Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is a passion project of director Michael Rapaport. It’s also his first real outing as a director, a lone episode in the final season of the long forgotten Fox TV show Boston Public notwithstanding. As such it’d be easy for Rapaport as a public fan of the group to present their story as a fluff piece that fails to explain how one of the most important acts in hip-hop exploded into the public’s consciousness after three cornerstone hip-hop albums only to fade away after two lesser albums and disband in 1998.
The trouble is the story of A Tribe Called Quest, a group that many consider to be the pioneers of alternative hip-hop is anything but a fluff piece. Thankfully Rapaport recognizes this and lets the two core players in the tale A Tribe Called Quest members Q-Tip and Phife Dawg emerge and tell itself from their own words. This ultimately lead to Q-Tip withdrawing his support of the documentary which has embroiled it in a bit of controversy amongst fans of the group. Behind the scenes drama aside, is it any good? For fans of the group, which would be de facto fans of hip-hop I dare say its required viewing. For those with no interest in A Tribe Called Quest or the early days of Hip-Hop they might find the doc a bit difficult to approach. It was obviously made with a passion for A Tribe Called Quest and hip-hop. Thus I feel its entry to the non initiated may be a little steep but that isn’t to say its unapproachable.
Considering A Tribe Called Quest’s (ATCQ) roots reach all the way back to the late eighties into the early nineties when “the Tribe” began producing cornerstone albums of the Hip-Hop genre starting with 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, the first half of the doc spends quite a bit of time establishing A Tribe Called Quest’s beginnings in Queens, NY. Archival footage is mixed with interview footage of ATCQ as well as members of the Native Tongues Posse, ?uestlove, The Beastie Boys and many other prominent members of the hip-hop community then and now. The first half establishes the group as one of the first true crossover artist that approached reaching a mainstream audience beyond hip-hop heads. The first act leads up to the late nineties around the time ATCQ broke up setting up a second half that explores the falling out between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg getting a real feel for who the two men are and the members lives after ATCQ’s breakup.
In the second half we find that even after ten years the wounds from the group’s previous disbanding never completely heal which leads to a second falling out on the 2008 Rock the Bells reunion tour. In a particularly tense moment in the doc a backstage spat leads to Phife giving Q-Tip the silent treatment minutes before the group is slated to go on stage. This altercation ultimately leading to the group disbanding yet again.
Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is unflinching, captivating and raw film capturing the people that Phife and Q-Tip are and to a lesser extent Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi’s personalities. Their story plays out allowing the viewer to find out and answer why A Tribe Called Quest wasn’t able to last. From Phife’s observation that the group was like “Diana Ross and the Supremes” with “Ali as Mary Wilson and I’m Florence Ballard? Get the fuck outta here.” Wanting Q-Tip to own up to such and Q-Tip’s insistence that A Tribe Called Quest was a group and shying away from the spotlight. Ali seems like a man stuck in the middle while Jarobi obviously loves Phife like a brother and often gets stuck ducking for cover attempting to play moderator between Phife and Q-Tip when things get tense between the two MC’s. The doc gets it’s heart from Phife a type 1 diabetic desperately needing a kidney transplant and his search for one. It’d be easy for the documentary to get hung up on this part of the story but thankfully it handles it with a proper balance that skews away from becoming a PSA about diabetes and actually plays a key part in the group’s story.
Indeed it can be easy to see why someone who is said to be a perfectionist like Q-Tip, as supported by a few interviews in the doc, would disown the content of Beats Rymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. Sometimes we don’t like who we see looking back in the mirror. The doc isn’t an assassination on Tip or anyone in “The Tribe.” Director Rapaport deftly handles the documentary allowing the viewer to get to know the story of one of the iconic acts in hip-hop as the story plays out and perhaps answer whatever questions they may have had about their short time together. Its far from being a totally complete telling of a tale that has still yet to have its final chapter written but in the interim its about the best A Tribe Called Quest fans and hip-hop heads will likely get.
I give Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest 4 “Bo still can’t rap(s)” out of 5
By John Coovert
Beats Rymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest opens Friday August 12 in Kansas City at the Cinemark Palace 14 and the AMC Studio 30 in Olathe.