Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest tells a familiar story—a young musical outfit, mostly fueled by the creative input of two lifelong chums, goes on to revolutionize the scene, only to flame out amid rising tensions and clashing egos. Of course, what makes it different is that it’s a hip-hop group at the center of this story, not another rock band.
Indeed, actor Michael Rapaport offers a fluid, moving chronicle of his favorite hip-hop group. He mostly keeps a low profile, occasionally barking questions from behind the camera and always keeping the focus on Tribe. Rapaport doesn’t shy away from the toxic tiffs that took place when Tribe reunited for the Rock the Bells tour in 2008, capturing the backstage squabbles between aforementioned chums Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, who was ailing from type 1 diabetes.
While diehards might get a little peeved at Rapaport for glossing over a few things (like mentioning the late, great hip-hop producer J Dilla’s involvement with the group only in passing), he mostly gives you all you need to know about A Tribe Called Quest. Like all great groups, they changed the game. But, eventually, things changed for them—and, as always, not for the better.
—Craig D. Lindsey
For many hip-hop heads, the new documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is a godsend; for the first time, a film aims to give fans of the legendary rap crew the story of their groundbreaking rise, turbulent fall and even more intense reunion. It also gives novices everything they need to know about why Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White are still four of the most influential men in hip-hop.
The movie, directed by Michael Rapaport, arrives in theaters Friday. Late last month, I took a few special guests to an advance screening in hopes of getting their feedback on how the film spoke to their fondness for the legendary group. Below, rapper Phonte Coleman, producer Commissioner Gordon, DJ Nanci O and Tribe zealot and Colony Theatre manager Denver Hill give us their take on this tale of Tribe.
(singer/ rapper in Little Brother, The Foreign Exchange)
To me, A Tribe Called Quest just represented all that was good with hip-hop. When I was coming up, you always had rappers that you wanted to be. I wanted to be Big Daddy Kane. He was the main man. He could battle-rap. He could do it all. He represented to me the pinnacle of that scene.
But when I heard A Tribe Called Quest, I was like, “Yo, this is who I am.” I heard Tribe, and I saw myself. I felt closer to Tribe more so than I did any other artist at that time, because they were one of the few artists that I heard and I saw myself injust more “everyman,” for lack of a better word.
In terms of the film itself, I think they did a good job of telling the Tribe’s story and explaining what it is. I think it was definitely something for the casual fan more so than the diehard. There was a lot more that a diehard fan like myself would’ve wanted to know. But when you’re making a movie like that, you kinda have to make it a little broad. If I was gonna show this movie to my 60-year-old aunt or something, I’m sure she’s probably not gonna care why Tip was wearing a mask in the “Hot Sex” video.
SAM “COMMISSIONER GORDON” PILAND
(hip-hop producer with King Mez, J. Capri)
My older sister deserves all the credit for any of my success in music. When I was in third grade, she played the Beats, Rhymes and Life tape one day when I got home from school. She skipped straight to the track “1nce Again,” and I just remembered Tip and Phife going back and forth”You on point, Phife?” “Once again, Tip.” I couldn’t get that out of my head. Then she skipped to the song “The Hop”; I stole the tape. I took it into my room and jammed for a week.
Before Tribe, I wasn’t really a hip-hop fan. I liked songs here and there but didn’t start buying hip-hop albums until I heard Beats, Rhymes and Life. My friends weren’t into hip-hop. We were heavy into skateboarding, and, in 1996, skaters listened to grunge music or alternative rock. Tribe gave me my first introduction to the culture. After that, I went and got Midnight Marauders and then The Low End Theory. I’ve been a fan ever since.
The movie didn’t really convey those feelings for me, but, at that time, I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. It sounded like they were having a blast recording these records, but little did you know Tip and Phife were actually feuding. It’s cool to go back and listen to Tribe songs knowing more of their story.
NANCI “NANCI O” ODOM
(radio personality at WXYC-FM, 89.3)
ATCQ means to me not being afraid to express yourself, regardless of appearance, dress or style of rhyming. When ATCQ first came out on the national scene, they were some of the first emcees to fuse jazz into their production. Their style of dress was not MCM sweat suits, Adidas or British Knights sneakers and dookie chains but more loose and reminiscent of “tribal dress” with organic hairstyles. The coup was not only did they sound different and look different, but every member of the group could actually rhyme.
The film properly conveys those feelings, but even more than that, it took me to a time where there appeared to be more unity and peace in the culture. I was very young when ATCQ hit, but I do recall hip-hop music being fun and mostly drama-free. I actually got a little misty-eyed watching the movie, because it was “fun” hip-hop music without insulting my intelligence. Not to diss any artists, but can you name one hip-hop track out now on mainstream radio that is “fun” without degrading women, talking about “popping bottles,” glorifies excessive spending or focuses on anything more than the club element?
(general manager at Colony Theatre)
I remember hearing the first two Tribe albums somewhere around the end of my middle school years. I grew up in the white suburbs of Burlington, N.C., very conservative and redneck. One of my neighborhood pals was into anything that would shock his parents. It started off with heavy metal. He realized hip-hop was more intimidating. He had Public Enemy, 2 Live Crew and Tribe. We weren’t mature enough to appreciate the complexity of the music and the lyrics, but we had a blast listening to “Can I Kick It?” and “Buggin’ Out” while we played Super Mario Bros. and other Nintendo games. Soon after that, grunge music blew up. Then I got into indie rock and mostly forgot about hip-hop.
When I first heard Michael Rapaport was helming the project, I was afraid it was gonna be him saying, “Yo, Tribe is dope. They the bomb!” But he did a really good job. Except for the parts at the beginning when he is grilling Q-Tip about the future of the band, he’s almost invisible. Before I saw the movie, I read there was some controversy about the way Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are portrayed. However, I think it is an honest look at what it’s like to be in a successful, touring band. There’s always gonna be a couple of guys butting heads in a group that famous.