Written by: FFT Webmaster | July 12th, 2011
When rap and hip-hop emerged in the late 1980s, many music pundits predicted that it would have a very short shelf life. Now, nearly 30 years later, not only is the music still on fire but it has gobbled up the top spots on the Billboard charts. In fact, it is now such an established institution that the “roots” of this uniquely urban music are now open to scholarly interpretation. Such is the case with BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, a new documentary by actor (and rabid fan) Michael Rapaport (no joke intended) that opened this past weekend via specialty distributor extraordinaire Sony Pictures Classics.
The film focuses on the creation and continued endurance of A Tribe Called Quest, a rap supergroup made up of childhood friends from Queens, who pooled their unique personalities and musical gifts to form one of the most successful and influential hip hop groups of all time. In a scenario that has been played out since The Supremes and the Jackson Five dominated the Motown music scene, one of the members rises above others in fame and ego (not necessarily in that order) and the group members have a very public falling out and breakup.
The film follows a chronological oral history format with members of Tribe and other figures associated with their story recalling the events up to and during their successful career before disbanding in 1998. Sprinkled throughout are current looks at the lives of group members who have gone solo, including Q-Tip, Phife and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, with a rather unique focus on Phife’s history with Type 1 diabetes and how it affected the group. First-time filmmaker Rapaport manages to gain quite close access to his subjects, with personal revelations revealing the import that the band members’ complicated relationships have on their music.
The group developed unique onstage personae: Q-Tip is the flamboyant artiste; Phife Dawg is his garrulous yet vulnerable sidekick; Ali Shaheed Mohammed is the stoic rhythm runner behind the turntables; and Jarobi is the inaccessible cypher. The film offers an intimate journey through the group’s five influential albums, while also showcasing the context of their music with such contemporaries as De La Soul, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Busta Rhymes and even the Beastie Boys. While admirably avoiding the usual clichés about in-house egos run amok, the director does not shy away from the group’s internal dramas which reveal a festering antagonism between Q-Tip and Phife that reaches rather ugly levels. The film climaxes with a startling sequence from their 2008 reunion tour that features a backstage blow-up between the two that nearly turns violent. The film draws its title from the group’s latest album title BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE, which nicely sums up the connective tissue between the still combative members who are committed to the music first and foremost.