Sunday, June 19, 2011

Michael Rapaport's Beats Rhymes & Life | Review

A couple of nights ago, I included Werner von Wallenrod's review of Michael Rapaport's ATCQ documentary, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, on the latest installment of the Rap Round Table. Between then and now I've seen the documentary and thought I'd share my two cents. (I suggest you read Werner's take on the film before proceeding further.)

Spanning just over an hour and a half, Beats Rhymes & Life begins with footage from Tribe's 2008 concert in Seattle, followed shortly by the backstage scene of a visibly frustrated Q-Tip commenting on the end of the group. "It's over." Rapaport hits you with that initial sequence of conflict leaving the viewer asking him/herself "why is it over?" The film progresses with the story of Tribe being pieced together, recollecting a young Phife Dawg getting into emceeing and convincing his childhood best friend, Q-Tip, to follow suit. The film documents the rich legacy of artists hailing from Queens, New York, all the way up to hip hop pioneers Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J - Tribe's "idols." In the words of Jarobi: "Queens puts out legends." The film goes on to detail Tribe's first encounter with the man who helped put them on, DJ Red Alert.

The film's got plenty of great footage that a rap nerd would enjoy. One key segment shows Q-Tip waxing nostalgic over a record, Lonnie Smith's 1970 LP Drives, sampled on Tribe's debut album and third official single, "Can I Kick It?" Tip wistfully recollects snagging the record for five bucks at a shop on W. 26th St. called Jazz Record Center. Other insightful moments include a portion from an interview with producer Pharrell Williams, who discusses the impact "Bonita Applebum" had on him, commenting: "I was obsessed with it. I had never heard nothing like that in my whole life. And that's where I changed." The breakdown of Phife's "Seaman's Furniture" line on "Electric Relaxation" provides plenty of laughs as does his support for the L.A. Lakers in lieu of the N.Y. Knicks. Tip jokingly chides in "a lot of New Yorkers can take this as an offense", to which Phife responds "that's 'cause we've been losing for quite a long time."

To Werner's credit, there's a lot of seemingly crucial information that isn't addressed in the documentary, including each artists' solo ventures, with exception to a brief mentioning of Q-Tip's Renaissance album. Also, as pointed out by Werner, involvement by Tribe pals Jay Dee (a.k.a. J Dilla) and Consequence are no more than hinted at during the film. The latter point doesn't disappoint too much since, after all, the film is really about the relationships between the four members of the group, with the conflict between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg taking the front seat, leaving Ali and Jarobi in the back or, more appropriately, caught "in the middle." In Werner's review, he comments that "it seems like the second half of this documentary was discarded in favor of celebrity gossip." He continues: "I feel like the great documentary has been switched off, and somebody's changed the channel to a trashy reality TV show made for the E! channel instead." I couldn't disagree more. Dissecting the group's genesis and conflict is the thesis of the documentary. I believe this what is meant by The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. It isn't fair to critique a project for what you expect it to be like.

I suppose I was ignorant to the conflict(s) that led to ATCQ being disbanded for all these years since The Love Movement. The film certainly hipped me to the root of these problems though, going to great lengths to flesh out the causes of Tribe's collapse, noting Phife's battle with diabetes, his move to Atlanta, the emergence of big egos and the overall reduced unity amongst the members. There's a significant moment in the film in which Phife compares A Tribe Called Quest to The Supremes, accusing Q-Tip of taking a Diana Ross-like role above the group. The film goes on to feature footage of a verbal dispute between Phife and Q-Tip. I'd assume that the film's inclusion of Q-Tip's use of the word "faggoty", directed to Phife, would be his number one critique of the film. Was it gratuitous on Michael Rapaport's part to include this segment? Not at all. As the viewer, I actually appreciated Rapaport's attempt to shrug off the candy coating one might expect from a film documenting a music group with the perception - justified or not - of being "soft", at least as far as hip hop goes. The film doesn't shy from getting its hands dirty and cut to the heart of the subject: why can't Tribe get it (back) together? Again, I appreciated the brutal honesty.

Beats Rhymes & Life leaves the viewer with more questions than questions answered. I believe this was entirely intentional. At one point in the film, Phife Dawg languishes: "I love hip hop but at the rate it's going right now, I could do with or without it." Conversely, the film concludes with the following captions: "A Tribe Called Quest has not released an album since 1998. They still have one album remaining on their original 1989 contract with Jive Records." Will they? Won't they? Probably not. But maybe... The film leaves the door wide open - as it should.