Dir. by Michael Rapaport - 1 hr. 37 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
If you're not familiar with A Tribe Called Quest, I'm not sure you can call yourself a rap fan. As Pharrell Williams himself states in the movie (whom you might know from songs like Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" or Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," to name two of a billion you've heard of), Tribe was the musical father to people like himself, J Dilla, and Kanye West. If you're not into rap, Tribe is the kind of group that might change that. They were the first (for my money) to incorporate jazz into hip-hop successfully and sustain it, they didn't rap about clubs and cars. Ah hell, take three or four minutes and watch their video for "I Lost My Wallet in El Segundo."
"Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" is the story of this group of musicians; Q-Tip (the charismatic leader), Phife Dawg (the second rapper, yin to Tip's yang), Ahi Shaheed Muhammad (the quiet DJ and sometimes peacemaker), and sometimes member Jarobi. In the early 1990s, A Tribe Called Quest was a very big deal indeed. They, along with other groups, were spearheading a new kind of hip-hop, one that still resonates today. Of course, as with any group of musicians, things don't go as smoothly as one might think. The main time-frame where director Michael Rapaport followed the band around was a particularly tumultuous one: they had reunited to headline the Rock the Bells tour in 2008, after a number of years had passed from their active days as a recording unit (their last album was released in 1998), but hadn't really addressed any of the issues that had come between them.
Every music documentary has to take the "Behind the Music" challenge: is there a reason for this to be a film instead of another episode of the long-running show? In this case, I'd say yes. First up, there's a lot of performance footage (although I don't remember any full performances, the movie wasn't unsatisfying in that way). Secondly, it was necessary to establish the time and scene that ATCQ came out of. They were big, and they were influential, but it's not as if they ever reached the level of Prince or Michael Jackson. So some explanation is necessary. Thirdly, how much (and how openly) does the movie address whatever caused their downfall? Although all the members pretty much admit that they think the band ran it's course at the time, there was still some beef between Phife and Q-Tip. It's tempting to delve into armchair psychology here, but one of the biggest issues was Phife's health (and not managing his diabetes as well as he could have). It seems like Phife wishes that no one knew about it, but when an adult misses shows (at times, I don't think it was a big deal) and looks frail, questions are going to be asked. Q-Tip seems not to be aware that Phife doesn't want people to know about it, and there is a ton of anger shown over the course of the interviews from Phife towards Q-Tip. Tip, for the most part, seems content just to play music, whether or not it's with Tribe or own his own. Like I said, armchair psychology is very tempting, but speaking as someone who's been sick, not having your health messes with everything in your life, including your relationships and your sense of self.
This movie fills an interesting niche - it's not like Tribe is unknown, this isn't the story of a band that's been overlooked unfairly. Nor is it a glimpse at a band that dominated the world; I'm pretty sure that when Tribe's first album came out, Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer were killing it on the charts and in record stores. It's just the story of a really good band, and if you're into them (or this brand of music), "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" is a must see. This movie also accomplishes what every good music doc must: it put this band's catalog back into my listening rotation. It's not like I didn't listen to them (I have all of their albums, and if you're going to watch this film, you probably should too, or get ready to abuse your credit card on iTunes) previously, but after a quick reminder of how great they are, I need to hear their material all over again. Even though the film does address the beefs that each member has with one another, it never loses sight of how great the music is. There's a great, brief scene near the end of the film where Busta Rhymes pops into their rehearsal space, and they all just stand there, listening to one of Tribe's songs, bobbing their heads together. That's the whole thing in a nutshell, right there.
3.5 / 5 - TV (HD)