A (clashing) Tribe Called Quest

Review: ’Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest’
Q-Tip. Photo by Robert Benavides, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

IN TEN WORDS OR LESS: Worth watching, but leaves you wanting more

You don’t need to love high-speed dubbing (or know what it is), to enjoy this documentary. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is an engaging, dramatic portrayal of iconic hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, even if it sometimes feels like a big screen version of MTV’s Behind the Music. Brought to you by first-time director and actor Michael Rapaport, Beats is a collage of concert footage, backstage drama and present-day interviews with ATCQ members, as well as an impressive roster of well-known musicians, all set to a satisfying soundtrack of the group’s hits.

First, let’s get the controversy out of the way: this doc was released amid a kerfuffle between Rapaport and his subjects. The band, who were initially supportive, ultimately disagreed with Rapaport’s direction. Half of them didn’t show up to the L.A. premiere. Band member Q-Tip went so far as to voice his lack of support over Twitter. The hate seems to have died down a bit, though, after Q-Tip has explained himself and Rapaport has said that they’ve agreed to disagree. Okay, let’s move on to the film.

In 1985, A Tribe Called Quest was formed by a group of teenagers from Queens who called themselves Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Their flavour of danceable, conscious hip hop caught on in a big way, influencing other bands and ultimately earning them a reputation as hip hop pioneers. In one interview, Pharrell Williams stresses how artists like himself and Kanye West wouldn’t be where they are today without ATCQ.

As far as narratives go, it’s a familiar one in the music world. Band does well, band soars to fame, band fights, band breaks up, band reunites for practical reasons. Q-Tip and Phife are the group’s Lennon and McCartney. At one point during their reunion tour, they have it out in a pre-show backstage fight while the cameras are rolling. Phife appears to feel that Q-Tip is too controlling, as well as insensitive to his health problems. Phife, we learn, has Type 1 diabetes, and is plagued by an addiction to sugar. On the whole, he’s portrayed as the lovable, albeit chronically underprepared sidekick. Q-Tip, on the other hand, comes off as a steely, somewhat callous frontman. At one point, he admits to having “no qualms” about performing ATCQ hits after Phife has left the group. While the health plotline appears central to explaining the band’s demise, it also feels as if the two have simply outgrown each other.

When we meet the group in present day, over 25 years after their formation, the magic has definitely faded. Phife seems more interested in his new basketball scouting gig and Q-Tip appears invigorated by his solo career. The reunion comes across as contrived and bizarre—Japanese fans wave homemade “Linden Blvd.” signs (that’s a street in Queens) in an overflowing Tokyo stadium while the band bounces to its old hits—and it feels like some of the big questions are left unanswered. Is international stadium-pleasing ATCQ’s fate? Will they record another album? (Rapaport notes that they still owe Jive Records one album.) Are Phife and Q-Tip jiving again or just begrudgingly cooperating to make some money? Perhaps the doc just needed a couple more years to let the story continue to unfold.

Regardless, the film is a visual and aural feast. Rapaport creates a gorgeously stylized homage to the colours, sounds and images that typify hip-hop’s Golden Age. The graphic illustrations and moving photo montages evoke the attitude of the ’80s hip hop era without encasing it in glass. Whether this is the end of ATCQ or just the kick in the pants they needed—remains to be seen.