Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
The controversy that has surrounded Michael Rapaport's doc on A Tribe Called Quest (reluctantly granted producers credits! incriminating, accidentally-sent emails! angry tweets! grievance-filing MTV appearances!) obscures an inconvenient truth: This is a loving, albeit honest, paean to a terrific group which couldn't rile the feathers of anyone but a touchy lunatic. An actor-turned-newbie-director whose excitable Brooklyn white boy routine was a staple of '90s indie cinema, Rapaport offers a buoyant account of if not hip hop top's selling outfit then one of its best and most influential.
That its maker grew up in the same place at the same time as the group he documents makes this more than a standard-issue doc of talking heads and choice clips. Rapaport intimately captures the feel of hip hop culture in '80s New York, when Tribe—along with De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, the most prominent members of the Native Tongues—were schooled by radio DJ Red Alert. Though initially sounding like an off-shoot of De La’s fun, sample-heavy, hippie-ish sonics, their talents crystallized with 1991's The Low End Theory, a minimalist, jazz-laced game changer that’s often sets raps over nothing but driving percussion and an upright bass.
Tribe's early but unspectacular fall—courtesy in-fighting and general spark-lacking that produced two too low-key final albums—leads Rapaport to try and untangle a mess of oft-contradictory accounts, many of them spats between members Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Rapaport, to his credit, allows for multiple perspectives. Phife, whose severe diabetes takes up a large chunk of the film, may come off the most sympathetic, but Q-Tip, now the lone hold-out of the group in supporting the film, at least comes off as a moody perfectionist and tortured genius. But Beats Rhymes & Life is more positive than negative, filled with passages of celebration and great scenes, like one where Q-Tip plays the record that became the beat for "Can I Kick It?" Its love is not blind, but love is still there.
Read our interview with director Michael Rapaport here.