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sundance report

Sundance: Why Phife Dawg Broke Down at the Premiere of A Tribe Called Quest’s New Doc

Q-Tip has made it very clear that he and his fellow members of A Tribe Called Quest don’t support Michael Rapaport’s documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which premiered at Sundance Saturday night. So it was a bit of a shock when during the post-screening Q&A, ATCQ member Phife Dawg stood up and approached the microphone.

Rapaport had had two and a half years of pretty great interview access and backstage concert footage, and much of Tribe’s catalogue is featured in the soundtrack. So it’s been a bit of a guessing game figuring out what caused Q-Tip to turn on the project. Our best guess is that there’s a pretty big gulf between agreeing to participate in a documentary about your legacy and watching raw, emotional footage of your group breaking up.

“I want to let you all know that I’m not that bad of a guy,” Phife told the crowd, which had just watched him passionately ranting against Q-Tip in interview footage. “But it is real life and I’m glad Mr. Rapaport was able to bring it to you in such a great way. So thanks, man, for real.” The audience had been extremely animated, rapping along and laughing and cheering throughout the screening. Phife seemed to enjoy soaking it in. That is, until someone asked him why the band wanted to do the documentary when Tribe, interpersonally, was in such a bad place.

Phife began answering the question, then had to stop. “I wish … ” he began, then, voice choked, buried his head on the podium. “They don’t understand. Like, I listened to your guys’ responses throughout the movie. Q-Tip has no idea how many people love him … I just wish they were all here to witness how much love you guys showed this movie.” (See the very special moment below, filmed and cut by Beats editor Lenny Mesina.)

As Rapaport explained to us the next day while watching the Packers game with Phife, he’d shown the movie to Q-Tip multiple times. “From what he told me, he loves the movie. He thinks it’s going to be hugely successful, critically acclaimed. You can quote that … And one day he just decided he didn’t like it. I don’t know. I’m not sure what happened.” And since then, the two of them have only communicated through the media and Twitter. Even so, Rapaport bought Q-Tip and Jarobi White, who also didn’t show, two first-class tickets each to come to Park City and booked them hotel rooms. (The fourth member, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, had a prior engagement in Europe, but both Rapaport and Phife think he would have come.) And he was still hopeful they might come, until they didn’t. Said Rapaport, “A Tribe Called Quest has been broken up. I deal with them individually. I’ve never been in a room with all four of them. I think they’re all grown men They’re all adults. They all make decisions on their own. So why Phife came here, he wanted to be here. And why the other guys didn’t come here, they didn’t want to be here.”

When he wasn't yelling at the football game, Phife told us that he, too, had qualms about coming and didn’t decide to until a week before the premiere. But, he said, “I spoke to my mom and she pretty much put the nail in the coffin: ‘You better go and enjoy this, because it’s something that doesn’t happen every day. It’s a movie about your guys’ life and your music and your legacy. The least you could do is enjoy it.’”

Phife says he still talks to Q-Tip. They just stick to topics like, “Sports, what’s going on, how’s your family.” They’re still friends and brothers after all, even if making music together no longer seems feasible. And it’s because they love each other, says Phife, that Sundance has been so bittersweet. He says he’s “definitely” glad he came, but, he adds, “I really truly and honestly wish all of them could be here, but definitely Q-Tip, because I don’t know if he really understands, recognizes, realizes how much love he gets off top, without question. Know what I mean? And he’s very hard on himself. We’re 40 now and it’s time for him to realize, recognize, and enjoy the benefits of what we worked for our whole lives.”

Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images