we called it an, “engrossing and moving portrait of brotherhood, ” and a “painfully honest” picture that “nakedly depicts why the [hip hop group] collapsed in no uncertain terms.” It’s much more than your conventional music doc, unpacking a lot of personal issues within the group and leaving the members bare and emotionally vulnerable. But ultimately it makes you rally for them, your affection for this influential group only blossoms more, and like the film posits — you hope that one day they’ll come together again and make more music.
However, the nakedness of the picture hasn’t sat well with members of the group who have variously had different reactions to it over time that seem to keep evolving and taking on a life of their own. Over the last few months they have outwardly not supported the doc (their leader Q-Tip), encouraged fans to see it (a group statement), endorsed the picture by showing up to screenings and participating in Q&As (Phife and Ali), spoke to press to promote it (everyone but Tip, including Jarobi) and even backtracked and said if they could do it all over again, they wouldn’t even participate (Phife; much of this back and forth is tracked here).
The Playlist had a chance to sit down with Rapaport a few weeks ago to talk A Tribe Called Quest’s musical legacy, his motives behind making the documentary, and to tell his side of the story in the face of a complex and conflicted group that still may not have come to terms with his documentary portrait.
For the uninitiated, why a documentary on A Tribe Called Quest?
I wanted to make the movie about a Tribe called Quest because…I was a fan of the music first, and it really came when they broke up in 1998, I was at that last show at Tramps, and at that last show I said to my friend, “I feel like my parents are getting divorced.” I couldn’t believe A Tribe Called Quest was breaking up, that is the truth. And they broke up and Q-Tip went on to do his thing and Ali went on to do his thing and Phife went to do his thing…it was really just me being unsatisfied with the way they broke up and that spawned the idea. I honestly didn’t expect the movie to be as interpersonal as it turned out to be. I kind of thought it would be more concert based and “this-is-how-we-did-it” kind of film. Obviously when we were shooting and it got more interpersonal and it had more depth I was very excited by that. But the reason why I made the movie is because I look at a Tribe Called Quest the same way I look at the Rolling Stones or The Beatles. In hip hop music they’re as important, they are as just as ground-breaking and the Stones analogy always was the thing for me because…Q-Tip [is like] Mick Jagger, the charismatic front man and Phife as Keith Richards who’s more like the regular dude, the guy from the corner and Ali [is] like Charlie Watts, quiet, stoic, keeping the beat. And I always had that analogy in my head.
Did you find that their breakup was sudden?
Yes, as a fan I felt like their breakup was out of nowhere and I didn’t have any access to them. Q-Tip and Phife were always like they have to be together, like they say in the song, “Laverne to Shirley, Rerun to Chachi,” it was like Q-Tip and Phife. It was like, “What the fuck is going on?” They were really low key and classy about the breakup and I don’t think the breakup was anything unusual for a band. I think it was band breakup 101. There wasn’t any crazy story, it’s about relationships, fractured relationships. Going into the film, as a director, when I started realizing that those storylines were coming up, I related to that more and I gravitated towards that because I’ve had my own fractured relationships and I struggle with relationships to this day and they’re painful and they’re hard to deal with and I’m not probably the best at dealing with them. And seeing these guys go through that was something I related to. And that’s why I wanted to pull that out and show it, because my initial reason for making the movie, my directors reason was, “Will A Tribe Called Quest make more music?”
So you’re directing what you think is going to be a music doc and then all of this stuff comes out, you must be thinking like wow, I’ve got some crazy gold here because they’re so candid.
Yeah, when this stuff started getting more honest and more candid, I was like “Oh shit” and I also realized…there would be no excuses to not make something interesting. I didn’t think Phife was going to talk about his diabetes, I didn’t think it was going to be brought up [but] he brought it up during the first interview with him. He’s so honest and so genuine, like he’s unfiltered, Phife is unfiltered and when we started talking about that and sort of being around the frustration in the group and the difficulties that they were having on the tour in 2008. I knew it was going to go to another level, which as a filmmaker, I knew there would be more to play with.
You’re essentially still telling the story of the band, why they broke up and why they may or may not make more music, it’s just a lot more dramatic. It’s just stuff that’s true and happens to be there, but obviously it caused some friction within them.
Yeah, it caused some friction within the band, well the movie didn’t cause friction within the band. See the thing about friction, the stuff that’s happened between me and Q-Tip and in the press is that he’s not mad at me, I think he’s mad at the movie. Now, I think I might be the person he’s directed some of that energy to, and I’ve directed some of that back at him, but I think, if someone was making a documentary about me as intimate as this, I’d be freaked out. I’d be like “Oh shit” because I didn’t intend the movie to be this way and I don’t think any of them thought the movie was going to be this way. But you know, I think they’re emotionally vulnerable, that’s the thing about it. They’re not doing anything crazy. There’s not anything defaming or embarrassing, just emotionally they’re…more vulnerable and more exposed then they’ve ever been. So that’s what it was and I think that was the gist of the frustrations with me and him and at the end of the day, I had to make a decision of what I was going to do as a filmmaker and I knew that in regards to the strife that I could not back down. I could not back down because John Cassavates would roll over in his grave if he saw an independent filmmaker back down and I thought about that a lot. I thought, “What would John Cassavates do?”
Were those issues or concerns happening before the film was even done?
No, the concerns happened after they saw the first cut of the movie. That was October 2010. It got accepted to Sundance. [The issues] started started after…no it started in October when he tweeted that he didn’t support the movie, then he went on the radio and said some more shit and then after I went to Sundance and they didn’t come to Sundance, well [Tip] didn’t come to Sundance, that’s when I went on the offensive.
I knew that my intentions were good, I knew that my intentions were pure and I knew that I didn’t do anything. I mean there’s footage that would be probably upsetting and there are scenes that would be upsetting that I never even showed the group.
That you didn’t put in the movie?
I not only never put it in the final cut, I never put in a rough cut for them because my agenda wasn’t to make anything that was disrespectful to the group.
How did you feel when you had to go offensive to defend yourself?
I was pissed. When I was at Sundance, I was pissed. When I was at Sundance and only Phife came I was pissed off, I was offended, my feelings were hurt, I felt backed into a corner…When I got to Sundance I was surprised how much [the press] asked [about it]. “Why isn’t a Tribe Called Quest here?” “Where’s Q-Tip?” “What’s up with the tweets?” “What’s up with the comments?” As the week went along and as the film started getting steam and the more and more [of] that shit was coming up [about how] they weren’t there I was like “Fuck this.” You know I was pissed off. I was upset that he wasn’t there and I know all of the reasons…I know the deal. And that’s why I did this one article, I told them, “I’ll speak candidly if you print it exactly what I said and exactly how I said it.” And they did that and that was what it was.
Which one was that?
There were two of them, The LA Times one and the Complex article. That was, there was nothing in there that wasn’t factual and that’s why after that you didn’t hear a peep from them. That was it.
How did you screen the film to the group before Sundance?
I showed the final cut to the whole group before Sundance. They were like okay cool. The whole film, without the animation, that’s it, that’s the only thing they didn’t see but all the content was that.
[The film was sent to all the members] but one time me and Ali and Tip watched the movie together, scene by scene…It was in my apartment on 79th street, scene by scene by scene. It was gruelling but I was like let’s do it…and it was crazy, it was intense, it was really intense. It was a lot of yelling, a lot of screaming, but we watched the entire movie all the way through and we discussed it line by line, beat by beat.
And you gave your reasons on every question they had?
Every single [one]…backed up everything I wanted to say. These guys are musicians, I’m the director, I don’t care if I’m a first time director, whatever, I’m the director and ultimately I need to trust what I think is best for the film.
It sounds like it was an intense process.
That was intense. But I did it. I wanted to give them the respect of doing that.
And if another filmmaker had been doing it, I wonder if they would have given them that respect. Do you think Spike Lee would have done that? Hell fucking no, Spike Lee would have been like get the fuck out of here. You know what I mean? He would have been like, “Get the fuck out of here, I’m not changing shit, I don’t give a fuck what you say.” I asked Spike Lee when I started doing this process and he said “Whatever you do, do not give them final cut.” Do not give them final cut, and I didn’t, they don’t have final cut.
So where does the relationship stand now?
I haven’t spoken to Q-Tip in about…I haven’t talked to him in a while.
And Ali said something really interesting at the Tribeca Film Festival screening, do you remember? He got really emotional too.
It was very cryptic and it wasn’t straightforward and you know I mean, honestly, would I make another doc? It was a challenging experience making this film. I knew it was going to be challenging and I’m grateful that they gave me the opportunity to do it and I learned a lot, it’s been the most satisfying thing that I’ve done artistically because of the work overhaul and the end result and everything in between, but I love Q-Tip, I’m a fan of his. Personally I respect him, I think he’s really, really, really smart. I love talking to him, he’s a fascinating dude, he’s got a great perspective on things, artistically I respect him. Business wise, I don’t know if I would do business with him, but I don’t have any problem with him at all. I think creatively he’s awesome and I’ve always respected him, I mean I still love the music. And I’m still going to love the music. You know some people, some relationships and friendships aren’t meant to do business with each other, but we did something good with this movie.
Do you think that’s just part of the Tribe pattern?
Yes, it is part of the Tribe pattern. A Tribe Called Quest is a business relationship with them, and it is an out-of-business business. It’s a sought after, out-of-business business. People want them to tour, they have one album done, a Sony contract, they could have done an original song for this movie and it would have been put up for contention for an Oscar nomination because all you need is one original, they chose not to do that. I’m sure they get offered all kind of shit.
You know they could have toured, they could have performed at Sundance, they could have performed at Tribeca, you know they do what they do and they’ve had these kinds of…you know we talk about it in the movie where they turn away stuff and you know hem and haw over releasing Midnight Marauders — dealing with it is not easy.
What’s it like doing a documentary about a band that you love and you realize that…is it difficult sometimes peeking behind the curtain and then saying oh shit, maybe I didn’t want to peek behind the curtain? Maybe the view from the front of the stage instead of the backstage was more interesting or more fun?
No, the peeking behind the curtain was definitely more interesting. They remind me of my friends and they remind me of the friends that I grew up with. They remind me of the friends that I’m going to go watch the NBA finals with right now. And we’ve had our shit, you know, so I don’t judge that at all. The stuff that they’ve had, I don’t judge that because I’ve been the asshole in relationships and I’ve been the person who’s dealt with the asshole, I’ve done it all, so I don’t judge that.
So will the DVD have extra or extended scenes?
Yeah, it will definitely have an extended version, extended interviews, which are cool. It will be more about how they did it, kind of geeky stuff on all the songs, but yeah, I’d say maybe there’s like ten minutes of some good stuff. We have hours but as far as if I did “Beats Rhymes and Life” in redux, like Francis Ford Coppola did in “Apocalypse Now,” I could do a three hour version…We’ll see, I mean there’s shit that I left out because you have to keep it about the Tribe. There’s a whole Busta Rhymes sequence that I had to pull out. I wanted to do 20 minutes just on Native Tongues.
I mean so much shit [had to be cut out]. Talib Kweli out of the movie, Ludacris is cut out of the movie, Mos Def is just popped in there. Monie Love’s interview was awesome, the Jungle Brothers, their fucking story was crazy, you know there is so much De La Soul shit that’s great. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that got taken out because you can only do 90 minutes you know?
“Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” opens in limited release this weekend starting on Friday, July 8.