After hip-hop was all about blasting the sucka MC’s and before it focused on name-checking Louis Vuitton and Cristal, there was A Tribe Called Quest. And while audiences didn’t initially know what to make of their kente-cloth ensembles and Dwayne Wayne eyewear, their unique sound made them a huge breakout success in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
So what happens 20 years later when the public clamors for a reunion tour and two of the group’s four members are having a tiff?
That’s the spine of “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest,” a joyous new documentary that follows the quartet from their childhood friendship to a rancorous series of concert dates in 2008 and beyond.
Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White each brought something different to the table when they first formed the Tribe, and observers like Pharell Williams and the Beastie Boys attest to the impact that ATCQ had on them, with Common going so far as to say that Q-Tip was to hip-hop what Charlie Parker was to bebop.
Under the direction of actor Michael Rapaport (“Prison Break,” “The War at Home”), “Beats, Rhymes & Life” plays like the smartest, deepest episode of “Behind the Music” ever, one where all the participants were willing to give in-depth interviews and own up to both their best and worst moments in the spotlight.
And while this first-time director lets both Q-Tip and Phife Dawg have their say regarding their disagreements of recent years — Phife Dawg hilariously notes that Q-Tip wanted the group to be “Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest, like Diana Ross and the Supremes … I’m Florence Ballard? Get the f--- outta here.” — the movie never takes sides, instead allowing the viewer to decide which of them, if not both, is behaving like a jerk.
But unlike so many movies about the rise and fall of successful bands, this one manages to capture the thrill of discovery that A Tribe Called Quest enjoyed, at least in their early years. To see Q-Tip comb through albums to find just the right drumbeat or a snatch of a Minnie Riperton vocal to turn into a sample, or to watch Phife Dawg bust out with the opening rhymes of “Buggin’ Out,” is to feel the pleasure of creation.
In addition to celebrating the Tribe, this movie will warm the cockles of anyone who remembers the early ’90s, when radio play was still relevant, music required turntables and boom-boxes, the Internet didn’t figure into the making of a new band, Queen Latifah was still a princess, and X caps were the rage.
Viewers who aren’t already familiar with the work of A Tribe Called Quest will walk out of “Beats, Rhymes & Life” with an understanding of why the group is still considered so influential. But Rapaport’s behind-the-scenes interviews with the main players will provide an insider’s glimpse that even those well versed in the Tribe’s history will enjoy.