They’re the definition of chill, the harbingers of boom-bap drums and low-end groove. There is nothing quite like the music of A Tribe Called Quest.
From their New York emergence in the early ‘90s, innovation, intelligence and unparalleled chemistry forever set them apart.
MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg’s skill erupted not in what they said, but how they shaped it – adroitly sampling jazz loops contrary to the West Coast zeitgeist.
Actor turned time-director Michael Rapaport has succeeded with an ode of obvious affection, exercising his admiration of the hip hop outfit into a chronicled account of origin, importance and, until recently, reprieve and reunion.
Reverence for his subject is imperative, for if Rapaport’s film had suggested a condescending tone from its opening pulse, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest would have succumb to a VH1 retrospective compromise. It’s better than that.
Not to say it doesn’t have flaws. It just happens to resonate history from the streets through interviews from all four members, archival clips and the hypnotic animation interludes by artist Motion Theory.
Tribe – who originally broke up in 1998, only sporadically getting back together in recent years – made a bold move in allowing Rapaport to candidly document their creation and fragmentation at equal parameters.
The beginning of the film is like an upbeat mosaic, a celebratory kaleidoscope of hip-hop in the late ‘80s, largely focusing Q-Tip and Phife’s childhood alliance and their odyssey with funky cohorts Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
From their signing with Jive Records to their subsequent rise from Queens into the consciousness of listeners and critics, the film’s first half is awash in neon colours. It details the conception of their nocturnal masterpieces, The Low End Theory and it’s follow-up Midnight Marauders.
Accolades from industry heavyweights, such as Pharell and The Beastie Boys, come pleasantly, but perhaps too exaggerated in glorification.
Fast-forward to the present, where modern maestros like Kanye West or Common are jumping to share the mic with Q-Tip as he excels in his solo career, still enjoying the legacy of his tribesman past.
The film’s progression and editing is straightforward and absorbing, to say the least, going from beginning to bitter end, and back again with somewhat less acidity.
In later years we trace the paths of all four members, with primary focus set to Q-Tip, but also Phife and his medical issues associated with diabetes.
From one emotional event to another, it’s an interview with former member Jarobi, who breaks down in tears discussing his friend’s deterioration, that packs the most wallop and profoundness.
Moments of tension make the second half work. Although some portions awkwardly suffer in portraying the domesticated lives of the four men, the unraveling friendship between an ailing Phife and a reinvigorated Q-Tip are fascinating realisms confronted before our eyes.
Elevated by honest insights from within the sect, the film ultimately draws passion from behind the lens. Funny how Rapaport, a pale, redheaded New Yorker, could credibly infiltrate the acceptance of a hip hop insider.
Perhaps he should stick with directing – he might have the rhythm for it.