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Art and Craft

An object lesson in how to make a good documentary —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Beats, Rhymes and Life looks a lot like other rock docs, complete with personality conflicts, breakups, reunions, addiction, and a possible comeback tour in Japan.

The Tribe

The tribe reunites for Phife Dawg's health
The tribe reunites for Phife Dawg’s health

A Tribe Called Quest is an east-coast rap group from the mid-80s known more for party jams than socio-political commentary. As one friend of the Tribe said, “we don’t have to be ‘fuck the police’; we don’t have to be ‘fight the power.’”

They grew up immersed in hip hop culture. They speak about the weekly radio shows of DJ Red Alert with reverence — the way Martin Scorsese talks about seeing Powell and Pressburger films broadcast on the “Million Dollar Movie” TV show. It’s not surprising that they emerged at the same time and in the same place as De La Soul and Jungle Brothers.

The tribe consists of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali. A fourth member, Jarobi White, left early to pursue a family and culinary career, but he’s here for interviews. Phife and Q-Tip are like brothers, with Ali showing a more independent streak. (The band reminded me of Fishbone, featured recently in their own documentary.) Phife and Q-Tip are the closest of friends, so naturally most of the conflict happens between them. Q-Tip comes across as a natural leader. Phife works hard and has talent but seems to fall into a supporting role, and that seems to pique his sense of unfairness. He blames Q-Tip for deliberately stealing the limelight, but to me it looked like it just came more naturally to Q-Tip.

Phife is the band member with an addiction, but it’s not what you think. Phife is diabetic. (A casually-tossed lyric “from the funky diabetic” clued in observant fans to his condition.) He has had problems managing his energy, and he calls his use of sugar an addiction. The film’s latest reunion and conflict (in 2008) has to do with Phife’s need for a kidney.


Director Michael Rapaport walks us through their career chronologically, punctuating the film with chapters based on album releases. Throughout, he comes back to the love/hate relationship between Phife and Q-Tip.

The thing that Rapaport never quite achieves is explaining why A Tribe Called Quest deserves his attention, as opposed to Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, LL Cool J, or anyone else. A fellow critic remembered someone in the movie comparing A Tribe Called Quest to Charlie Parker. But Rapaport doesn’t explain what exactly Tribe did for hip hop that was as groundbreaking as what Parker did for jazz.

Still, for fans of the band, Beats, Rhymes and Life is worth seeing. For those of us who were more into the rappers who said “fight the power,” the movie is a decent introduction to a group that may not have been on the radar.

And for people who don’t like hip hop at all, Beats, Rhymes and Life can probably safely be ignored.

  • ej: that sucks that you don't understand what tribe did to the game and how they were one of the most influential rap groups of the their time. if you ever got their music i think this review would be on its head different. the movie did explain how tip brought jazz to the forefront of hip with sampling much in the way that paul revere for the beastie boys was groundbreaking in the sheer amount of records they sampled, tribe brought the groove through old jazz records. there was a whole section where Common and Pharrell touched on this that apparently you didn't get. unfortunately for you "fight the power" rap is the only old school side that you see and respect. but rap as an art form, just like movies doesn't exist on one plane of existence. it's a shame you didn't get this movie... July 23, 2011 reply
    • Marty Mapes: If Tribe really were as groundbreaking in hip hop as Charlie Parker was in jazz, I think the movie could have done a much better job explaining it. Two of the interview subjects said something about that groundbreaking aspect, but Rapaport never stopped to illustrate it: "here's what was happening in hip hop before Tribe (plays representative track) here's what Tribe added (plays representative track) and listen to what happened a year later (obvious influence of Tribe).

      I've started a Pandora radio station based on A Tribe Called Quest after seeing this documentary. They haven't completely won me over yet, but I like it pretty well. July 24, 2011 reply
  • Dope rhymes over a break beat: i don't understand your perspective on hip hop so I won't try to judge your review. growing up with Public Enemy, NWA, Guerrillas in the mist and many of the other "fight the power" artists I think tribe's divergence from the genre in the late 80's and early 90's was one of the main reasons hip hop grew into the broad genre it is today. De la Soul was good, JB brought it too but few hip hop heads mention them in the same breath as tribe. Quest showed hip-hop that it was possible to make beautiful music without being angry, without raising guns, without being misogynistic to women just music about fun. without tribe I wonder if there would have been common sense, fugees, the roots, murs and 9th wonder Talib or Mos Def or many other the conscious rappers of the 90's and today. your Pandora station won't explain that but I'd encourage you to look up interviews with Lauryn Hill, Biggie Smalls, and common sense (before he was just Common). their opens and mine are of the group not the Doc but it might give you a more informed view of their influence on hip hop. May 5, 2012 reply