Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest Dir. Michael Rapaport

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2011]

Styles: documentary
Others: The Freshest Kids, I’m Still Here

The occasion for Beats, Rhymes & Life is not immediately apparent. A Tribe Called Quest hung it up after 1998’s The Love Movement and (at least according to BR&L) hadn’t really made a significant album since 1993’s Midnight Marauders. The documentary opens with director Michael Rapaport following Q-Tip into his dressing room, apparently after a show. Q-Tip, the driving force and public face of the group, is obviously aggravated, and the discussion becomes about whether or not the camera has just left Tribe’s last public appearance.

It later becomes clear that Rapaport’s film is a result of Tribe’s 2008 reunion, during which they headlined the Rock the Bells tour. Rapaport expertly uses the lens of this reunion to offer an authoritative look at the history and continued relevance of A Tribe Called Quest. Beginning with the group’s roots in Queens in the late 1980s, Rapaport moves chronologically, explaining how the group’s four members met and grew close in high school, then began creating their own music before forming Native Tongues Posse with De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, and a host of other New York-area rap figures. Each of Tribe’s first three albums is covered at length, and Rapaport reaches deep, putting early-90s Hot 97 DJs and rap luminaries from Questlove to Beastie Boys in front of the camera to comment on each Tribe album’s significance.

Rapaport is comprehensive in his approach, and even those with little knowledge of Tribe’s work or their role in rap’s history will still find themselves engrossed by BR&L. As the film powers through Tribe’s past, Rapaport uses copious interviews with each individual group member to create a narrative about the group’s current status — the film hinges on a falling out between Tribe’s primary MCs, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Rapaport’s narrative relies on a rift that seemed to begin early in their career, with Q-Tip as stubborn professional, dragging the lazier Phife to the studio. Rapaport brilliantly captures the manner of each tribe member, with Tip the grandiose promoter, Phife the comedian, and producer/DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad the quiet professional. Marauders is presented as Tribe’s last important moment because it was soon after that album’s production and before its release that Phife left New York for Atlanta, changing Tribe’s dynamic irrevocably.

Despite Rapaport’s efforts, it’s hard to find much at stake in Tip and Phife’s quarrel, and indeed Q-Tip has lately gone public, dissatisfied with the documentary’s focus on the MCs’ rift. The two seem to fight over nothing much at all, something like siblings, with soft-spoken Ali often coming off as the only adult in the group. (Tribe’s fourth member, Jarobi White, appears frequently in the film, but left the group after their first album to pursue his passion for cooking.)

In some ways, this minor quarrel reflects the group’s significance in general. While Tribe’s music is certainly a revelation, it’s also about as vanilla as rap can be. To an extent, this is deliberate: Q-Tip speaks at length about the importance of showing that rap could have nothing to do with violence or drugs and still flourish. The goal of Native Tongues was to suggest that by forming a collective built on support, rap could overcome or ignore its image as inherently in opposition to civility. Increasing rap’s appeal outside of its core audience is one of Tribe’s enduring legacies, and a major component of this appeal was Tribe’s approach: their focus on jazz (Tip describes jazz as the only other American art form, outside of rap) and ridiculous clothing in their early days announced how their intentions differed from other rap groups. That Rapaport, a huge Tribe fan for decades, is himself almost emphatically white becomes either irrelevant or speaks to Tribe’s broad appeal.

Even the cause of Tribe’s reunion feels relatively low-stakes: Phife, who talks about his Type I diabetes and poor health throughout the film, needs to raise cash for an operation. Diabetes is certainly a serious affliction and not something to be taken lightly, but when reduced to a narrative device that serves to briefly reconcile a shattered friendship, it’s hard to meet it with more than a shrug. When he finally reaches out to Phife just before kidney transplant surgery, Tip offers only a five-word text message. That said, the quarrel also gives Rapaport an opportunity to resist letting his film become a simple hagiography. Rapaport himself makes a point of barely appearing in the film, often occurring only as a voice off-camera. Beats, Rhymes & Life succeeds primarily as a document of Tribe’s best work and that work’s continued relevance in the rap world. That the music was created by some particularly human humans is only further testament to Tribe’s enduring relevance.

Most Read