OnDemand Movie Review: “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest”
This is a randomly recurring segment entitled "OnDemand Movie Review." Basically, it's the last film review you'll read, usually months or years after you've forgotten every important detail about the film.
I love A Tribe Called Quest. Originally consisting of four members – Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White – I think they’re one of the most original and influential groups in hip-hop history. I have every one of their albums on my iPod and I believe they’ve contributed some important and unforgettable moments to the music and the culture. With that said, I’m not even close to being considered a real fan. Not even close. To its loyal core group of fans, Tribe is more than just a music group. It’s closer to a religion.
One of those fans happens to be actor Michael Rapaport, who decided he would like to do a documentary of the group, tracing its origins all the way to its breakup and aftermath. The film was a hit at Sundance last year and was released in select theaters last July. In an interview about the project he said, “As far as I was concerned, there hadn't been a proper documentary about any rap group, so I was determined to create a film that didn't feel contrived or supplementary. I wanted to achieve the same raw and rare truth ATCQ captured in their music.” In that same interview he contined, “The reason why I wanted to explore Tribe Called Quest's story is because I've always obviously always been a big fan. When they broke up in 1998, after a 10-year run, I was always curious why and if they would ever record again, and that curiosity spawned the idea. And musically I've always the loved the production, the musicality, the samples they used, the way they used them.” It’s clear that Rapaport is one of the most qualified people in the realm of Hollywood to handle a documentary like this.
So, how did it turn out? Pretty damn good.
Like a Tarantino flick, the film begins at the end…sort-of. It starts at a Tribe reunion show during the 2008 Rock The Bells tour, where we see Tribe’s front man, Q-Tip, backstage mumbling, “Yeah, that was it,” followed by, “The next time we’re all on stage together is if we get into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.”
From there it’s back to the beginning. We take a trip through the group’s origins, from Phife and Q-Tip growing up together, to Tip and Ali attending the same high school and then forming a collective. “Before you knew it,” as Phife says, “it was on.” The film then takes us through the group’s ten-year run, from their debut in 1988 until their disintegration in 1998, as well as what transpired afterwards. In it, we’re shown the group’s influence, particularly in its approach, going in the exact opposite direction of other acts like N.W.A and, along with the other members of Native Tongues, being the first hip-hop nerds: “They weren't cool. They were smart dudes who didn't fit anywhere and, as a result, communicated a whole bunch of things to a whole bunch of different people, to the point where the scope of such an accomplishment is just taken for granted -- even by the group members themselves.”
I found the film to be fascinating and there were several parts that I kept rewinding because I enjoyed them so much. For one, seeing artists like the Beastie Boys, Common, Questlove, and especially Pharrell revert back to being fanboys when discussing Tribe’s impact on the music and their own careers. Furthermore, getting a glimpse into the mentality behind the music – Q-Tip smiling as explains how he found the drums that he used on “Can I Kick It,” or his thoughts on the so-called sophomore jinx (“Sophomore jinx? What the fuck is that? I'm going to make The Low End Theory”) and Pfife’s recollection of the response he received to his opening verse on “Buggin’ Out” – adds even more depth to the music.
As I tweeted, watching the film makes you want to listen to Tribe’s music immediately and that’s a testament to Rapaport. However, the film is not without its share of flaws and frustrating moments. The fulcrum of both the group and the film is the slow deterioration of the friendship between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg as Ali and Jarobi stand on the sidelines and sigh, shake their heads, and search for an explanation. Giving their interviews in different places at different times, Rapaport tries to edit it in such a way that it seems like they’re arguing. Only they’re not.
While the audience is expected to feel bad for Phife, the short and stocky scrapper with diabetes and the high-pitched voice that was always overshadowed by the relaxed and casual smoothness of leader Q-Tip, who razed the band so that he could go solo, it doesn’t happen. To me, Phife came off as defensive and overly sensitive, taking seemingly innocuous statements and occurrences and turning them into personal slights.
Throughout the film, we’re told that Phife didn’t want to go to the studio all the time and, even when he did his job perfectly like on “Buggin’ Out,” he still showed up late. Tip, meanwhile, was the one digging through the crates and creating the jazz-influenced tracks that really hooked people. It seems like Phife wanted the greatness of A Tribe Called Quest without working to make A Tribe Called Quest great.
That’s not all.
Towards the end of the film, we’re back to where it began – the group reunited at Rock The Bells 2008 – and we discover that Q-Tip agreed to participate as a favor to Phife, who needed the extra cash for his healthcare, specifically a kidney transplant. During a performance, as Phife seems to be a bit lackadaisical onstage, Tip says, “Look alive, Phife!” Cut back to the interview where Phife says, “That was it for me.” Tip’s defense? “He said he was healthy enough to do the tour, so I thought he was healthy. I’m only here for him.”
Maybe I’m missing something, but I take Q-Tip’s side on this one. He’s doing you a favor by performing with you, which he certainly doesn’t need to do for his career, and you decide to create a petty beef? Phife goes on to say that Tip treats the other members of the group like backup artists, referencing The Supremes and The Jackson 5 while Q-Tip says, "I'm not gonna say, fucking, written by Tip or produced by Tip because it's about the Tribe, it's about the fucking unit, b. It's about the fucking unit. It's about all of us. I didn't single myself out to make myself out to be the fucking ginsu master, b. That's why the shit says fucking A Tribe Called Quest!"
It’s also clear that Tip’s overall aloofness, especially in regards to his strife with Phife, only angers Phife even more, like when he angrily quotes Tip saying, “I never had a problem with Phife. Phife had a problem with me.” He wants Tip to have a problem with him, to be mad at him, to show some emotion. In actuality, Q-Tip explains how Phife really upset him when he sent him a text message saying that he's had diabetes since 1990 but Tip has been a pain in his side since long before that. "That's some hurtful shit to say," Tip recounts. To me, Phife Dawg came off as whiny, needy and a little jealous while Q-Tip seemed perplexed (and, admittedly, dismissive) by the whole ordeal.
Overall, Rapaport does a very good job in conveying the band’s history. Their story is captivating (I’ve watched this documentary three times in four days) and I think it’s because A Tribe Called Quest confuses us. When they broke up, they went on a media tour together and announced it was happening. Likewise, we see the members say they don’t think they’ll ever get back together, but then we see them performing together for legions of fans, seemingly enjoying themselves, so maybe all is not lost.
Rapaport’s status as a fan is evident and it comes across in the film. He filmed the documentary the same way fans will want to see it – honest and raw, but with a positive vibe. He leaves us on a hopeful note as we see Q-Tip and Phife practicing a silly dance in rehearsal, then it cuts to showing them do it on stage for thousands of fans in Japan before ending it with a title card explaining that Tribe still owes one more album on its original contract with its record label Jive.
There’s still hope.
Pierzy writes a weekly NBA column during the season, as well as columns revolving around other sports, hip-hop, movies, TV shows, food, beer, marriage, (impending) fatherhood, and many other topics. You can follow him on Twitter here.