It was supposed to be simple: Michael Rapaport, longtime actor and even longer-time hip-hop fan, makes a documentary about one of his favorite groups, A Tribe Called Quest. But during post-production, all hell broke loose. In mid-December, with the film, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest slated to premiere at Sundance the following month, Q-Tip—charismatic rapper of Tribe, which broke up in 1998 after 13 years and five albums—took to Twitter with the words, “I am not in support of the a tribe called quest documentary [sic].” Soon thereafter, Q-Tip and Tribe members Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White appeared on MTV, talking about their fight for producers credits, and presenting a dodgy-sounding email accidentally sent by one of Rapaport’s associates. Whatever the truth may be, both Muhammad and White have since come around (the other member, Phife Dawg, has remained supportive throughout), while Q-Tip has kept his distance, even as he speaks of the film’s quality.
In town to promote the film, Rapaport—most familiar for his keyed-up turns in True Romance, Higher Learning, Beautiful Girls, Bamboozled and Big Fan, in which he played mega-sports enthusiast “Philadelphia Phil”— appeared alternately energized by the film and exhausted by the battles he’s still fighting. After pointing out his newly purchased Mitchell & Ness 76ers hat, Rapaport (favorite Tribe song: “Sucka Nigga”) spoke to PW about the valleys—and the peaks—of directing a doc about a group, one-fourth of which he no longer speaks with.
I can think of many answers to this question, but I wanted to hear it in your words: Why a doc on A Tribe Called Quest?
The answer I’ve been giving is: Why not? All the great classic rock groups have been documented: the Beatles, the Doors, Led Zeppelin. And for me, growing up in New York City and loving hip-hop from its earliest inception, [Tribe] meant the same thing to me. When they broke up, it meant the same thing to me as when Led Zeppelin broke up, or the Beatles.
Before this, your only directing job was an episode of Boston Public. Was this a case where you thought you’d make it because no one else was?
It wasn’t like nobody else was doing it. It was like I wanted to do it. Out of all the insecurities with making this film, and I had many, I knew that I was the right person to do it. Because I was a fan. I understood the music. I understood where they were coming from, as far as musically and what informed them while growing up in New York. I knew that because I was the same age. One of the things I wanted to articulate was growing up in New York and being a fan of hip-hop. I didn’t expect for the movie to be as personal or as emotionally charged as it was—as it is. That’s just the beauty of documentary filmmaking: You don’t plan. Sometimes you get more than you ever conjured up in your head. That’s the case with this movie.
Tribe has said they were reluctant to allow outsiders to make a film about them. What did you do to convince them otherwise?
I didn’t do anything. Getting them to allow me to start making a documentary was one of the easiest things about it. As far as I’m concerned, they’re lucky I’m not a part of their immediate circle. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, Steven Spielberg has never spoken to any aliens, and Martin Scorsese’s not a real gangster. Anderson Cooper doesn’t know terrorists. He’s a reporter. And essentially, documentary filmmaking is a form of reporting. I’m a huge fan of the group, but I was able to be unbiased in the editing room. I never wanted to be biased. I was really careful about showing each guy’s point of view the best I could. It was a challenge. If someone from their circle made the movie, who knows if they would have been unbiased.
Apart from telling the story of the band, what did you imagine as your angle when you began the film?
I gravitated toward the interpersonal relationships among the group. Because I can relate to that. I can relate to feeling like my best friend treats me like a piece of shit. I can relate to feeling betrayed by my best friend. I’ve lived those things. And if I had made the movie without those themes explored, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you because this movie would at best get a high-end DVD release.
The real reason I made this movie was because of a simple question: Will A Tribe Called Quest make more music? I interviewed each of those guys multiple times, and each time I started the interview with that question. It’s not as simple as “No, I just want to do my solo stuff.” There’s a reason why the group broke up. There’s a reason why they chose not to record again.
It’s not just a valentine to them, though. You include a lot of dark, honest material, like Dave from De La Soul saying (during their reunion on the 2008 Rock the Bells tour) that if they’re going to get into fights backstage, they should just break up.
Having him say that is big. It’s like, if they’re not going to get along, then shut this shit down. We don’t want to be around it. We don’t want to be backstage and hear Q-Tip and Phife got into a fight. They got into a fistfight during a concert with De La Soul in the ’90s. That got cut out of the movie. This has been going on for years.
Q-Tip has remained vocal against you, even after other members of Tribe have come around to support the film. Can you speak about that?
I don’t know where his head’s at now. The last I heard from him, he was on MTV, and he said he wanted everyone to see this movie, that he really liked it. His problem comes with the producers. Listen: It’s so trite, and at the end of the day it makes him look bad. At this point three of the four members have publicly showed up at screenings. He went on MTV and all these places to make me look bad—that’s what that was—an attempt to make me look bad, to gain control of the movie, because he feels he doesn’t come off the way he wants to come off. The version of Q-Tip that I show is a good version of Q-Tip. There’s a hard drive worth of footage that, if another filmmaker had their hands on it, there would be something to really be upset about. It’s as simple as that. I came into the movie as a fan, I’ll continue to be a fan, but all this other shit that’s ensued, it’s just like, for what?
Where do you two stand now?
I haven’t talked to him.
Not at all?