Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest
It’s difficult to get a grasp on just what audience this documentary is made for. The legacy of 1990s foursome A Tribe Called Quest, one of hip-hop’s golden-era standouts led by Q-Tip and Phife Dawg (with DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White), has settled in nicely among hip-hop heads; their lyrics often serve as coded identifiers unto themselves, from call-and-response ice breakers (“You on point, Tip?” “All the time, Phife”; “Can I Kick It?” “Yes, you can!”) to locker-room shorthand (“Bonita Applebum”) to anytime, anywhere party starters (“Check the Rhime,” “Scenario”). Although they petered out – creatively and personally – more than a decade ago, splitting up in the wake of health issues and record-label woes, they left behind at least three of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Among rap fans, they need no introduction. For everyone else, well, their story isn’t that uncommon. After all, they came out of Queens, New York, along with just about every other hip-hop breakout in the ’80s and ’90s. They made great music and broke up. It’s hardly the stuff of biopics, let alone a much-hyped theatrical doc.
Although produced well enough, director Michael Rapaport (yes, the actor from the Spike Lee movies) makes the crucial mistake of painting in broad strokes. He relies heavily on talking-head testimonials from past and present hip-hop luminaries, particularly those with close ties to the group, like Black Thought, De La Soul and DJ Red Alert. There are virtually no guests who come to praise them that you wouldn’t expect to. Why not find some fans that might surprise audiences, especially those watching who might not have memories of falling asleep to The Low End Theory? Why not open the albums to a critical, discerning analysis or show a full performance of one of their tracks rather than hyperspeed clips?
Instead, Rapaport delivers a paint-by-numbers hip-hop biography: street signs, graffiti walls, Ken Burnsian photo pan-and-scans, visits to old stomping grounds and YouTube clips, all set to Tribe songs and a Madlib score. Throughout the film, it’s as if Rapaport deliberately avoids pursuing avenues that might lead to an interesting narrative arc. Among the many barely touched subjects with more potential for a story than the one we’re presented: White left the group to pursue his greater passion – the culinary arts; 1993’s Midnight Marauders practically had to be snatched from perfectionist Q-Tip’s hands (in one of the few insightful talking-head moments, Chris Lighty, Tribe’s label exec at the time, feared Q-Tip would pull an Axl Rose or Dr. Dre and take seven years to complete it).
Any of that minutiae could have been mined for more interesting material than the extended, maudlin segment on Phife’s battle with diabetes or the poorly defined beef from their 2008 reunion tour, during which, in front of thousands of jacked-up fans, Q-Tip implores Phife, hobbled by low blood sugar and literally leaning on Jarobi, to “look alive.” It’s a genuinely shocking moment, and Rapaport’s fly-on-the-wall camera capably captures the backstage drama and then cedes the floor to Q-Tip for a torturously long, self-pitying monologue. The hints of the now-solo star’s megalomaniacal tendencies dropped throughout the film seem finally ready to come to bear. Then, shockingly, Rapaport the fan fails Rapaport the filmmaker, and the film lets Q-Tip off the hook with a flash-forward to 18 months later.
The result is an unsatisfying, substance-deprived visual Wikipedia entry without even the benefit of a killer soundtrack. Considering the catalogue of Tribe and their affiliates – Native Tongues, Leaders of the New School, etc. – that’s a hip-hop crime.