Vibes and Stuff, by David Bax
Admittedly, I don’t know how people who read this site feel about hip-hop. Google Analytics doesn’t tell me everything. I do know that people who care about hip-hop or, really, about good music in general have heard of A Tribe Called Quest and know how great and important they were. Despite that greatness and importance, though, they’re not exactly Elton John in terms of cultural ubiquity. Plenty of people don’t know who they are and, if they do, they may not be aware of their impact.
So if you’re actor Michael Rapaport and you’re setting out to make a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, there are some questions you’re going to have to ask yourself. Chief among them is whether to aim your film at the existing fanbase and go deep inside the group and its history or to go for a wider audience and educate them as to their standing in hip-hop culture. Rapaport’s result, a film called Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest attempts to have it both ways and, of course, succeeds at neither.
The audience I saw the movie with was clearly comprised largely of fans, not only of ATCQ but of the early ‘90’s era of hip-hop as a whole. Consequently, the mere appearance on the screen of many of the film’s interviewees resulted in cheers. These are people that most would never recognize by face or name (in the interest of full honesty, I only recognized some of them because I’ve read Jeff Chang’s amazing book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop and you should too). I mention this only as a way of illustrating the ways in which the film plays to enthusiasts. Recruiting figures who are important to the documentary’s subject matter, even if they’re not well known, is far from a bad idea. The problem lies in the way Rapaport uses the footage.
Certainly the adage “show, don’t tell” is more difficult to follow in a documentary chronicling things that happened twenty years ago, given that the filmmaker is limited to whatever footage or images from the time currently exist. But too much of the running time is taken up by long shots of people talking, interrupted on occasion by trite still images or footage that do nothing to contextualize the words. This guy mentioned DJ’s so here’s a picture of a guy putting a needle on a record.
This problem infects not only the talking heads but the actual members of the group. Rapaport’s tendency towards literalism results in Q-Tip, Phife, Ali and Jarobi telling us how they met. Q-Tip and Phife were friends. Phife and Jarobi were friends. Q-Tip and Ali were friends. They all met. That’s how the group started. The lack of life lent to the backstory makes the experience something like watching people read from a textbook.
Still, those same interviews with the four members of ATCQ are what leads to the movie’s best attribute. Rapaport may not have much of an imagination as a filmmaker but he knows drama when he sees it. At the time of the filming, Q-Tip and Phife, who have known each other longer than anyone else in the group, are in the midst of a long, slow falling-out. Even though taking this tack inevitably gives Ali and Jarobi short shrift, it does instill the film with an emotional heft that’s easy to invest in. Q-Tip’s passion to grow as an individual beyond A Tribe Called Quest stands in direct conflict with Phife’s dependence of the group’s income to alleviate his medical bills. Ali and Jarobi seem like nice guys but that’s too good a story to pass up.
Rapaport’s access to the group is remarkable. It leads not only to our experience of some pretty downright ugly confrontations but to the personalities of the individuals stripped of façade. Phife’s excitability about sports and Jarobi’s passion for cooking are just a couple of the aspects that betray what an intelligent, charming and funny bunch these guys are. Beats, Rhymes & Life is a lopsided film, dry and shallow in the early going and richer in the back half. But, at the very least, one thing is consistent. There is great music throughout. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but A Tribe Called Quest were really, really great.