Tuesday, 18 October 2011
Beats, Rhymes and Life
By Alan Bacchus
The story of A Tribe Called Quest gets a comprehensive documentary treatment from the colourful character actor and former super-fan Michael Rapaport. His love of this band’s signature smooth rap music and the unique and exciting era of hip hop music from which they grew are infused in this film. For those already converted, it probably fits one’s expectations. But for non-hip hoppers and anyone not between the ages of 25 and 35, a crucial thematic throughline prevents it from being fully accessible.
The story starts in the mid ‘80s, when rap was a burgeoning music and cultural movement in New York; when young music fans found a way to lay hip rhyming lyrics over break beats and riffs from other songs to create a new form of artistic expression. This is what happened to neighbourhood school chums Kamaal Ibn John Fareed (aka Q-Tip), Malik Taylor (aka Phife Dawg), Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White, who would in their teens form A Tribe Called Quest. Rapaport brings these four guys back to their humble beginnings in Queen’s to recount their relatively quick rise toward their first record deal in 1989.
Rapaport expertly puts us into 'the scene' at that time, when a number of artists from New York with a similar sound created their own musical collective movement known as Native Tongues. Instead of expressing anger and aggression, like groups such as Public Enemy and NWA did, Tribe and its contemporaries, such as De La Soul and Black Sheep, expressed a more soulful reflection of their African-American cultural experience.
The most important information in the film comes from other hip hop artists, including Beastie Boys, Common and Pharrell Williams, who articulate with clarity the transformative experience Tribe’s music provided them. In particular, they discuss specific songs, beats or lyrics that made a lasting impression on them. Their enthusiasm fuels our enthusiasm and provides the modern contextualization of Tribe’s influence on their own music.
The prevailing story within this story is the slow burning conflict between the band’s two main players, Q-Tip, the producer/celebrity presence of the group, and Phife Dawg, Q-Tip’s childhood friend and lyrical partner. During separate interviews with them, the film reveals a strong lingering antagonism that caused the band to break up in 1998. Rapaport even manages to find cinematic gold by capturing a dramatic flare-up of this conflict 10 years later during their reunion tour.
Phife Dawg and Q-Tip are terrific yin and yang personalities. Q-Tip is the suave, charming and handsome leader, who rose to stardom on his own, and Phife Dawg, the smaller-in-stature underling who could only live with Q-Tip’s control fascination for so long. The tit for tat jabs at one another are strong and passionate, but in the grand scheme of things petty and childish. This is the irony of the creative process, as strong opposing forces sometimes have the power to create great works of art and destroy the strongest of relationships at the same time.
Beats, Rhymes and Life is available on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.