Saturday, August 27, 2011


I'm a huge fan of A Tribe Called Quest, and I was looking forward to seeing Beats Rhymes & Life for a long time... while kind of being skeptical over whether it would come out at all. It was no secret that there were serious issues between director Michael Rapaport (an actor, he's in one of my favorite films, Copland) and the band, particularly Q-Tip. Which is a real shame: Rapaport was clearly doing this for love, not money, it's too bad things got so messsy.

I saw an early trailer on YouTube - it was actually called "Beats, Rhymes and Fights."  I can see where Tip took issue with that. Yes, there were lots of personal issues between Tip and Phife Dawg.  Lots.  But to take a group like Tribe - visionaries who never sold out, never dumbed down, sold lots of records and made a big impact on music - and reduce them to interpersonal issues does a bit of a disservice.  To his credit, Rapaport got lots of testimonials from other artists like Questlove, Common, The Beastie Boys and Pharrell Williams, as well as other members of the Native Tongues, including De La Soul and The  Jungle Brothers (but no Queen Latifah!). Personally, I would have liked to hear more details about how Tribe influenced all of these groups, and maybe hear from more of the band's peers who weren't part of the Native Tongues (for instance, I would have been interested to hear Ice Cube's take on them).

I also would have loved to hear more about the making of the early albums.  They were so different, it's hard to explain how weird and interesting they sounded in the context of the late '80s or early '90s.  Call me old, but that was a great era of hip-hop which I definitely miss.

As you can see in the film, Q-Tip is definitely and absolutely the group's leader.  Is he a control freak?  Maybe. But he is also super concerned with quality control, and if he doesn't take responsibility for that, who would? Also, no one else in the band really steps up the way he does.

I was curious about religion, which is hinted at in the film.  Phife refers to growing up as a Seventh Day Adventist, while Ali Shaheed Muhammed is Muslim.  I know that at some point during Tribe's existence, Q-Tip converted to Islam. I would have to think that that changed things also.  But maybe the group didn't want to discuss that. I can respect that, I guess.

As a group, I give A Tribe Called Quest an A. They are one of the greatest, and deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one day.  But I give this doc a B-.  I think in some ways, Rapaport was too close to the subject matter, and also isn't an experienced documentarian.  Still, I enjoyed it, and will definitely get the DVD.  If I were Sony Classics (the distributor), I'd hire a new director for the outtakes -  to get the real story behind the drama behind the film.  But I'd also get someone to go through the footage and come up with bonus features that focus on the making of the early albums, a la the very cool Classic Albums DVD series.

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