More than a snapshot of a monumental era in hip-hop. More than a dramatic tale of rise and fall from the music industry. More than a collection of cool snapshots of New York. What Michael Rapaport’s documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” shows is a portrait of good friends. Because through it all, Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed) and Phife Dawg (Malik Isaac Taylor) really are just that. They have known each other since they were two years old, encouraged each other (in one way or another) to get into the rap game and rose up together.
The film starts with the end. A crowd of people with their fists raised in the air, bouncing up and down. It’s 2008 on the Rock the Bells tour and A Tribe Called Quest are on stage. Rappaport follows Q-Tip backstage to ask if it’s the crew’s final show. “What did Phife say?” Q-Tip asks. “Did you ask everyone else?” Throughout the film he is dodging any accusations of controversy, shirking his place in any sort of beef between Tribe members.
But before this end, “Beats Rhymes & Life” details the rise of one of the greatest hip-hop groups. The film has plenty of vintage radio clips, MTV appearances and live shots of New York in the ’80s. This footage is always impressive, to see an American art form rising from the New York streets. A complete style that was not there before—boomboxes, crowds of kids freestyling, and crafting their own sense of self outside of any mainstream influence.
We see the rise of the Native Tongues, a collection of almost just about every influential New York hip-hop act of the late ’80s/early ’90s: Tribe, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Black Sheep, Monie Love, Leaders of the New School and more. These were the artists who promoted a positive and conscious voice to hip-hop.
As Monie Love says in the film, this was not “Fuck the Police” or “Fight The Power.” There’s a time and a place for that, she says. There were groups for that and Native Tongues were doing something different.
A Tribe Called Quest released three almost perfect records. People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory (which producer Bob Power calls “the Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop”) and Midnight Marauders. After this, the group started to drift apart. This is really where the story of the film comes into effect. The rift between Phife and Q-Tip, the controlling nature of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (the groups DJ) getting caught in the middle.
Later in the film, in a clip from the same Rock the Bells show, De La Soul’s Maseo, longtime friend and collaborator with Tribe, says he hopes that it will be their last show. If they’re not into it, he says, they should call it quits. The band has consistently put out a vibe of sincerity, positivity and love, and if that is not where their hearts are now, if there is controversy going on, they should quit.
There’s a lot in here for the music nerds. There’s a scene of Q-Tip breaking down where the drum loop on “Can I Kick It” came from (hint: it’s Lonnie Smith’s “Dance of the Knights”). On top of that, the film gives extra original music by Madlib, and musical oversight provided by cool-as-hell Los Angeles DJ/producer Peanut Butter Wolf. I give P.B. Wolf credit for picking out the perfect backdrop tunes to the late ’80s scenes and radio throwback scenes.
Rapaport approaches A Tribe Called Quest from a fan’s perspective. This documentary comes from a place of sincerity and admiration.
It makes for a touching tribute to the band, but probably wouldn’t get anyone hooked or invested if they weren’t already fans of the group. There are many times where hip-hop artists from Prince Paul to ?uestlove to the Beastie Boys nerd out over Tribe mythology. A lot of “I would never be where I am now”‘s and “that record changed my life”‘s are greatly deserved, but don’t do much to push it along in terms of the narrative of the friends and bandmates.
At the end of the film we see Q-Tip on stage surrounded by modern day hip-hop stars, including Kanye West. Tribe have not released a record since 1998’s The Love Movement. Since then, with MCs like West taking the helm of hip-hop, there has not been the same sense of positivity and consciousness in mainstream hip-hop. A Tribe Called Quest represented a certain mindset and position in hip-hop that wasn’t violent and wasn’t simply about braggadocio. Sadly, that time has passed. And it seems more important now to appreciate what it was and use it as inspiration rather than to replicate something that can never be replicated.