A couple of weeks ago I was able to check out Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. It was my birthday weekend and I wasn’t in the mood to write MY THOUGHTS on the movie. My friend Erin she wrote her thoughts on the film. So once again I’m letting her take the reigns.
There are several songs that can be credited to my love of hip-hop, like Slick Rick & Doug E. Fresh’s ‘Lodi Dodi’, Afrikaa Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’, and A Tribe Called Quests’ ‘Bonita Applebum,’ to name a few. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I grew up with Tribe’s music blasting in my house, but this group has dramatically shaped my understanding of not just what hip-hop music is, but what hip-hop culture is.
Hip-hop culture has always had an affinity for documentaries, so this one certainly hasn’t come by surprise, however, directed by Michael Rapapport? I personally didn’t know my favorite teacher from Boston Public was also a hip-hop head, and instinctively questioned where he envisioned this documentary to go. Needless to say, when the controversy and comments from Q-Tip surfaced after the Sundance Festival premier, I definitely thought, “Of course they fucked this up.” On the other hand, to hear that Phife Dawg cried at that same premier left me boggled with thoughts at what could’ve been so emotional. And right in between that sandwich of emotions lay Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who after interviewing him, insisted that the documentary was worth seeing.
When Manifesto announced that this would be shared at the HotDocs festival (big shout outs for getting a special release date earlier than most of America!) I bought my ticket for the sold out show, hesitantly, but bought it. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest started off with footage from their 2008 headlining Rock the Bells Tour, and Q-Tip adamantly stating that this would be the last time A Tribe Called Quest ever performed; unless inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Rapaport was in the background noting that the other members of the group also agreed. I don’t think you could start a film off with a bigger kick in the stomach than that.
Beats, Rhymes & Life walks through Q-Tip and Phife Dawg’s childhood brotherhood, Tip and Ali’s rapper/DJ duo ‘career’ in high school, the struggle to get Phife to pick up the mic, and the unification of the group via way of Jarobi, who later left to peruse culinary school and rejoined in 2008. Rapaport captures a complex landscape of history, emotions and music from the debut of an out of the-ordinary, quirky, wildly dressed group (Kente cloth hammer pants, guys?!) to a group that reunited for the Rock the Bells tour to help their diabetic brother Phife pay his medical bills. This documentary is telling of the vulnerability each member of the group has felt towards Phife and his illness, and the trials and tribulations they’ve faced over the years dealing with it. Perhaps there was no greater vulnerability shown than that of Jarobi’s, who moved down to ATL to be closer to Phife, as we watched him break down in tears and say, “That’s my heart right there.” Without question, despite how footage can be misconstrued and how words can be taken out of context, we hear every rhyme.
Rapaport takes us on a journey through the makings of People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders, Beats, Rhymes & Life, and the sad hate that ironically created The Love Movement. We travel through the days when this group, formerly known as Quest, developed their name on The jungle Brothers’ “Black is Black,” to the formation of the legendary hip-hop union the Native Tongues, to an (abridged) introduction of J.Dilla into their music, and the success of individual musical (and non-musical) achievements. It’s without question that the greatest parts of this film were about the music, whether that was Q-Tip playing the original drum sample to “Can I Kick It?,” following Ali and Tip crate digging , and even listening to Phife questioning why he came up with the line “When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?” With a collection of interviews from artists like Monie Love and Large Professor, to DJ Red Alert and Prince Paul, and artists who have been influenced by their work like ?uest Love, Common and Pharrell, you cannot question the power of this celebrated quartet.
Despite the partial focus on the music, Rapaport and company relished in a more defiant tone of this film and put Q-Tip and Phife’s deteriorating friendship under a magnifying glass. The producers even went out of their way to throw in footage of the two nearly getting physical right before a show, and through the bustle and yelling, any true fan would’ve felt some pain. Unfortunately maybe fortunately, Phife’s comedic comparisons (“It’s cool if he wanna be Michael, but don’t play me like I’m Tito. No disrespect to Tito!”) brought some relief to an already wounded crowd. It becomes apparent that a variety of individuals who were on tour at the time that this footage took place, realized that this was no longer the Tribe they once knew; Maseo of De La Soul noting “I’d rather not have them on stage if this is how it’s going to be.”
There’s a lot more ‘gossip,’ so to speak, which I could write about, but I’m not going to further comment on this “controversy” or “struggle for power” within the group. That’s not what this documentary should’ve ever been about. All in all, the title of this documentary should probably make an emphasis on “LIFE,” as opposed to “Beats” and “Rhymes.” In some respect, this documentary painted Phife Dawg as a victim, Q-Tip as the evil villain, Ali as the child listening to fighting parents, and Jarobi as Phife’s savior. In reality, they’re grown men who have grown together, grown closer, and also grown apart to create their own paths of rhythm.
Perhaps the most interesting topic of conversation came post-screening, when there was a Q&A with producer Ed Parks. Not only did he confess that there was an e-mail stating, “Fuck those guys,” he slyly said it was in response to the group asking for producer credits. (I doubt this, though.) He also mentioned how he hoped the group would jump on board and support a theatrical version of this. (Want to capitalize on this group any more?) And finally, that the group “didn’t” have a say in the final cut and that Q-Tip hasn’t even seen the final version – which was then refuted and clarified by Q-Tip himself via a Twitter conversation, stating that if he had never seen the final cut, it wouldn’t be released.
I don’t think Rapaport was out to get them, but rather expose the stubbornness that has seemingly shattered the group. Did I need to know that, being a fan? No. It’s unfortunate that this was the primary focus of this documentary, and not the music. Nobody wants to see their musical heroes faulted. Nobody says Kurt Cobain, the guy who killed himself, but rather Kurt Cobain, face of the grunge movement. With that being said, I will stand up and give thanks to A Tribe Called Quest, one of the greatest hip-hop groups of our time.