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Toward the beginning of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the documentary that has its New York premiere tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival, the group’s members are introduced in flashy slow motion via the computer-generated female-voiced “tour guide” track known well to any “We Can Get Down” enthusiast.
“A Tribe Called Quest consists of four members: Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip and Jarobi. A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.”
What follows is director Michael Rapaport’s love letter to the phonetics of that occasional vowel. His documentary, which chronicles the rise and fall of one of hip hop’s most influential groups, begs “why” in the energetic, heartfelt way that only an ardent fan could.
Rapaport, who’s acted in more than 40 films, including True Romance, Beautiful Girls and Mighty Aphrodite, entrenches us in mid-’80s Queens – the early days of the Tribe – with the colorful flair of a native New Yorker (there’s something of a Spike Lee sensibility at play here). We’re introduced to the group member’s respective neighborhoods and families, and we visit the high school where they met. Their idols were Run DMC and LL Cool J; the radio was a central part of their crew; they snuck in viewings of Soul Train on Sundays. As Q-Tip put it, “If you could rhyme, that was – like – a big deal.” They clung to the growing sentiment that the rap artform was changing, moving away from battles, toward harmony, history and brotherhood. And they ran with it – Q-Tip employing his love of jazz and his expert sampling skills, Phife writing hit lyrics, Ali working harmonies as a DJ, and Jarobi producing.
Rolodexes were clearly scoured for the film – interviews with the likes of Mike D, Monie Love, the Jungle Brothers, Angie Martinez, Black Thought, Pharrell Williams, Common, Questlove and countless others pepper the story, acting as both sub-narration and testimonial to the influence that the Tribe had on many of today’s most important acts. Common states that Q-Tip introduced him to jazz, Pharrell gushes over his initial reaction to Phife’s opening lyrics on “Buggin’ Out,” Black Thought pokes fun at the crew’s first stab at on-stage costumes, laughing, “They were wearing some real questionable-type shit.” Groundbreaking and fearless, the Tribe’s indelible mark on the world of hip hop is undeniably widespread.
At the core of this tale, though, is the relationship between Phife and Q-Tip (and perhaps this is also why the documentary is titled, somewhat ironically, after the album signaled the beginning of the end for the group). It’s no secret that the two had a very public falling-out after the Tribe disbanded in 1998, but Rapaport delves into their individual sides of the story, allowing each to play out his separate perspective in surprisingly intimate detail. Phife chronicles his ongoing struggle with diabetes, which strained the group in its later days. He frankly describes that his bitterness from the breakup was born from the fact that he didn’t know anything but the Tribe from ages 17 to 28. Q-Tip almost defensively repeats that, “I never singled myself out to be the fucking Ginsu Master,” but that he simply knew, at a certain point, that the foursome’s chemistry had run its course. Phife’s statement that Q-Tip, “Stop trying to front like I’m Tito and shit (no offense to Tito)” illicits laughter, sure, but also unearths a deep, bubbling resentment. The familial quality of their closeness brings out the best and worst of them. As one of the group’s members so aptly puts it, “This is a Tribe Called Whatever.”
This ebb and flow of the Tribe’s dealings is also presented in archival footage – Q-Tip and Phife in heated backstage arguments, on-stage performances soured by their respective frustrations. But it’s also strewn with touching aspects of their rocky post-Tribe relationship – Phife’s grateful reaction to a pre-kidney surgery text message from Q-Tip, a long shot of the two in perfect rhythm while practicing choreography together before a 2010 reunion in Japan. At times, Rapaport’s energetic questioning is heard behind the camera, and his ability to wrench surprisingly emotional confessions from otherwise hardened rappers is quite commendable (in particular, Jarobi’s discussion of the effect that Phife’s disease had on him, wherin he chokes up while admitting, “That’s my heart”).
Even then, Rapaport manages to diffuse the documentary’s tone with a glimpse of humorous, lighthearted moments in between all the contentious commentaries: Q-Tip standing in a wood-paneled back room, eating take-out with a plastic fork; the crew ascending a staircase in badass form, only to pause and let an elderly woman hobble past; a cinematic shot of Ali leaning against a railing on a brownstone-lined street, interrupted by a young boy meandering past on his scooter; Phife talking about his penchant for fruit punch and pina coladas while wearing a t-shirt that states “I AM HIP HOP.”
This is a film by a fan for fans, but it’s also an incredibly crafted slice of hip hop history that’s sure to make folks who were too young to bear witness in those early years feel as though they were present, and to make those who were there wax nostalgic. Truly, the closing lines – narrated over concert footage from the tour in Japan – say it all: “They still want us.” Regardless of what the group’s future holds, the existence of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest asserts that very fact.