Strained Vibes, Excellent Scenario in Beats, Rhymes & Life
Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Photo by Michael Rapaport, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
So much petty drama has clouded the release of Michael Rapaports A Tribe Called Quest documentary. One version of the backstory casts the first-time director as a doofus actor wannabe (arguably best known for his role as Phoebes boyfriend in Friends) who persuades the seminal, but privately splintered, hip-hop crew to participate in a consummate career doc. After two and a half years of the corny B-lister shadowing and interviewing the foursome (in gratingly affected street patois), the final product gets accepted to Sundance and suddenly the groups de facto leader, Q-Tip, reneges his support via Twitter. The actor/director always seemed like an opportunistic jerk-off, so when three-fourths of ATCQ boycott Park City and later whine on MTV about an errant production email they received conspiring, Well fuck them, its not particularly surprising. Everybody knows you dont trust a fanboy poseur.
The wrinkle in this retelling is that Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is a phenomenal documentary. Making a love letter to his all-time favorite musicians, Rapaport devotes the films first half to deftly curated archival material, golden-age hip-hop perspectives from the likes of DJ Red Alert and Monie Love, and testimony from an impressive constellation of Tribes peers and pupilsfrom the Beastie Boys to Pharrell Williams to ?uestloveon behalf of the Miles Davis of hip-hop, as the Roots Black Thought remembers the bands initial influence. (Black Thought also hilariously calls ATCQs early kente-cloth and dashiki wardrobe some real questionable-type shit.)
The fawning is more deserved celebration than drooling hagiography. Then comes the films second half, which veers into cinema vérité, focusing on the disintegrated ties between boyhood friends Tip, who has evolved into dapper VH1 royalty, and his 20-year collaborator, Phife Dawg, a squeaky-voiced sports nut whos grown to resent how Tips calculated swagger shrinks him into a sidekick. (Its Diana Ross and the Supremes is how Phife casts Tips attitude to the rest of ATCQ. I guess Ali [Shaheed Muhammad]s Mary Wilson and Im Florence Ballard? Get the fuck outta here.) Pitbull-stubborn and type-one diabetic, Phife becomes the movies wounded dark horse, enduring a desperately needed kidney transplant, calling his boyhood buddy a control freak, and venting about their love/hate relationship. At one point during a 2008 Rock the Bells reunion tour, Phife gives Tip the silent treatment so resolutely that an awkward shouting match ensues, with Ali and Tribes spiritual backbone Jarobi White left ducking the crossfire.
Despite the passive-aggressive bickering, Beats, Rhymes & Life is not, thankfully, hip-hops Some Kind of Monster. (At one point, when Phifes wife suggests band therapy, as Metallica underwent in that doc, he rebuffs her with, I know what the problem is, Im not paying for you to tell me nothing!) And instead of editing his subjects into pre-ordained music biz roles, Rapaport uses his access to present the members as full dynamic characters, both letting a subway-stairs climbing scene linger long enough to catch Tip politely let an older lady walk in front of him while also portraying the rapper as a perfectionist headcaseas former Jive Records exec Barry Weiss puts it, I love Q-Tip, but hes a fucking nut. Its easy to see how a control-freak perfectionist would mistake such character assessment for assassination. Its not, and even a fanboy poseur like Michael Rapaport knows that.
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