It’s been a Tribe Called Quest kind of summer. The pavement’s hot, the nights are long, and the sultry air makes everything a little bit sexier. Perfect timing, then, for the release of Michael Rapaport’s illuminating doc, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.
The film moves fairly chronologically, from Q-Tip and Phife’s childhood in Queens to the band’s industry-shocking 1998 break up and their reformation for 2008’s Rock The Bells tour. Driven by candid interviews with band members Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White, the four don’t hold back as they reminisce about the good and the bad. What emerges is a narrative that illuminates the work and history of one of the most influential hip hop crews of all time.
What is wonderful about this doc is watching the four group members discuss all the reasons they both loved and hated being in the group, without once calling into question their respect for one other. As things reach a boiling point during the 2008 Rock The Bells tour, it becomes clear that the mystery behind the group’s break up had as much to do with Q-Tip and Phife’s inherent differences than with any true animosity-like all childhood friends, they grew apart. Unlike most, they had a devoted fan base wondering why.
But more interesting than the arguments and apologies is the first half of the film, when Rapaport follows the guys around their old neighbourhoods, record stores, and into the studio. Q-Tip grooves to the Lonnie Smith record that provided the drum sample for ‘Can I Kick It?’, Jarobi tears up talking about Phife’s struggle with diabetes, Ali wears a Tribe t-shirt and reminisces, Phife lists his favourite basketball players and talks about writing his verse for Buggin’ Out on the subway en route to the studio: a true sense of each of these men emerges in Rapaport’s film.
Hip hop fans will love Rapaport’s treatment of the late 80s-early 90s New York scene, which provides a crash course given by the DJs and MCs who were there. Members of Native Tongues, the collective of artists including Tribe, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah and others who felt a conscious connection to one another’s music, provide anecdotes, histories, and opinions. Tribe fans will get misty eyed when, after years of not seeing each other, Phife and Q-Tip share an awkward greeting, then as Ali kicks a beat, start dancing in unison, each one clearly surprised the other remembers the moves.
This documentary is equal parts a story about A Tribe Called Quest, its individual members, and the hip hop scene it helped to define. It’s the kind of doc a music fan waits for, and a must-see for anyone who loves Tribe.
~ Haley Cullingham