These days, “hip-hop” is almost as nebulous a descriptor as “rock and roll.” 30 plus years after its conception, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres crowd the sonic landscape, reducing what once succinctly summed up sound, theme and attitude to an umbrella term devoid of a concise, useful definition. In 2011, labeling a rap group “alternative” begs the question, “To what?” But when A Tribe Called Quest emerged in the late 1980s, their jazz samples and relaxed rhymes immediately contrasted the quartet with almost every other artist the young genre had produced. “It wasn’t so much being different,” said Phife Dawg, one of the group’s MC’s, in an interview. “I think the problem was that everyone else was so much the same.”
Unfortunately, “Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest”, a new documentary about the band, doesn’t explore this or the group’s role in pop music’s canon. Instead, it focuses on the nearly cliché relationship of Tribe’s members in a format so formulaic that VH1 deserves royalties. There’s a rise (Q-Tip, Phife and the lesser known members Ali Shaheed and Jarobi coming together to make some of the dopest rap records ever), fall (Q-Tip’s ego pushing Phife and the rest of the group away), and ultimate triumph (the group getting back together, sort of), and then the credits roll. Throw in concert footage and some superfluous quotes from other musicians that hyperbolically champion A Tribe Called Quest as the most important thing to happen in the entire history of music and you’ve got the film.
“Beats, Rhymes and Life”, which takes its name from the group’s fourth album, will undoubtedly engage fans of the group, but the film is nothing more than a live action Wikipedia page. The directorial debut of Michael Rapaport (you know him — the loud, redheaded actor from New York who is really good at playing loud, redheaded characters from New York), opens with an electrifying animation in the style of the group’s Low End Theory cover art. What follows is a combination of talking-head interviews and archival footage that detail the Tribe’s conception and reception and vérité style backstage footage, most of which comes from their 2008 Rock The Bells “reunion” tour.
The film spends a great deal of its 93-minute run time investigating the tense relationship between Q Tip and Phife Dawg. As Phife put it, “The title says it all. You can have the beats and rhymes, but you also have to have the life that surrounds it.” Best friends from an early age, Phife convinced Tip to start rapping, and eventually Tip convinced Phife that it was worth pursuing. “I introduced him to the game, he introduced me to the paper,” Phife says at one point. As the group history progresses, it becomes clear that Tribe is treated as “Q Tip and those other guys.” Obviously this doesn’t sit well with the members, and they break up. And then they get back together, and then they break up again. Its predictable drama, and often feels exaggerated for the sake of cinematic sensationalism. Far more interesting is the exploration of Phife’s diabetes-related health issues, which were problematic during their touring years and eventually necessitated a kidney transplant. That the rappers open up about such sensitive subjects so candidly exemplifies Rapaport’s greatest directorial strength; the established trust between filmmaker and subject.
Although Rapaport has stated that he wanted to document A Tribe Called Quest the same way that bands like the Beatles and the Stones have been, when asked why Tribe and why now, both he and Phife gave the same answer: “Why not?” Appropriately, the whole film has a “why not” feel to it. There are no grander themes presented beyond, “Hey, weren’t they great?” They absolutely were, but such a ground-breaking group deserves more than something so run of the mill.