I like music documentaries, despite not being much of a virtuoso (though I’ve tried my hand at guitar — needless to say, it’s still sitting in the same corner it’s been in for the past three months). But what attracts me to the genre are the artists themselves; as a semi-struggling screenwriter who is still hoping to sell his debut feature (Warner Bros., call me) myself, I figure anyone who dedicates their life to an art-form (regardless of the naysayers) probably has something interesting to say. In Anvil! The Story of Anvil, I learned that success in this business can be in-your-face one second and sleeping with your neighbor the next (thus leaving you to work a dead-end job to make ends meet). Actor-turned-director, Michael Rapaport, in his debut at the helm, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, puts forth a fantastic new documentary which follows the legendary Hip-Hop crew, shows how friendships — even those spanning decades — are sometimes the easiest to lose during the wild-ride to the top.
A Tribe Called Quest consists of Q-Tip, self-declared leader and perfectionist; his brochacho, Phife Dawg, who slowly emerges as a memorable stage presence, but whose diabetes and sugar-addiction constantly tests him; Jarobi White, who leaves after Tribe’s first-album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm,” to pursue a culinary career; and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, who, being the most soft-spoken member and the band’s DJ/producer, is put in the center of Q-Tip and Phife’s escalating rivalry. Being a fan himself, Rapaport caters to the fans, and despite the professional dramas, spends most of the film’s running time on the music (along with its history and influences) itself. Besides their immediate classic, A Tribe Called Quest also released, “Low End Theory,” a sophomore effort that has shorter, more bass-heavy songs, and whose themes matured into consumerism and other social issues. “Midnight Marauders,” their third and most ambitious work — full of up-tempo and charging drums, groovy basslines, and catchy hooks — followed, snubbing the many who doubted the crew’s artistic integrity and called them sell outs.
Pressure came with “Beats, Rhymes, and Life,” the cursed fourth album. With the artist’s chemistry ruined, the CD, widely considered the darkest in the group’s discography, marked the beginning of the end. With Q-Tip becoming a control freak, mercilessly lashing out on Phife about his diabetes, the crew’s innocence began to fade; Phife was no longer allowed to unwind with a few rounds of basketball, and Q-Tip, whose hobby of collecting old jazz hits to sample, tried desperately to pick up on the pieces. The lead-in single, which is entitled “Stressed Out” and stars Consequence, Q-Tip’s cousin, set the tone for Tribe’s studio life. But then came, “The Love Movement,” the ironically-named curtain call. To this day, Phife blames his childhood friend for the desecration of what A Tribe Called Quest represented — unity — and claims that in the current state of affairs, he could live “without Hip-Hop in [his] life.”
Music is a personal experience for both the listener and the artist; with that in mind, there’s a lot of genuine emotion here and Rapaport doesn’t neglect the human aspect of these men. It’s heartbreaking, but at the time, refreshing, to see these legends cry over broken friendships and past mistakes. It adds a reliability factor to Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. And unlike other rap superstars, these men don’t hide behind rock-hard personas, admitting that they’re only flesh-and-bones. Watching their gut-wrenching accounts further reinforces their lyrics, meant to preach truth amidst seas of bullshit. And when the artist is honest, their fans are too.
A lot of guest speakers make appearances throughout the movie too. These include Roots members (and Hip-Hop purists) Black Thought and Questlove, conscious rapper Common, and the young’un, Pharrell Williams, whose admiration for the band is explicit through a serious of long gasps, slurs, and proclamations (e.g., “Low End Theory? Yo’, that was . . . that was . . . a clas — classic”). But although the latter does make good points and it’s understandable that the producers wanted a fresher talent to explain the group’s continuing relevance, Williams becomes incredibly annoying. Questlove is the standout here, with his cool ‘fro and a twinkle in his eye, he slams his fist in conviction while explaining Hip-Hop so poetically and powerfully that it sounds like a lyric in and of itself. I could listen to him ramble on for hours.
The credits show a few more mentionables, including Pete Rock, a critically-acclaimed rapper and DJ. These scenes, cut from the finished product, have the figures all quoting the same line, “I am A Tribe Called Quest.” This, a statement of union (a philosophy further shown with concert clips, during which a crowd of Asians, Whites, and Blacks, all raise their fists in the air and shout “power!”) is a fitting conclusion for a film that invites its viewers into the lives of its subjects, because in the end, we’re all A Tribe Called Quest.