Beats and bad vibes

Joyfully, uncomfortably, rhythmically:
At 2008’s Rock the Bells, I watched a schlubby white guy in a track jacket following A Tribe Called Quest with a video camera. I thought to myself, “Now that guy looks familiar. And very serious.” I was right on both counts. He was familiar. And serious. In fact, it was the serious actor Michael Rapaport (of Zebrahead, Friends and Prison Break fame).

Turns out, he was making a documentary—Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest—about A Tribe Called Quest, everybody’s favorite hip-hop group. I know, I know; that’s a huge statement to make—and it’s journalistically wrong to use the term “everybody”—but in my nonscientific study that’s lasted 20 years, I’ve yet to find a hip-hop fan who dislikes Tribe’s music. Even the mildly racist, fully mentally retarded cowboy who I met at a bar in Reno found solace in the song “Bonita Applebum.” Case closed.

Anyway, in what had to be a tiresome, grueling effort, Rapaport not only pieced together 25 years of beautiful Tribe history into a concise 90-minute film—a private screening was held at Sol Collective on last Friday to a crowd of around 40 people—but he refused to leave anything out. And like most groups that span two-and-a-half decades, there are pieces to Tribe’s history that simply aren’t pretty to look at.

For instance, the film delves into Phife Dawg’s (Malik Taylor) struggle with childhood onset diabetes, which sends his group-mate Jarobi White into a fit of tears during one of the on-camera interviews. The film answers questions regarding Tribe’s much talked about breakup in 1998—specifically, the personality clashes that led to the group’s demise. While deejay/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad looks on helplessly, like a frustrated father, Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed) and Phife fight like Balki Bartokomous and his cousin Larry on a tense episode of Perfect Strangers.

Rapaport delves into why the album Beats Rhymes & Life was such a festering piece of shit, and Phife gives his statement on today’s hip-hop: “I could do with or without it,” he says. Ouch.

Part of the film’s magic is watching other musicians like Pharrell Williams and the Beastie Boys geek out on Tribe’s ability to create perfect hip-hop songs. The other fascinating part is simply getting that much closer to the group that single-handedly changed the way hip-hop was recorded, performed and perceived by the public. Beats, Rhymes & Life captures all the meaning, soul, purpose, talent, originality and joy of A Tribe Called Quest as musicians.

In one of the most poignant scenes, Q-Tip explains in spine-tingling detail the making of the song “Can I Kick It?” If you’re still convinced that hip-hop is not music, this film might actually change your mind.

Yeah, there are flaws. It would have been nice to hear more of Jarobi’s story, like the part that goes, “Wait, who the fuck is Jarobi, again?”

But, really, Rapaport leaves no stone unturned, and it’s fun to see what creatures crawl out from under the rocks. Like at their performance at 2008’s Rock the Bells, where a strange (but obvious) bad vibe plagued the group as Rapaport followed them with his handheld camera. Phife looked uncomfortable. Q-Tip moved around the stage with a constipated grin. It was a great show (just to see a group that I never thought I’d get to see live on a stage), but something was off about Tribe’s connection with each other, with the audience.

I’d hoped the weirdness would all be explained by the documentary. And thanks to Rapaport’s keen understanding of hip-hop, it was. Thoroughly. Joyfully. Uncomfortably. Rhythmically.