Initially called “Beats, Rhymes & Fights,” actor Michael Rapaport’s documentary about the history of groundbreaking hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest now has the title it originally riffed on. Borrowing the name of the group’s 1996 album, “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of Tribe Called Quest” deserves Rapaport’s original choice, but not because of the negative connotations the groupmembers allegedly thought it carried. Placing their talent ahead of the conflicts that marred their later years, “Beats Rhymes & Life” focuses on the battle to make art in spite of many setbacks.
In his eagerness to put the group on a pedestal while engaging with its internal tension between lead members Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, Rapaport has rolled two movies into one. The first hour or so recounts the group’s cultural impact and the early rumblings of their inspiration to rap as childhood friends in eighties-era Queens. Making his way through the timeline of their rise to global popularity, the director shifts his attention to the eventual spat between Phife and Q-Tip, but not for the sake of sensationalism. Rapaport’s concern stems from his fandom, much as it does for countless other Tribe Called Quest devotees. Showing the uneasiness of a first-time documentarian, Rapaport has a difficult time exploring the drama. That has extended beyond the movie itself and into a long-running media dispute with Q-Tip, who has refused to plug the movie.
Frankly, he should chill out. Rapaport has assembled reliable voices to explain Tribe’s transformative approach to hip hop, and treats the conflict as only one ingredient of a much larger story. The movie works best when analyzing their early allure. “They just know about some shit we’re not up on,” says one longtime fan, recalling the initial reaction to their sub-African garb and smooth rhythms that played off decades of black music without manipulating the genre for radical politics like so many other groups at the time.
Rapaport shows the group exploring the halls of their old high school, a de facto haven for creative expression (Q-Tip points out that the hollow desks made great percussion instruments). New York fixture DJ Red Alert discusses his initial discovery of the group, while other hip hop figures like the Beastie Boys, Pharrell and Questlove offer their takes on the music’s initial appeal. Through these expert testimonies, Rapaport makes the case that A Tribe Called Quest was the real deal, having hit on an evolutionary approach to hip hop that enabled them to avoid a sophomore slump.
Or maybe they just delayed it. A slump did eventually arrive, well into the nineties, and its fallout impacts Rapaport’s technique. Among the talking heads in the movie, none are movie crucial than the three members of the group (and a fourth, Jarobi White, who left during the early years). However, outside of a few verité scenes shot at a recording studio, they generally speak to the camera separate from one another. The story turns dark when Phife moves to Atlanta and, suffering from diabetes, loses his ability to keep up with the demands of a tour.
From there, it’s a downhill slope, mainly due to problems stemming from Q-Tip’s ego. The tension continues into recent times, with a reunion tour in 2008 resulting in “the straw that broke the camel’s back for the second time,” as Phife puts it. There’s an basic connection between the music and the strife, and the group knows it well. As one of them explains, their appeal stems from “the encouragement of self-identity,” but their resulting fame encouraged self-involvement.
Still, from its opening visual of a fist-pumping crowd, “Beat, Rhymes and Life” places the popularity of A Tribe Called Quest front and center. Nothing that comes later disputes the validity of that dedication. With one slight exception, the backstage arguments are only recounted in interviews and thus subject to extreme skepticism. When Phife–now happily married and scouting for a Connecticut high school basketball team–confesses that he loves hip hop but “could do with or without it,” he expresses the paradox that Rapaport valiantly explores, even though he comes up short of resolving it.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The controversy with Q-Tip and Rapaport has actually helped raise the movie’s profile, and it has been well-received on the festival circuit. That positive buzz, plus the band’s existing popularity, should help the movie find a solid audience in limited release.
“Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.