If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’re aware of my extreme excitement regarding the debut of “Beats, Rhymes & Life”, the Michael Rapaport-directed documentary about the lives and careers of rap legends A Tribe Called Quest. You’re probably also aware of the controversy regarding the film. The group members-Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, have not presented a united front on the film, and Q-Tip in particular has not been supportive, claiming that he’s cast in a bad light.
I’ll grant Tip this-he doesn’t always get portrayed in the most flattering manner. However, I don’t think it’s due to any tricky editing or even any kind of vendetta on the filmmaker’s part. “Beats, Rhymes & Life” is not the first time Tip has been portrayed as an Alpha male/control freak/somewhat pretentious artiste, and, well…the truth hurts sometimes, doesn’t it?
As with other music-related documentaries I’ve seen in the past, “Beats” seems to have multiple aims. The first is to remind you of just how dope (and groundbreaking) Tribe’s music was from almost the second they stepped on the hip-hop scene in 1989. The second is to delve into the history of the group and provide some insight on the inner workings of their career. The third (and obviously most controversial) is to dive into the very complicated relationship with Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. They were friends since age two, but time, success and Tip’s burgeoning artistic sensibilities (plus the perception, correct or incorrect, that he was the “leader” of the group and Phife the “sidekick”) led to an ever-widening rift that eventually caused the group’s breakup after a ten year run.
The film succeeds on all fronts. Rapaport wisely stays out of the way here, unlike many documentary directors who tend to believe the film is as much about them as it is about those they are ostensibly documenting. Even if you just love the music, to hear Tribe’s classics coming out of a movie theater sound system is incredible. For me, it was like hearing an audio document of my teenage years. There was definitely much head-nodding and rapping along on my part during the movie. The obligatory back-slapping that appears in most music documentaries is here by virtue of testimonials from Common, Black Thought and ?uestlove of The Roots and Pharrell Williams, but it’s tempered by contributions from a wealth of people who were there as things were happening, including Kool DJ Red Alert (the group’s benefactor) and many members of the Native Tongues crew-including De La Soul, 2/3 of the Jungle Brothers, Monie Love and Black Sheep’s Dres. Even Jive Records founder/former president Barry Weiss shows up, delivering lines in typical record honcho fashion.
I must say-Phife Dawg steals the flick. Whether reeling off sports-related Top Five lists in an almost robotic fashion (I propose a series of Phife Dawg/Bill Simmons podcasts to begin NOW), discussing his occasionally lax attitude regarding his Type 1 diabetes or uproariously bringing up a Supremes reference to describe his perceived place in A Tribe Called Quest (a reference which caused the entire theater to howl with laughter), Phife’s humor and scrappiness turns out to be quite endearing. Tip, easily the more musical of the bunch, comes across as much more guarded. It seems pretty obvious that he was not comfortable with the idea of being documented, and even though he offers a lot of insight into the formation of the group and the crew’s early days, he sort of fades into the background when any kind of tension is discussed and to me, it appears that he’s trying a little too hard to be politically correct. There definitely seems to be a hierarchical element to their relationship that appears to needle the fuck out of Phife. DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad plays the background for most of the film, true to his perception as “the quiet guy”, and Chuck Cunningham-esque fourth member Jarobi White turns out to offer quite a bit of insight over the course of the movie, and you get to find out officially why he left (and why he’s occasionally returned.)
My appreciation for this movie shouldn’t surprise anyone. Hell, I’m basically this movie’s target demographic down to a tee. However, even if you’re not the movie’s target demo but you’re a hip-hop fan, “Beats, Rhymes & Life” is a must-see. Even though it seems like Tip and Phife might be best off just traveling down separate paths (hey, people grow apart), they’ve left an incredible musical legacy. I hope that they mend their fences for reasons both altruistic and selfish (come on, who wouldn’t want another Tribe album), but this film does a perfect job of explaining their musical legacy. And while that’s not the optimal conclusion, it’s still a good one.