Movie Review - Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest
“Nothin' was touching Tribe. Nothing.” These words are spoken by producer phenom Pharell Williams in the trailer for Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, a new documentary about the beloved rap group A Tribe Called Quest that features up close interviews with the members of the group (Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and on-again off-again rapper Jarobi White) as well as their peers and students. Williams' awe at the game-changing power of Tribe's albums is all but echoed by every producer, musician, and major player in the film. And, as Mike D of the Beastie Boys explains, “...it was like party records, but with a consciousness.” Part of the flowering of positive, progressive hip-hop that was all but banished in the mid to late nineties by albums by artists obsessed with gunplay, empty bravado and thuggish ruggishness, it's clear from the group's continued resonance and popularity that an album like The Low End Theory is still a touchstone some twenty years later.
And taking into account the group's philosophy, it shouldn't come as a surprise to viewers that Beats, Rhymes & Life is lacking in “Behind The Music” drama that might include groupies, drug overdoses or buckets of money. Instead, we're privy to issues of creative control, a struggle with diabetes, and commentary on how fame and ambition can make and break friendships. A longtime actor, this is Michael Rappaport first foray into directing, given that you don't also include one episode of “Boston Public” filmed in 2004. It's difficult to say for sure if Rappaport's celebrity status made it easier in some respects for the group to open up with him – “Fame is a bitch,” Q-Tip might've said, before asking Rappaport to pass the Courvoisier – but taking that into account or not, the members of Tribe are very open with the director and the audience about their struggles keeping things cohesive.
We learn that the members of Tribe grew up in New York and became acquainted at an early age, and that their fledgling career was nourished by both commercial interest and likeminded artists, meaning that instead of starting their career broke and misunderstood, they were appreciated and well paid. So sidestepping the usual drama, we instead zoom in on the rocky relationship between Q-Tip and Phife. A controlling, type A sort completely obsessed with his art, Q-Tip has trouble empathizing or sometimes even understanding his partner in rhyme Phife Dog, whose love for hip-hop isn't as steadfast as his fellow lyricist. The schism is understandable - Phife's prognosis with diabetes becomes increasingly worse, and, like Jarobi, he has outside interests that lead his devotion to hip-hop to waver. Q-Tip, the auteur, the perfectionist, has no qualms about putting music first. Feelings get hurt, and the band's chemistry falters. It's a testimony to good music, longstanding friendships, or that sweet combination of both that Tribe is able to keep on keeping on, albeit on a limited scale.
Beats, Rhymes & Life is film that manages to both encapsulate the excitement and intelligence of “the golden age of hip-hop” without forgetting that the stories of the crew involved are just as integral part of the story as the inspiration of “Can I Kick It?”. Highly recommended.