To a legion of discerning hip-hop fans, a Tribe Called Quest means everything. Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and sometimes Jarobi, came to represent the ideal template of what hip-hop music could and should be sonically, aesthetically and intrinsically. The rap group’s highly esteemed stature meant gargantuan expectations for the Michael Rapaport-directed documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, opening in theaters today. Despite initial trepidation from members of the group itself, which probably made people want to see the doc that much more, the film masterfully captures the spirit of a group devoted to the art of moving butts.
Thanks to Q-Tip’s early volley that he was not in full support of the film due to editing concerns, as well as some shiesty business on the director’s part, you can’t help but start watching the film wondering, ‘What was Q-Tip trying to change?’ The film opens with the group thick in the midst of their inner turmoil. However, although group infighting can’t be dismissed as a minor plot point, Beats, Rhymes and Life covers so much more. From the group’s early development to getting put on by the Jungle Brothers (and DJ Red Alert) to Phife’s advancement as an MC and his battle with diabetes on down to the group’s quasi-break up, Rapaport covers a lot of ground in 95 minutes.
As ATCQ’s music plays in the background, their story unfolds allowing viewers to wax nostalgic over the group’s sheer freshness. The story is well paced with enough general details to introduce newcomers to Tribe and plenty of obscure factoids to enlighten diehards. An example of the latter is a scene where Q-Tip describes how one day he was cutting up a portion of The New Birth record called “African Cry” that says, “recognize our native tongue” and hence Native Tongue became the name of their clique that would include acts like De La Soul, Black Sheep and Leaders of the New School. It’s the simple ideas that lead to the greatest achievements.
Despite all their triumphs and accolades, many viewers will instead debate; who is really the bad guy in the at times toxic ATCQ group dynamic? Answering that question is about as easy as deciding which album is better; The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders? On one side of the proverbial rap ring is Q-Tip, the ultra-talented, perfectionist and de-facto leader of the group and on the other is Phife Dawg, the uber-confident underdog struggling to assert what not enough people really get — without him, there would be no Tribe Called Quest.
Ultimately it’s left for the viewer to decide who is or isn’t in the wrong (In my opinion, Tip and Phife need to hug it out), but the film concludes on an upbeat note with the group tearing down a show in Japan. When the inevitable Blu-Ray edition of the movie is released, it absolutely must contain the footage that was too ancillary for the film’s story — but nevertheless interesting to Tribe diehards.
In 2011, watching Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Life and Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is essential for anyone who wants to stay on point and remain a card carrying member of the ATCQ fan club. For the hip-hop head too young to remember the halcyon days of Tribe and Native Tongue and wants to know what all the fuss is about — and why Lupe Fiasco’s VH1 flub in 2007 was blasphemous — this documentary is an indispensable resource. By the time the ride is over viewers will have a greater appreciation for Tribe’s exploits and an urge to hook up their own best of ATCQ playlist. But a hint of melancholy may creep into the corner of your brain when you consider that the group’s last album, The Love Movement, which Phife offers may have best been titled “The Last Movement,” was released in 1998.
– Alvin Blanco
Catch more of Mr. Blanco’s musings at Slang Rap Democracy and his new book The Wu-Tang Clan and RZA: A Trip through the 36 Chambers of Hip Hop. Cop that!