Although as the group might say, it probably works best for the seasoned traveler, Beats, Rhymes And Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is nevertheless a welcome addition to the growing number of documentaries made in the past few years about classic bands, especially since it’s one of the few about hip-hop acts that’s worthy of its theatrical release. Director Michael Rapaport, granted considerable access to the daily lives of Tribe’s four members, creates a fascinating, detailed portrait of their collective and individual history, but for anyone vaguely familiar with their accomplished discography, it mostly plays better as a loving tribute than an incisive examination of the group.
While the contributions of Tribe to hip-hop history can’t be overestimated, to revisit the group in the way Rapaport does both augments and undermines the sort of artistic or social analysis the film could offer to someone unfamiliar with their music. It augments his portrait of Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, and Ali Shaheed Muhammed by offering unprecedented, deeply intimate access to the trio’s lives. And at the same time, even with a lengthy history lesson about their origins and career, the film is too reliant on existing familiarity to truly allow newcomers to experience the substance of their work. Consequently, when Q-Tip runs through the samples he used for “Can I Kick It,” for example, there’s a fascinating, revelatory feeling that audiences get from watching the alchemy of the group’s creativity, and at the same time, a slight feeling of redundancy for anyone who’s spent even five minutes reading the liner notes to their albums.
That’s not to say that the film is without new information. Even as a fan, I was largely unfamiliar with Jarobi’s role in the group, since to my knowledge he never had a verse or lyric on any Tribe recording, so it was definitely interesting to learn who exactly he was and where he fit into the group. And certainly each of the other members is given ample opportunities to discuss their own interests, and their own interpretation of the events leading up to the group’s breakup in the late ‘90s, and even their acrimonious split after reuniting to perform at Rock the Bells in 2008. But these are people not necessarily too protective, but they’re too close to it, and there’s really nobody who can lay out the conflicts and creative differences in an objective way. It’s telling that the person who describes it best is The Roots’ drummer Questlove, who explains how people who are so close can come to hate each other.
Mind you, I would have been happy to hear Tip, Phife and Ali talk about every one of their songs, discuss not only the samples but the evolution of their creativity and why they chose the unique elements that led to some of the most amazing and groundbreaking rap in the genre’s history. But Rapaport’s laserlike focus on the group’s history as a whole comes at the expense of some specifics, which is why astute viewers will notice a variety of little mistakes or oversimplifications; I mean, it’s probably of negligible importance to this film that Rapaport implies that De La Soul followed in Tribe’s footsteps when it definitively was the other way around, but as a fan of either group there’s a certain loyalty that makes you want to see their stories told as accurately and specifically as possible.
It might also have benefited the filmmakers to include more expert analysis or even anecdotes from folks who were either around, who were inspired by Tribe, or who studied hip-hop and could comment on their impact. As suggested above, Questlove is by far the most astute and insightful interviewee Rapaport speaks to outside of the group, but in the bonus materials, there were clearly other fans, including Ludacris, who were eventually edited out of the film. Instead, he includes the observations of folks like Pharrell, who have a decidedly greater recognition factor, but who have little more to say about them than offer effusive praise. Of course, on the commentary track, Rapaport offers many more details that presumably he couldn’t wedge into the film – for example highlighting the importance of Nu-clear Cleaners to the group’s history, as I was the location for their “Check The Rhyme” video. But he also spares no energy just talking about how cool and fun and awesome the groups are, and as a fan or newcomer to Tribe, you kind of want a little more.
Special features on the DVD include “Bringing Beats To Life,” “On The Red Carpet At The Los Angeles Film Festival Premiere,” deleted scenes, and the film’s theatrical trailer. “Bringing Beats,” rather than being a making-of for the film as a whole, examines how Rapaport recruited artists James Blagden and Phillip Niemeyer to create the hand-drawn animation that connects the different segments of the film. Truth be told this is pretty interesting, but what’s even better is Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No, Bladgen’s animated short film which originally introduced Rapaport to his work. Meanwhile, the “Red Carpet” featurette is pretty self-explanatory, and really just features some extra footage of folks both in the film and simply attending its premiere as they discuss Tribe’s legacy and impact.
The deleted scenes offer a few additional insights, including Questlove’s assessment of these long-term relationships between musicians, and lengthy interview footage featuring Ludacris and the Beastie Boys among others. But if the question wasn’t answered enough for you of whether or not the band will ever make music together again, one of the deleted scenes compiles all of the ambiguous, noncommittal answers the groupmates provided into one handy, unspecific response.
Ultimately, for my money, any of the books on the market now about the making of classic hip-hop albums would be more detailed and insightful than Rapaport’s film, mostly because they would concentrate on the creative decisions and focus less on group in-fighting. But as a well-rounded and remarkably entertaining look at a group who is overdue for mainstream recognition, this is a solid-well-executed film. Especially given the fact that so many rock & roll bands have been treated to the same sort of loving tributes and yet been less than half deserving, Beats, Rhymes and Life is definitely worthwhile viewing. Just make sure it’s not where your hip-hop education ends.
CraveOnline Rating – 7.5 out of 10