By Malice Intended of Planet Ill
From 1990 to 1998, A Tribe Called Quest built a loyal following through a series of landmark albums before imploding under the strain of inner strife. Their legacy left a lasting impression on a generation of Hip-Hoppers during the culture’s most prosperous decade. Tribe devotee Michael Rapaport chronicles the ups and downs of their career; contrasting their greatest achievements with their biggest failures. Through it all, members of the tribe presevere while trying to maintain their considerable legacy.
While there have certainly been more popular and successful rap groups, few can claim the reverence and influence that A Tribe Called Quest has enjoyed. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest serves as a worthy monument to that meritorious journey. Michael Rapaport offers a behind-the-scenes look at the group that goes beyond the superficial gloss of previous Hip-Hop documentaries and attempts something much more substantial. To the benefit of Tribe fans everywhere, Rapaport mostly succeeds.
Beats, Rhymes & Life is a modestly budgeted affair that could have easily aired as a special on PBS. That is not a slight by any means, but rather an acknowledgement of the film’s visual charm. Q-Tip and his fellow group members are filmed in mundane locations such as public parks, public high schools, and vinyl record stores. The audience is not offered tales of struggle in high-rise public housing projects, but of four middle class kids whose love for Hip-Hop brings them together.
The Afrocentric neon ambience of Tribe’s album covers is incorporated into the film’s aesthetic seamlessly. At times, the film plays as a visual extension of the liner notes from classic Tribe releases. Rapaport wisely doesn’t overdo it with the quirky visuals, but provides just enough to let audiences know that they are in knowledgeable hands. The approach is both smooth and joyful, even in the film’s rough patches. There is also vintage concert footage and interview segments from the long defunct YO! MTV Raps.
Rapaport takes a neutral position on the infighting that occurs between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Despite whatever reservations Tip may have, nothing in the film is particularly scandalous. If anything, Rapaport strips the beef of any sensationalism, and shows it simply for what it is: two group members whose friendship has slowly deteriorated through the course of the group’s existence. It is both sad and nonsensical. Further drama is derived from Phife’s heart-wrenching struggle with diabetes. Some moments are truly hard to watch due to the emotions that various testimonials evoke. This is one documentary that is not lacking in human interest.
Both Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White have the same presence here that they’ve had on just about every Tribe release, which is to say peripheral. By the time the end credits roll, both hardcore fans and newcomers alike will be utterly clueless as to what contribution either man made to such classics as The Low End Theory. The film is decidedly skewed towards chronicling the sotires of Tip and Phife. Beats, Rhymes & Life could have also given us more insight into Tribe’s creative process. The music is, after all, the whole reason why anyone would want to watch this documentary the first place. Though the perceived flaws of the film are noticeable, they are in no way detrimental to the overall product, as everything else is pitch perfect. Rapaport really seems to love these guys and their music.
That word “love” is key to understanding both the film and the group, as the best of Tribe’s catalog has always filled the listener with warm and fuzzy vibrations that never felt corny or sappy. Where many other rappers were content to be overblown caricatures, Tribe always remained colorfully human. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest displays that humanity, warts and all. A fan could hardly ask for better than that. Tip can rest easy, as the film does not diminish all that they’ve worked to accomplish over the last twenty years. If anything, it affirms our faith in Hip-Hop. 4.5 out of 5