REVIEW OF BEATS RHYMES AND LIFE
By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Tuesday, February 14, 2012.
There’s something missing in Michael Rapaport's documentary about the seminal rap crew A Tribe Called Quest. Documentary and story telling skills are there for this first time director – although the handheld camera and fly-on-the wall observer techniques are overtly intimate. Extensive interviews are also just on the right side of being incisive supported by footage recording hip hop’s golden age that brings back special memories.
But absent are heart and passion - the main ingredient you could say – that made the Queens, New York’s rap collective legendary. The mostly Tribe soundtrack is homage for sure, and the animated sequences recall The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders album art. But only just skimmed are explorations of the creative process behind these two influential rap albums, or the classic People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm which preceded them and the crew’s two final albums or the cultural, social and political environment which nurtured them.
So what a choice for the first time director? Rapaport is a fan of old school hip hop – “since the days of Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie” - making a film about the monumental and still influential ATCQ (A Tribe Called Quest). And this documentary presents Rapaport the opportunity to focus the camera on a different angle of Tribe's story – more human interest, maybe less so for rap/hip hop junkies.
So, what does a filmmaker choose?
Rapaport, a former star of the multi-awards winning comedy Friends, select human interest. But was that the best choice? The rivalry and tension between Tip and Phife as the core of this documentary, only serves to minimise the influence, skills and dynamic contributions to hip hop culture that this ground-breaking group made.
As a dramatic device, Rapaport’s rendition is effective for sure, but it relegates the history and evolution of Tribe to a secondary matter. And in any case – isn’t the essence of being in a band of musicians or cultural performers, disagreement, tension, battling out issues of creativity and artistic direction? This documentary's focus on Phife’s medical problems only spotlights just how much Rapaport’s choice overshadows the creative genius from which grew The Low End... and Midnight…
It means then that fans of Tribe may most likely be left wanting more, much more! In another film-maker’s hands, I suspect we would have got this. And listening to the film’s talking-heads from the past and the present – Pos and Dave from De La Soul, Ahmir and Tariq from the Roots, Common, Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, Pharell, Red Alert, Prince Paul, and Large Professor - it’s clear that respect for the Midnight Marauders is deep.
Bookended by bitter exchanges between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg during a comeback tour; with a brief epilogue charting a touching reconciliation 18 months later - in between we get the history of the group. And this is the 95 minute film’s strongest attribute. Because in this well-researched footage, this film work does stand up superbly.
We soon realise the elements of Tribe’s skills - sonic sampling and creating breaks and beats culled from Shaheed and Tip’s eclectic musical passion. Lyrically, Tribe clearly voiced both the sentiments of the time and maintained a focus in the here and now. The group culturally reflects the styles, trends and nuances of that period. Even now with a decade and more elapsed since the release of their final album, this film reveals Tribe’s sharp understanding of the psyche and culture of hip hop through the group’s innovative beats and creative samples, in addition to its precision sharp lyrics. In this film, these qualities all sound right up to date.
Always illuminating, this documentary often offers raw and spellbinding segments that chart the emergence of hip hop culture in the late 1970s and 1980s, and interviews with all four Tribe members shine even more light on this golden age. Kamaal ‘Q-Tip’ Fareed – personifying his Abstract Poetic alter ego - cerebral, erudite, sensitive; Malik ‘Phife Dawg’ Taylor, the gritty, energetic 5-foot Assassin and Funky Diabetic; the quietly authoritative Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and the often elusive but vital spirit of Jarobi White.
However, only skirted over was the seminal role played by ATCQ in illuminating a crucial pillar of the scene - the Afrocentric, and socially progressive flavour of the era. Here, Rapaport tells the story of the Native Tongues clique of like minded artists – amongst them De La Soul, Monie Love, Jungle Brothers, and Queen Latifah - who elevated rap from one plateau to another newer and fresher level. But because this is trivialised in a throwaway section - as a penchant for wearing ‘strange clothes’ and kente cloth [read African inspired or Afrocentric] even as reportage it misses the point. Leave it to Tribe to actually articulate that "a black nation without black unity" is the sentiment behind what this documentary interprets as ‘weird’ dress sense.
It seems like a long time ago that rap and hip hop meant something, spoke to us about our lives and existence, about our personal and social and political lives. Hip hop then captured a feeling, a spirit and energy – the affirmative sentiment articulated by Tupac when he said that listening to Marvin Gaye made him feel that: ‘being Black was the thing to be’.
And since ATCQ's demise we have seen the emergence of commercially-driven, commodified rap and hip hop’s shiny suited rappers - mostly gutted of any meaning, stripped of significance beyond sensationalism and profanity; devoid of much creativity with mostly vulgar minstrelsy prevailing. How much we need Tribe now, how much more we needed to know what they meant then!
Although Rapaport’s Grammy nominated documentary has already been [deservedly] awarded Best Documentary Feature at the LA Film Festival, and received praise from the Producers Guild of America, we should view this as a taster and wait for the main course.
Beats Rhymes and Life: Travels With a Tribe Called Quest  [95 minutes]
Director Michael Rapaport
Cast: Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi White
Sony Pictures Classics
At Doc House Thursdays
Monday 20th February, 6.30pm
London E8 1EH
0871 902 5734
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.