…The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business! Last weekend I saw Michael Rappaport’s A Tribe Called Quest documentary, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, and it really convinced me of how much of a deadbeat I am. Although I was only less than one when People’s Instinctive Travels debuted, I am now roughly the same age as Q-Tip and company at the height of their careers, and what do I have to show for it? Summa Cum Laude on the National Latin Exam? A patchy beard? Awesome.
But self-deprecation aside, it’s always odd to realize that you were alive during a seminal period of cultural history, not really equipped to appreciate it until a later juncture, perhaps once adulthood has set in. And as strange as that concept seems from the observer’s perspective, it must be absolutely surreal for the artist to witness the impact of an actualized vision. Aware of these implications, Beats Rhymes & Life is an extremely intimate retrospective of creative confluence and its consequences.
As a documentarian, Rappaport undertakes the impossible task of detailing perfectionism, while as a fan he bares the weighty responsibility of celebrating Tribe without idealizing them. Fortunately, these two realms of Rappaport’s involvement lend the film a sense of equilibrium: as much as he would like to exalt Tribe, the documentary is fundamentally grounded in the band’s strained rapport. From the opening shot, in which Q-Tip articulates severe doubts about the future of a Tribe Called Quest, the audience is acutely aware of the group’s exceedingly tenuous state.
At its foundation, the film takes issue with Q-Tip’s stifling perfectionism and Phife Dawg’s consequent resentment. Throughout the picture and amidst a really heart wrenching speech after a film screening at Sundance, Phife explains the overwhelming effort required to maintain an artistic relationship with Q-Tip. Although Phife can only express his personal frustrations, Beats Rhymes & Life: delineates how the longevity of collective creativity is commonly a short fuse –a brief, captivating light that inevitably combusts.
But even as the tensions between group members Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are overtly expressed –- one scene depicts Tip and Phife going at it minutes before they are slated to play Rock The Bells in 2008 — the internal strife always seems familial, and thus never irreparable.
Though much of Beats, Rhymes & Life is steeped in interpersonal quarrels, the film’s aftertaste is more bittersweet than sour. Capturing the essence of A Tribe Called Quest’s legacy, the most memorable scene occurs in the heart of the documentary:
Rappaport walks with group member Jarobi White on Linden Boulevard and discusses a mural that showcases all the influential artists, from John Coltrane to James Brown, that have hailed from Queens in the last century. Such a profusion of talent is native to the easternmost borough that the mural has physically run out of room to host any newcomers. So when Jarobi describes walking past this mural in his childhood, aspiring one day to be on the wall with the late-greats, you can’t help but point out the obvious problem with that ambition: no extra space remains. But that’s just it. A Tribe Called Quest was so completely about reimagining the possibilities of Hip-Hop – what it could say and where it could go– that ignoring confines and pushing boundaries was just their steez.
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