Reviewed at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival
Michael Rapaport's Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest opens with footage from the group's 2008 headlining spot on the Rock the Bells tour. The footage is slowed-down, though, accompanied by semi-provocative interview snippets. The sound is eerie, almost ghostly, but in a way that's appropriate--the picture summons spirits of hip-hop and lets them rattle around for a while, for old time's sake. The energy of the music crackles through every frame.
It is also a story of collaborative tension--seen from the beginning, as leader Q-Tip is shown, in a shaky, hand-held shot, despairing of the group and announcing its end backstage at the show. "I did everything I could do," he proclaims. "Twenty years!" And with that, Rapaport revisits those twenty years.
The four members of A Tribe Called Quest (Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and occasional member Jarobi White) all hailed from the boroughs of New York City, and came to love rap music during its first golden age in the mid-1980s. Their rise to success is duly chronicled--as themselves, and as part of the "Native Tongues" movement (with such similar-minded acts as De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, and Monie Love)--the positive, Afrocentric aesthetic that was vital part of hip-hop music in the early '90s.
The Tribe released five great albums in eight years, but then they fell apart; "the chemistry was dead," Phife explains now, and the steadily-mounting differences between he and Q-Tip led to, in Phife's words, "a bitter break-up" in 1998. Ten years later, they reunited to headline Rock the Bells, and Rapaport's cameras capture that contentious period, seeming to document the conflicts blow by blow--backstage fights, beefing in media, creating an infectious disharmony (when members of De La Soul are asked if it will be the Tribe's last tour, one immediately replies, "I hope it is!"). The film almost becomes their Let It Be; there's a bubbling power in those concert scenes, which are shot in close and up tight, studying the complexity of what's happening between these guys.
Members of the group (particularly Q-Tip) have been vocal in their disapproval of Rapaport's film; Tip's displeasure with it is probably understandable, considering how poorly he comes out in some of it. Various interviewees describe him as an egomaniacal control freak (Jive CEO Barry Weiss: "I love Q-Tip, but he's a fuckin' nut"), and his backstage ravings don't present him in the best light, while he doesn't do himself any favors with an offhand comment about "faggoty shit to say." What is most interesting in that scene, though, is how the camera catches a glimpse of Ali's face and holds on it while Tip goes off; this guy, caught in the middle, doesn't know what the hell to do anymore.
So Rapaport is clearly on Team Pfife. (In a lengthy interview with MTV News, the other members provide a host of other issues, but studiously avoid that one.) Does it make the picture feel loaded? Maybe, a little. But it also makes it dramatic, and to be fair, Q-Tip doesn't come off like a villain; he's just a hard-working and occasionally difficult artist, as countless others have been and will be.
And the gossipy Tip-said/Phife-said stuff is far from the film's primary attraction anyway. It's funnier than you might expect; Tip and Pfife do a back-and-forth about the Knicks and the Lakers that's uproarious, and the interview subjects (particularly Black Thought from the Roots) add plenty of levity. Rapaport assembles a remarkable group of artists to comment on the Tribe, those they influenced and those who influenced them, discussing with keen insight exactly what it was that made the group so fresh and new.
Best of all, in just a few minutes of screen time, Rapaport (and his editors and subjects) wonderfully evoke that period of rap music that these guys came up in the heart of. The picture taps into the excitement of that moment in hip-hop music and hip-hop culture; it remembers what it is to crouch near your tape deck ready to hit pause when a good jam comes on (Ali even remembers the difficulty of tuning a non-digital radio). Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is a breathlessly entertaining movie; it moves quickly and nimbly, conjuring up a wonderful moment and letting us enjoy it one more time.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.