Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Beats, Rhyme and Life: The Journeys of A Tribe Called Quest

2011, Michael Rapaport -- DVD

After Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC and the Beastie Boys hit, but before Puffy, Biggie and Tupac rose came the golden age of hip hop.  Creativity in the medium hit its apex, sampling became an artform, production became as important as the rhymes and the emceeing enjoyed a whole new versatility.   Something about that time and the music resonated with me, such that during my formative years, that time where I started establishing my own independence and developing my own tastes, hip-hop wasn't just my primary musical interest, but my only musical interest.  De La Soul, Erik B. and Rakim, Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Das EFX, and dozens more.  Hip hop was already born but this was when it came to life.

As actor-turned-director Michael Rapaport's documentary makes a strong case,  A Tribe Called Quest are, perhaps, the Beatles of hip hop, having pushed the boundaries of what can be done with the form so broadly that so much of what came after them was so obviously derivative of or influenced by the group.

Also like the Beatles, Tribe survived for just under a decade before calling it quits, largely due to in-fighting and long-brewing contention between it's figurehead members, Q-Tip's John Lennon to Phife Dawg's Paul McCartney (and typing that out I realize that it does sound kind of ridiculous, but at the same time I can't deny some of the parallel).

Rapaport's passion for that era of hip hop shines through in Beats, Rhyme and Life: The Journeys of A Tribe Called Quest, and it so clearly mirrors my own, and we're not alone.  The film kicks during a much hyped reunion tour in 2008 (ten years after throwing in the towel), with a selected scene of the fallout of a fight between Tip and Phife, and Rapaport asking whether Tribe will ever perform together again, and works back from there, with a series of interviews with the band and with a plethora of hip-hop industry stars and legends, including ?uestlove and Blackthought of the Roots, the Beastie Boys, Pete Rock, De La Soul, Ludacris, DJ Red Alert, and more, all clearly in awe of what Tribe accomplished and the impact they had, individually and as part of the Native Tongues movement.

What the documentary conveys well is the status of Tribe within the industry and even though they're mostly defunct, they remain a relevant part of the conversation.  Also by delving into the history of the group, their shaky roster and the personality conflicts between Phife and Tip, probing the past as it resurfaces in a more recent context, it provides a satisfying story arc.

The film by a fan for fans, not necessarily of Tribe itself but of hiphop itself, it doesn't touch on every facet of the groups past that the hardcore Tribe fan might want.  It glosses over the album which gives the film its name, easily their least impressive effort (yet one that's aging surprisingly well), and certainly most exemplary of their problems.  It came following Q-Tip's conversion to Islam and  Phifes move to Atlanta which saw him shut out from much of the production effort, Tip's aspiring cousin given nearly an equal emcee spotlight to Phife.  The film also skims over tips beef which saw him in a face mask for the video for Hot Sex from the Bulworth soundtrack.  Both of these topics I imagine were nixed by Tip in his producer role, and despite the band's theoretical interference in the final product, there's still a surprising depth and honesty to it all and not just a rah rah puff piece for any one member.

Q-Tip is quite clearly shown as an obsessive, a perfectionist, and a bit of a control freak, and also a bit oblivious to his own true nature (no matter how much it's pointed out to him) whereas Phife is seen as somewhat stubborn and prone to walking away than standing up.  Ali Shaheed, the group's producer/DJ, is pretty much caught in the middle, and doesn't seem to want to take sides or act as moderator, while Jarobi, the group's occasional fourth member comes and goes as he pleases but is obviously completely invested in Phife's well-being (particularly once he was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes).

It's not going to be a general interest feature, but anyone interested in the music genre, or even music in general would certainly be rewarded with exposure to the group and its story.  Rapaport's film is strengthened with some incredible accompanying animations by Double Triple, which act as chapter markers and transitions (there's a great featurette on the DVD with the animators showing how it was all done), as well as an awesome soundtrack arrangement from Madlib.

Beats, Rhymes & Life: A Tribe Called Quest Documentary (Unreleased Trailer) from Matthew Beck on Vimeo.