After months of tribulation, Michael Rapaport‘s Beats, Rhymes and Life: the Travels of a Tribe Called Quest has finally been released. Fueled in part by our abiding love for A Tribe Called Quest as well as the controversy the film has generated, the hype train has reached its peak. With the movie finally available to the general public, we’ve got our thoughts in order, but one question remains unanswered: why is Q-Tip so mad?
Remember, Q-Tip went on TV a couple weeks ago to urge artists to exercise creative control over their work. Having now seen the movie in its entirety, Q-Tip’s remarks remain puzzling (what makes more sense, though, is Phife Dawg‘s promotion of the film). First and foremost, Beats, Rhymes and Life is a beautiful tribute to the group’s work, an unequivocal love letter from Rapaport, an adoring fan. For Tribe devotees, the film gives you a new way to indulge in the songs (the scene where Q-Tip pulls out a record from his shelf and re-creates the drum sample for “Can I Kick It” gives you chills as he whittles the sample down to the familiar kick), and for those unlucky enough to have never found the group it provides an excellent primer. Madlib does a great job with the mix, weaving the group’s music in with the film to maximize its potency. The animations that pace the film evoke the group’s album art and create a sort of hip-hop Yellow Submarine aesthetic that is thoroughly appropriate. This is hardly a critical documentary, it is idol worship.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The film’s best moments come from the featured commentators, a diverse collection of artists old and young who love Tribe. The Native Tongues section is short but sweet. Pharrell Williams talking about Phife’s first verse in “Buggin’ Out”, Black Thought making fun of their early fashion sense (“they was wearing some real questionable type shit”), and the Beastie Boys describing how the group pulled the negativity out of hip-hop all serve as notable reminders that Tribe’s popular acclaim is thoroughly eclipsed by their popularity within music circles.
Beats, Rhymes and Life isn’t all about the music, however; it also details the deterioration of the group’s dynamic. Rapaport lamentably glosses over Jarobi‘s departure from the group after People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, an event that might give valuable clues as to why the rest of the group would eventually fall apart. The second half of the film focuses primarily on the relationship between Q-Tip and Phife, from Tip’s desire to dissolve the group in 1998 through their feud during the Rock the Bells tour in 2008.
It’s hard to watch; you simply don’t want to think that the people who played off each other so well in songs like “Check the Rhime” could possibly despise each other so much. Phife is convinced that Tip sees himself as the core of the group, and Tip is convinced that Phife is hindered by a false sense of inferiority. You sympathize with Phife not because Q-Tip is in the wrong, but because Q-Tip’s persona is so much more (pardon the pun) abstract. Even in conflict they are a perfect yin and yang — Q-Tip the aloof genius, always perfecting his music, and Phife the more practical wordsmith, who writes his verse on the train to the studio and then drops a classic. Q-Tip buys records in his free time, Phife goes to baseball games.
The true wisdom of the film comes from De La Soul‘s Dave, who argues that “when we see Tribe onstage we want to believe there’s love.” Beats, Rhymes and Life complicates that belief. The early days of the group are so playful, energetic and positive that you are convinced of their authenticity, but the malice between Q-Tip and Phife later in life is truly corrosive. There is redemption only in their reminiscence, and the fact that they both have it pretty good now. There are glimpses of Q-Tip’s solo career (which, of course, has been tremendous), but the most uplifting scenes depict Phife’s improving health as he fights his diabetes and undergoes a successful kidney transplant. Life isn’t so much better or worse than the glory days, just different.
With all that in mind, go see the movie. Like, right now. And then by all accounts you should probably buy the DVD. If you’re like me, you could listen to these people talk about music all day, and Rapaport has promised tons of extra footage. The film is comprehensive, but it still has some fairly tough omissions. Ali Shaheed Muhammad injects a significant amount of wisdom between Q-Tip and Phife’s bickering, but his role in the group is relatively unexplored. J-Dilla‘s work on the last two albums is not discussed at all (this would make a great featurette, although I would push for a full movie on Jay Dee himself). Phife Dawg’s criticisms of the Knicks front office drew cheers from the partisan New York audience, but probably could have waited for the DVD. These are necessarily hard decisions, as the documentary stays lean at an hour and 35 minutes long.
So why might Q-Tip be so upset about the movie? Hopefully it’s not a race thing, as he hinted in his interview. Rapaport’s reverence transcends skin color, and by playing the race card Tip has the potential to obscure a fact that the film demonstrates forcefully: the members of Tribe are extraordinarily positive role models (it’s hard to imagine many rappers hugging everyone in sight at their high school, as Q-Tip does at Murray Bergtraum). It seems likely, however, that his discontent won’t have much impact; the people who care about Tribe will no doubt see this movie, and there’s no doubt they will enjoy it. As Large Professor says, “that Tribe shit was like putting your feet in a new fresh pair of kicks”, and that feeling certainly hasn’t changed.
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