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One day after he won the prestigious Best Documentary Feature Audience Award at the LA Film Festival, Spinoff Online caught up with director Michael Rapaport to discuss Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which opens in theaters on July 8.
Rapaport, who makes his feature directing debut with his chronicle of the classic hip-hop group, is no stranger to Hollywood, having acted in more than 80 films and television series, including Beautiful Girls, True Romance, Mighty Aphrodite and Boston Public. But he’s also a native New Yorker and a self-professed super-fan of the Tribe.
We absolutely loved the documentary when it screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, so we were eager to hear more about the infamous discord between group members Phife and Q-Tip (along with the very public fact that Q-Tip has refused involvement in supporting the film), Rapaport’s experience growing up alongside Tribe’s members, and his transition from actor to director.
Spinoff: So – congratulations on winning the LA Film Fest audience award!
Rapaport: I know, it’s crazy, right?
I saw that you were promoting the documentary in Los Angeles with Jarobi, Ali and Phife – three of the four Tribe members.
Three outta four ain’t bad!
Considering the fact that the Tribe is all about brotherhood and unity and family dynamic – no matter how dysfunctional – how do you feel about not having one member, Q-Tip, with you to support the film?
I mean, at the end of the day he’s losing out on it. He’s losing out on the response. You know, the response that the movie gets is different than the response that their live performances give and the response to the albums. Obviously I would love to have the whole group together because that’s what the fans want to see, but it doesn’t affect me or affect the film, and the more that he doesn’t publicly support the film, the more curiosity it’s creating around the film. So I don’t know if he’s, like, a brilliant PR person or whatever but the more Q-Tip lets it be the other guys or makes comments on Twitter, it’s just creating more controversy and the movie continues to gain momentum – it’s coming out in more theaters now than initially planned and all those things are great, so there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t even know where his head’s at.
The documentary is – in my opinion – incredibly neutral, considering the fact that you are a super fan of the Tribe. That had to be a really hard thing for you to do. You’ve mentioned that Tribe is your favorite rap group – how did you approach the relationship between Phife and Q-Tip, knowing that there’s this rift between them – how did you attempt to manage it? And did you walk into the project with allegiances one way or another?
No, I didn’t go in there with any allegiances. I’d never met Phife before I started making the movie. I’ve known Q-Tip. As far as how I kept perspective – I never judged them, as people, and I knew that it was not my place to judge them as a filmmaker and it was not my place to side with one or the other and it was a very tedious process – the editing process took a long time because we wanted to keep it balanced, and keep the perspective neutral in the film. Because telling a story that spans over 20 years from four people’s perspectives – they all have different versions of the big things that went down in the group. And trying to piece it together for what I think is the most important versions of each one of their truths was hard, but I didn’t meddle in their business. The most I meddled in was, when certain subjects would come up, I would say, “You ever talk to Tip about this?” Or, “You ever talk to Phife about this?” Or, “You guys ever sit down and talk about this?” And the answer – shockingly – was mostly, “No.” And the thing that I related to is the fact that I’ve been through my own fractured relationships and I know my part in my own fractured relationships and how hard it is to let go of things – resentment, frustration, feeling that you’ve been cheated or deceived – all those things are hard for all of us to let go of. So I certainly know that I’m no champion in that area and I have my faults in that area so I wasn’t in a place to judge them.
Last I heard, Q-Tip hadn’t seen the documentary. Or he hadn’t seen a final cut of it?
He’s seen a rough cut of the movie on a computer. He hasn’t seen the movie with an audience – that I know for a fact. And he hasn’t seen the final cut of the movie, but I know he hasn’t seen the movie with an audience, which would be a really different experience for him.
You got some surprisingly emotional interviews and responses out of pretty hardened rappers – especially Phife, he’s a pretty tough guy. I remember him mentioning in the film that he’s a New Yorker and he could take it, right before he went into kidney surgery. Did you push some buttons there during the interview process or did that just happen organically?
It happened organically, and I think that my genuine curiosity and presentation and how I was coming at them, being persistent – I knew that they could tell that I was emotionally invested in the project and the story.
That’s really obvious, even while watching the documentary, because at times the audience can hear you behind the camera questioning them and you’re very animated and committed.
Yeah! So I think that, paired with the fact that there were a lot of things going on in their lives as individuals and a lot of things going on within the group, it was just the happenstance of documentary filmmaking. You can’t contrive that kind of stuff.
How’s Phife’s health post-kidney surgery, by the way?
He’s doing well! He’s doing a lot better!
And his wife, after donating her kidney to him?
She’s perfect! And Phife is strong and he’s trying to do a lot of things – he’s working on this sports show, which I think will be great for him and he’s recording again.
Does he still have allegiance to the Lakers, as you so hilariously poke fun at him for in the documentary?
[Laughs] Yeah he’s got allegiance to the Lakers. Morally he loves the Knicks, but I think the dysfunction of the relationship between fan and the organization wears on all of us.
The title of the documentary, Beats Rhymes & Life, refers to the album that the whole group essentially professes as signaling the beginning of the end for them. Was that intentional?
Yeah – I mean, I love that title – Beats Rhymes & Life – I didn’t love the album, I like the album. The first three albums were such epic milestones in hip hop, but I always loved the title Beats Rhymes & Life. Their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm – I always thought it was funny because it’s such a long title, so I wanted to do an homage to that by doing a long title. Now that I’m doing press for it, it’s a little…[laughs]…but that’s essentially why I came up with the title Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest – because it takes from the first album and the fourth album and gets it all in there.
It seems to me to be somewhat metaphorical, but maybe I’m just reading into it too much.
[Laughs] Yeah – it was, you know, when you play around with a title you come up with all different things, but I love the title Travels of a Tribe Called Quest.
I’m still naively holding out hope that they’ll eventually make that last album on their contract.
Yeah. I don’t know if it’s gonna happen.
So this is your first time directing a feature. For you, with your sizeable acting repertoire, what was it like to make that transition from in front of to behind the camera? Did you ask for advice from some of your former directors?
I always talk to directors – as an actor, I’ve always been curious about directing. Even just how the camera can be used in different ways to tell a story. And paying attention to the way sets are run – because the biggest thing about being a director versus an actor is that, as an actor, I’m only responsible for myself and my performance – that’s all I can control – but, as a director, you’re responsible for everything. And I had a really good team around me, but at the end of the day even the really good team is going to ask you, “What do you think? What do you want to do?” And you have to be prepared and confident enough in yourself and your thoughts and your vision to give answers to all those questions, because you have to oversee everything. So that was the biggest change – and sometimes my personality is not one that wants to really engage, but as a director you need to be available to engage.
Do you think maybe it was easier for you to make the transition into something that was more of a documentary style as opposed to a fictional, highly-produced film?
I don’t know, because I haven’t directed a narrative feature yet, but this film and the process that it took to make this film … I can’t imagine that when I direct a narrative feature – which is what I want to do next – it’s going to be this challenging. This has been so challenging on so many different levels and I can’t imagine that I’m going to walk into such an amalgamation of shit at times as I did on this one.
You’ve mentioned that Tribe is your favorite rap group – how did you get the opportunity to make this film, and where did you even begin to prepare yourself to tell their story?
I got the opportunity to do this simply by asking – I asked the group, and they said yes. And really, getting started was the easiest thing and I think that none of us thought that it would turn out the way it did, in terms of the fact that the film would be so inter-personal and as emotionally charged – you can’t predict those things and you can’t premeditate those things. I wasn’t even aware of the more dramatic aspects that wound up in the end product of the film. I didn’t understand, nor was I aware of, the history of how long they’d known each other and just sort of the discourse that’s common to the group. Because, at the end of the day, A Tribe Called Quest is an out-of-business business, and that could be a challenge dealing with. But really, I told them what I wanted to do and they said OK. I mean, it was really that simple. And getting people to talk about A Tribe Called Quest and that time and the impact of the group and what they did – from the people that were contemporaries to them, to the people that they influenced – everybody was really open about that. That was one of the easier things – getting people to talk about A Tribe Called Quest.
You’ve also mentioned that you don’t feel there’s ever been a proper hip-hop documentary made. Were you setting out to do something that’d never been done?
I didn’t think about other films that had been done or not been done about hip hop, I just thought, if anything, about films that had been done about rock groups, and I always reference Tribe Called Quest as classic hip hop – classic music the same way the Beatles are, The Rolling Stones are, The Doors are – and all those groups have been documented endlessly, so I wanted to document A Tribe Called Quest. And then I realized along the way that there hasn’t been a sort of overture documentary about a group – that was just the way it played itself out, and I’m proud of that. I hope more people try to take on telling other artist’s stories, because all those other groups I mentioned have been documented, but that was 40 years ago. Hip Hop is like 20-something years ago – there’s enough perspective on it where you could really say, hey I want to do a story about Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, or Wu-Tang – there are so many stories to tell. I know that – for a fact – if I did a movie that was just about the music and the construction of the music that I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you – it’d be a straight-to-DVD extra that went along with a reissue. The drama and the emotion of A Tribe Called Quest is what attracted me to them in the first place, and it’s also what made their music so special – their music was very inclusive, very honest and they spoke from an everyman point of view. They never spoke above you or in this superhero machismo stereotype that some hip hop – even great hip hop – does. You just felt like you knew these guys, they were regular guys.
For you, having grown up in Manhattan, they’re local and you’re local – so you basically grew up along with them, right?
Yeah, I grew up in New York City, and when they came out I was in high school just like they were in high school and like you heard, “Yeah Q-Tip goes to Murry Bergtraum High School,” and at the time I went to Erasmus Hall High School and I was like, “Oh, shit – the Jungle Brothers go there, too!” Because they were like stars! But in New York you heard that – it was a cool thing. Red Alert was their manager, so he was on the radio every Friday and Saturday night, so you would hear them in the radio station and you’d hear a little piece of their album and there was a lot of hype built around that, and it wasn’t like there were many outlets at the time – you only listened to the radio, there were only like two stations and there was no Internet, there was no video, there was just the radio.
Do you feel like, in some ways, because you were here to witness the beginning of Tribe’s history, that you are the perfect person to have told their story?
Absolutely. I never felt anything but confidence that this was the story for me to tell. I knew that I understood the material, understood the group and understood the time – I’m not an outsider to it. I’m not a hip hop artist but I’m not an outsider to hip hop and growing up in New York and being a fan of it. Because at the end of the day, that’s a big theme in the movie. And I know Tribe, in the same way, they were fans before they started doing it.
Speaking of fans – I brought a friend of mine, who’s a hip-hop producer and musician – to one of the screenings and he pulled me aside a week later and thanked me again for bringing him to see the film, because he loved it so much and couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Oh, wow, really? Awesome.
And he noticed during the opening credits that Madlib did a bunch of the original music for the movie and he mentioned to me what an established artist he is. How did you get involved with him?
I met him a long time ago when he did this album Quasimoto, The Unseen – I just cold called him and was like, “Yo – I love this album” and I met him and Peanut Butter Wolf and the Stone’s Throw guys, and that was about 10 years ago. And we always talked about trying to do something together and I always said his music had a cinematic quality to it, and I wanted the person who did the score to be someone who’s derivative of A Tribe Called Quest and was inspired by them, and as soon as you hear Madlib’s music you can tell he’s cut from that cloth.
So I’m going to introduce myself to Madlib straight from the source – I should start with “The Unseen”?
Yeah. Quasimoto is an alias Madlib portrays. Definitely get that album – it’s a really good album – it’s a sort of weed-hazened fun cool hip-hop album. That’s how I got exposed to him.
Thanks for your time, Michael, and best of luck when the documentary hits theaters on July 8 – I’m sure it’s going to be a massive success!
I really hope so! Thank you!