Beats, Rhymes and Life looks a lot like other rock docs, complete with personality conflicts, breakups, reunions, addiction, and a possible comeback tour in Japan.
A Tribe Called Quest is an east-coast rap group from the mid-80s known more for party jams than socio-political commentary. As one friend of the Tribe said, “we don’t have to be ‘fuck the police’; we don’t have to be ‘fight the power.’”
They grew up immersed in hip hop culture. They speak about the weekly radio shows of DJ Red Alert with reverence — the way Martin Scorsese talks about seeing Powell and Pressburger films broadcast on the “Million Dollar Movie” TV show. It’s not surprising that they emerged at the same time and in the same place as De La Soul and Jungle Brothers.
The tribe consists of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali. A fourth member, Jarobi White, left early to pursue a family and culinary career, but he’s here for interviews. Phife and Q-Tip are like brothers, with Ali showing a more independent streak. (The band reminded me of Fishbone, featured recently in their own documentary.) Phife and Q-Tip are the closest of friends, so naturally most of the conflict happens between them. Q-Tip comes across as a natural leader. Phife works hard and has talent but seems to fall into a supporting role, and that seems to pique his sense of unfairness. He blames Q-Tip for deliberately stealing the limelight, but to me it looked like it just came more naturally to Q-Tip.
Phife is the band member with an addiction, but it’s not what you think. Phife is diabetic. (A casually-tossed lyric “from the funky diabetic” clued in observant fans to his condition.) He has had problems managing his energy, and he calls his use of sugar an addiction. The film’s latest reunion and conflict (in 2008) has to do with Phife’s need for a kidney.
Director Michael Rapaport walks us through their career chronologically, punctuating the film with chapters based on album releases. Throughout, he comes back to the love/hate relationship between Phife and Q-Tip.
The thing that Rapaport never quite achieves is explaining why A Tribe Called Quest deserves his attention, as opposed to Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, LL Cool J, or anyone else. A fellow critic remembered someone in the movie comparing A Tribe Called Quest to Charlie Parker. But Rapaport doesn’t explain what exactly Tribe did for hip hop that was as groundbreaking as what Parker did for jazz.
Still, for fans of the band, Beats, Rhymes and Life is worth seeing. For those of us who were more into the rappers who said “fight the power,” the movie is a decent introduction to a group that may not have been on the radar.
And for people who don’t like hip hop at all, Beats, Rhymes and Life can probably safely be ignored.