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Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (DVD review)

Artist: A Tribe Called Quest


By Andrew Kay | 19 July 2011

Actor Michael Rapaport has had a spotty, chequered career. From his star turn in 1992’s interracial romance ‘Zebrahead’  to small roles in Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled’ and edgy thriller ‘Copland’, Rapaport’s unique looks have given him a steady career, even if, recently, his luck has seem to have run out, what with cancelled series’ and film roles drying up. But Rapaport is also, unashamedly, a fan of black music, specifically hip-hop and jazz. So it seemed appropriate, or maybe a case of appropriation, that he should want to do a documentary on underrated and somewhat elusive rap group A Tribe Called Quest.

To Rapaport’s credit this could have turned into a gushy homage fanboy type affair, but he manages to organically find the interesting tensions and conflicts therein, and we actually get a very insightful, balanced story of this most groundbreaking of hip-hop groups. 

The documentary begins with the story of how Q-Tip and Phife Dawg met (in church) around the famous, creative intersections of Queens, known as Linden and Farmers Blvds in the late 1980s - also the home of LL Cool J and the immortal Run DMC - Quest’s idols at the time. 

But like all good collaborators, this was based on a Ying and Yang perspective. Phife rhymed in a high pitch; Q-Tip was much lower pitched, sexier & creamier in his delivery. Q-Tip had natural good looks and the height to match; Phife looked like a cute, pintsized bruiser. 

What makes Phife sympathetic is his battle with diabetes, which is played out like a tragedy, but with Phife being as positive as he possibly can be. He realises that he was addicted to sugar, whether in fizzy drinks or chocolate bars and he just has to deal with the cards he’s been dealt by eating right and exercising. 

Q-Tip is portrayed as the Svengali type of character. He’s a demonic perfectionist.  At times, a bit of a prat too, it has to be said. But, to his credit, ATCQs unique sound and use of jazz samples is all Q-Tip; he has an ear for a beat, especially when he literally waxes lyrical about the merits of a certain jazz artist. He’s in his element amongst the dusty crates of a Tokyo record shop. Later on, we’re treated to the beat-digging  Q-Tip as he reveals the drum break for the seminal hit ‘Can I Kick It?’ from the ‘Drives’ Album by Lonnie Smith, before he used the ‘Liston’ in his name. 

Whereas Q-Tip is a maniacal perfectionist, trying to cohesively keep the group together - mainly by kicking Phife up the backside to get him to attend recording sessions - in contrast, Phife’s laidback attitude seriously winds Q-Tip up.  The film explains that Phife would turn up for recording sessions very late and would come in the booth, having just finished writing the lyrics on the way to the studio. This is brilliantly exemplified on ‘Buggin’ Out’, “Yo! Microphone check, one, two, what is this? The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business”. 

It’s also clear that Phife’s first love is basketball, not hip-hop. He matter-of-factly breaks down the lack of longevity in the art form in these days and times as a reason to stick to sports and not music. We see him passionately explain his favourite players, the tactical rules and what he hopes to achieve with his own basketball team that his very understanding wife has allowed him to indulge. 

There’s peripheral chatter as an aside from the Q-Tip V Phife saga from the other members of ATCQ: DJ Ali Shaheed Mohammed and Jarobi, who fill in the blanks, giving the documentary a lighter, unbiased perspective; Pharrell gets a little too excitable and Prince Paul gives a more measured enthusiasm when discussing a particular Quest record; Qwest Love from the Roots and the Beastie Boys bug out and reminisce; Chris Lighty, ex Violator management, and the head of Jive records round out the regular insight-givers with some interesting antidotes and zingers. 

Whilst you do get Rapaport doing off camera interviews with Q-Tip front and centre, he wisely doesn’t hog the limelight. Instead, he gets a fairly honest portrayal of Q-Tip, which, while it might not have made him look good, it nevertheless shows the contrasts between these two individuals.  Q-Tip’s well-publicised rant about him being portrayed negatively is pure posturing. Even with a good editor, Q-Tip always seems to come off a little arrogant, even though on record he’s quite the genius. 

You can see the trajectory of Q-Tip’s career and his creative apex being with A Tribe Called Quest. He never seemed to be as creative on his solo projects. It proves that when Q-Tip says “It’s about the group” when talking with De La Soul about his troubles with Phife that led to the band breaking up, he’s not kidding. 

As fascinating as this documentary is, as polished as it is, by the end you yearn to head to your turntable or CD player or IPod and blast, until eternity,  the first three albums, which are sublime, groundbreaking, genre-smashing, funky, head-nodding, heart-pulsing, living, breathing, collective artefacts of timeless musical perfection.

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