Film Review – Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest
We open in 2008, in Seattle. A Tribe Called Quest, the influential and highly respected hip-hop group, may have played their very last show. In a small, cramped trailer, one of its members pace saround as the camera nervously follows to see what he’s going to say. The man is Q-Tip, arguably the band’s most well known and recognizable face, but as Michael Rapaport’s documentary Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011) shows us, his face harbors a disappointment and frustration that has had been building for years. Dissent has entered the group, ego and pride has gotten in the way and threatened to end a lifelong friendship full of excitement, creativity, and good music. The film explores the foundation of this band, the era in which they came to be and how they influenced countless other musical acts that followed after them, and the animosity that grew between two of its key members.
Let me say this right off the bat—this is a fantastic documentary. This is the kind of movie that I feel was tailor-made for someone like myself. As a kid, I grew up highly entrenched in hip-hop culture: the music, the dancing, the style; I loved every single aspect of it. I remember breakdancing with my friends to a lot of the music that’s featured in this movie; many times I found myself bobbing my head to the rhythms and sounds that were being played. It is no doubt that Michael Rapaport, the actor who takes the directing seat here, is a huge a fan of A Tribe Called Quest. His film moves along with the energy and enthusiasm of a filmmaker who is deeply connected to his subject matter. His cameras enter both the backstage world and the homes of Tribe’s members Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White, almost freely. It’s interesting to see just how candid and intimate all of the band members are when they are being interviewed. They share their deepest thoughts and emotions about one another, not afraid of being silly or showing their less attractive sides while being recorded.
The film charts the earliest beginnings of the band. We see how Q-Tip and Phife grew up as lifelong friends in New York, how they hooked up with Shaheed and Jarobi to form Tribe, and how through sheer creativity and passion they created unique music that connected people together in a positive way. While the film certainly focuses on Tribe’s rise in popularity, it also pulls back to share a bit of the spotlight on hip-hop music as a whole in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Everyone talks about how good things used to be back in the day, and while there is good music being made presently, the film argues that it simply does not compare to when hip-hop first started. Through interviews from a number of other artists that include Common, the Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Pharrell Williams, and The Roots, just to name of a few, we get insight to how the music was before commercialism and glamour took over, and how A Tribe Called Quest spoke to and made each of those artists who they are today.
Q-Tip and Phife share a bond that is undeniable; they have known each other nearly all their lives and have considered each other best friends. Their camaraderie and chemistry helped produce great material; they fit and complement one another. Which makes it surprising that the film’s main storyline is how these two developed resentment that risked breaking the band up entirely. One man wants to do one thing that the other doesn’t, one gains all the attention while the other complains about feeling like a back-up singer, the anger building up over the years. Harsh words are exchanged. At one key moment in the movie, Phife and Q-Tip nearly get into a fight, just minutes before they are due to go on stage. Drama and animosity linger backstage, even when everything seems to be going like normal when they perform. It’s interesting to see how these two so openly describe what they were thinking at the time; they don’t hold back from saying anything. And between them are Shaheed and Jarobi, two members who clearly love and respect them, and are dismayed to see their relationship (and the band itself) dissolve out of their control.
While Q-Tip may be the band’s most popular artist, Phife comes out of the movie being its most sympathetic character. The shortest member with a voice he openly admits he hates, Phife comes across much like an underdog. This is further developed when we learn that he has diabetes. The most emotional parts of the film involve Phife detailing his daily struggles with the disease, and how it hindered him so badly that many times he would go on stage unable to move. Jarobi would describe how he would move out to be closer to help him, with Q-Tip trying to encourage him to eat well and maintain a healthier lifestyle. The climax comes at the point when Phife undergoes surgery to have his kidney replaced, and when it is revealed who the donor is, it goes to show what true love really means. And that is where the heart of the film lies. Yes, this is a band that has gone through its turmoil and has experienced much difficulty during their time together. However, there are far worse things to worry about than unrelenting pride, and in the end they really are there for one another no matter what has happened in the past. Disagreements and drama are irrelevant compared to respect and friendship, and in the end of the movie we get a sense that there is a chance that A Tribe Called Quest will relight the passion that made them such a big name in the hip-hop community.
If there is one criticism to have about the movie, it’s that Michael Rapaport’s personal admiration for the band clearly shows. There’s a feeling that Rapaport was a little too attached to the material, and the final passages have an optimism bordering on that of a fanboy rooting for his musical heroes to live happily ever after. But regardless, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is one of the most satisfyingly entertaining documentaries you’ll see this year, and after seeing it the only thing I wanted to do was find out when and where I can see it again. It shows with close detail the inner troubles of one of the most influential groups in modern hip-hop, and how they all work and strive to remain an important part of that genre’s future.
Final Grade: A-