I'm a big fan of A Tribe Called Quest — hell, as a white guy who attended a small liberal-arts college in the 1990s, I pretty much have to be. The MCs for this genre-altering New York rap group, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, were as perfectly matched a pair as Public Enemy's Chuck D and Flavor Flav. But where Public Enemy linked hip-hop and punk aggression, Tribe made Lou Reed and Lonnie Smith dance together. Their jazzy tunes got help from Ron Carter on bass. They chronicled unglamorous life in the city and believed in positivity, not negativity. The Source gave their first two albums perfect five-mic ratings.
Actor Michael Rapaport's new documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which assays the band's place in hip-hop history, is as spry and engaging as its subjects' best songs.
Through context-setting archival footage and affectionate sound bites from artists like Prince Paul, Pharrell Williams, and Roots bandleader ?uestlove, A Tribe Called Quest's classic tracks are given their due. Former Hot 97 DJ Angie Martinez's appreciative explanation of the shy, respectful love-man groove powering their single "Bonita Applebaum" highlights the band's talent for dressing up wry sexual come-ons with jazz-influenced drum loops and other samples from their parents' record collection. Phife's epochal opening verse on the song "Buggin' Out" is parsed and recited like the words of the Prophet. There's some streetwise scholarly study, too, courtesy of the wizened Beastie Boys. They discuss a memorable line from "Electric Relaxation" that's both a subtle allusion to a Long Island furniture store and a gross pun.
Such appreciations may be touched with nostalgia, but they're right on point. Tribe's mellow, medium-tempo music has aged very well. Because they were young bohos who wrote about everyday travails and largely stayed personal-not-political, their easygoing, mature hip-hop didn't date. They crafted the kind of hip-hop you'd play to convert people who swear rap isn't any good.
But middle age, as it turns out, ain't that great for everybody in A Tribe Called Quest. Beats, Rhymes and Life spends plenty of time following Q-Tip, who has kept busy since the group's 1998 breakup. Tip is comfortable and content in his roles as obsessive crate-digger and hip-hop lifer. But Phife, a.k.a. Malik Taylor, is a wreck. Turns out that Phife's lyric about being a "funky diabetic" was no joke. He appears in the film as a type-one diabetic with a sugar jones who's saddled with cash and health problems galore. All the praise other MCs have heaped on him can't soothe his anger and resentment. His lack of direction is palpable.
The other two Tribe members, DJ Ali-Shaheed Mohammad and "spiritual presence" Jarobi White, come off as level-headed guys who can't figure out why the band can't get it together. The mysterious beef that ultimately separated these two gifted MCs (something about Q-Tip's perfectionism and Phife's poor diet) casts a pall over their 2008 reunion. Reunion money looks like it will always be there for them, but for all the good times they've had, this is still a band apart.
Opening Friday, August 26th