Saturday, May 26, 2012

Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Directed by Michael Rapaport.
2011. Rated R, 97 minutes.

Phife Dawg
Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Jarobi White
Afrika Baby Bam
Mike G

Angie Martinez
Chris Lighty
Monie Love
Black Thought
Bobbito Garcia
Mary J. Blige
Adam Yauch

Back in the days when I was a teenager, before I had status and before I had a pager (remember those?) you could find young Dell listening to hip hop, my mom used to say it reminded her of be-bop. True fans know this to be a paraphrase of the first verse of “Excursions,” the opening song on A Tribe Called Quest’s classic hip hop album “The Low End Theory.” Yes, I’m a true ATCQ fan. At a moment’s notice I can recite whole songs of theirs completely from memory. Obviously, Beats Rhymes & Life is a movie that I could not miss.

For those not in the know, ATCQ is composed of four members. Q-Tip is the face of the group. Initially, he handled most of the rapping. He also handled most, if not all of the production. Later, his lyrical role was reduced to pretty much half. More than any other, his fingerprints are all over the Tribe’s identity. Tip is a bit eccentric, very much so by hip hop standards. Phife does the rest of the rhyming. His much more muscular yet witty approach to the mic provides the gravity that keeps Tip from spiraling off into outer space. Ali Shaheed Muhammad is the group DJ. He keeps the live shows moving and eventually helped produce. Before this documentary, Ali never seemed to say much, except with his hands of course. Fourth member Jarobi is a mysterious figure to many tribe fans. He was visibly and audibly part of the crew at the beginning yet disappeared by the time their second album came out. He was spoken of, but hardly seen. However, he does travel with them on occasion.

We meet up with our heroes in 2008 on the “Rock the Bells” tour. The Tribe is headlining despite not having recorded together since their very public break-up a decade prior. Time has not healed all wounds. Q-Tip and Phife constantly teeter on the edge of a fist-fight. By this point in their relationship, everything Tip does irritates Phife on some level. Ali and Jarobi are pretty much caught in the crossfire, unable to help the situation. Director Michael Rapaport spends plenty of time getting the points of view of the two bickering parties. He also gives us some commentary from the other two members.

To reinforce the iconic status the group enjoys in hip hop culture various artists producers, industry folks speak about how ATCQ influenced them or their experiences with them. ATCQ devotees, such as myself, will delight in seeing the likes of Common, Pharrell, The Beastie Boys and Monie Love testify to the Tribe’s greatness. Fellow Native Tongues alums, The Jungle Brothers, are particular helpful since they were greatly involved in getting a record deal for ATCQ. The Native Tongues were a group of artist that often worked together and were an eclectic bunch with an afro-centric outlook, a great deal of social awareness but decidedly less militant than much of the rap music of the time. The most successful NT member, Queen Latifah, provides us with the most glaring absence. She has transcended the music to become one of the most recognizable women in the country, an Oscar nominated actress and best-selling author. She would provide us with something the movie is a bit lacking in: another person young people or those not necessarily Tribe fans would easily connect with. She’s mentioned and seen in old clips but does not appear and share any of her recollections.

People gushing over our heroes is nice, but not what keeps us intrigued. What does it is the same thing that drives all those episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music. We want to see what happens to people who grew up as friends and achieve success together to destroy their relationships. Here, like in most cases, it’s everyone’s fault to some degree. Phife seems tired of Tip’s controlling ways and sometimes envious of the attention his bandmate gets. Q-Tip often appears oblivious to what’s going on as it’s happening. Then, he feels blindsided when he finally realizes the problem. The two have an interesting dynamic that’s explored thoroughly. However, what we’re offered as a resolution isn’t one, at all. In light of where they are when things end, we need to be given more.

We also should have more of their personal lives. Phife has serious health issues which we spend lots of time on. However, we learn little or nothing about the other guys’ lives away from the stage. Is anyone besides Phife married? Anyone have kids? If their parents are still alive what do they have to say? There is a scene of Tip going back to his old high school and catching up with some of his former teachers. However, none of them get a moment to speak on their ex-pupil. They are merely props for him to interact with, more or less.

Beats Rhymes & Life overcomes its flaws to still be a very good documentary. For Tribe fans, and those of 90s hip hop, the nostalgia factor is off the charts. For younger viewers it gives insight into a legendary group they may not know much about even though many of the artists they currently listen to know plenty. For non-rap fans, it’s hard to say how much value this holds. Thankfully, Michael Rapaport does a nice job of making this a very human story of strained relationships. I’d again refer to Behind the Music. If you’re the type that watches that show regardless of who the artist is, you’ll enjoy this.

MY SCORE: 8/10

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