This may be the most partial review I have ever wrote. Not because some suit threw money at me or I have personal stake in the project, but rather because I am a HUGE fan of A Tribe Called Quest. Born and raised in Queens, NY, I was introduced to the neighborhood legends by my cousin and it immediately made an impact in my life (I realize it sounds stupid that a seven year old had this life changing moment in music, but it’s true). Since that eye opening day, their entire discography is a mainstay on my iPod, I’ve named my dog Q-Tip (after the ATCQ frontman), and I got a near perfect score on Def Jam’s Rap Star performing “Scenario” (possibly the hardest song in that game). Needless to say, A Tribe Called Quest is The Beatles to me.
So when I heard that Michael Rapaport (yes, THAT Michael Rapaport) was creating a documentary following A Tribe Called Quest on their final tour and that Q-Tip had some sort of issue with their portrayal in the film, I was immediately interested to see what all the hullabaloo was about . Instead what I found was a film that helped me achieve a deeper understanding of why ATCQ had to break up when they did and managed to bring back that same feeling I got when I was a snot nosed little brat listening to the Tribe for the first time.
So with that being said … Microphone check 1, 2 what is this?
For those who have never listened to A Tribe Called Quest album, you must suffer from some sort of mental affliction. Being that you have no taste in good music whatsoever, allow me to learn you.
A Tribe Called Quest is a hip hop group comprising of Q-Tip, Pfife Dawg, DJ Ali Shaheed and sometimes Jarobi (and also technically Consequence, but that’s a different story). They specialized in a Hip Hop/Jazz infusion that was conscious with a slight hint of afro centricity. Spanning a career of five albums as well as contribution to the Native Tongues movement, A Tribe Called Quest was responsible for a movement in hip hop that was less about gangbanging or political uprise and moreso about enjoying life and make it relatable to the common man.
Speaking as someone who’s followed the band since childhood, I can say director Michael Rapaport has a clear understanding of who A Tribe Called Quest is and what makes them so special. Ranging from childhood to their most recent reunion at the Rock The Bells Tour, Rapaport manages to cover the in between with a sense of sincerity and homage. Like the viewer (most likely) and every guest in the film, we’re all fans of the music, and with that regard Rapaport handles their legacy quite effortlessly by recapping pivotal moments and popular songs/videos from the group expansive catalog.
But this isn’t essentially a promo about how awesome ATCQ is, rather it’s about their imminent break up and the madness behind it. Originally titled Beats, Rhymes & Fights (way better title), Rapaport follows the band during the last leg of their 2007 Rock The Bells Tour and delves into the reason of why they broke up in the first place after their last album The Love Movement released in 1998. We go on to discover that there’s been a long history of dissent within the band, moreso between Pfife and Q-Tip (with Ali constantly acting as moderator). Rapaport does a good job presenting both sides of the story, never really taking sides in the ongoing rivalry. Whenever conversing with members of the group (always separately, never really together), there’s almost a sense of bitterness and hostility that meshes wonderfully with nostalgia and regret, providing each member with a platform to get everything off their chest. In the end it becomes less about disbanding an influential hip hop group and more about the shame of losing a friendship. It’s all wrought with emotion and sincerity that’s both blunt and completely truthful.
A good chunk of the film also delves into Pfife Dawg and his ongoing battle with Diabetes and his need for a kidney transplant. While diabetes isn’t as lethal as something like cancer and completely manageable with proper treatment, it’s made interesting due to the fact that Pfife Dawg is a “sugar addict” and does a sh*tty job not taking care of himself. While I laughed and scoffed at comparisons to sugar being like a drug, I must say it was emotional to see Pfife so sick that he could barely perform as well as seeing someone battle a “sugar addiction” and how that ailment effects the group dynamic.
The only misstep in what is otherwise a solid rock doc is the glossing over of the last two albums of the catalog. Though they’re the worst of the five albums, I still felt there was a lot to talk about as far as music direction and the addition of rapper Consequence to the group. As a result of this omission, the documentary felt rather short as it followed a linear path through the discography and spent little time on the turmoil of the band and Pfife’s ailment. There’s nothing wrong with following a linear path throughout the film (like most rock docs), but it would’ve been nice to see Rapaport jazz it up a bit more.
All in all, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is a must see for any fan of ATCQ. In turn, fans of hip hop would do themselves justice in learning about one of the most influential groups to the genre. As for those not really into the genre, there’s just enough here to warrant watching a group of guys who have been friends since adolescence have wild success doing what they would normally be doing, only to have their kinship ruined by the troubles of the industry. Done with the utmost sincerity and respect for the music, Rapaport has crafted a retrospective that serves as an homage to a band that despite their trials & tribulations were able to make a lasting mark in the music world.