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Michael Rapaport on All the Drama Surrounding His A Tribe Called Quest Documentary

If you’ve been following rap or movie news over the last six months, you probably know that three out of four members of A Tribe Called Quest are not happy with the documentary that actor Michael Rapaport (yes, the dude from Zebrahead and that "Pop Copy" sketch on Chappelle’s Show) made about the group, called Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. It screened yesterday at the Tribeca Film Festival. First came an unapproved (by the band or by Rapaport) trailer for the movie called Beats, Rhymes & Fights, highlighting a fight between Phife Dawg and Q-Tip that Rapaport had captured on film and that had never been seen. Then Q-Tip went on Twitter blast after the film got accepted to Sundance, saying that he didn’t support the movie. Then the movie premiered at Sundance and no one from the band except for Phife, who showed up and cried that Q-Tip and his other boys weren’t there to see all the love in the room. The latest lob was an interview that Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed gave with Jarobi on the phone (Phife refused to show or call) to MTV’s Sway, explaining their side of things. In it, Q-Tip read an e-mail from a member of Rapaport’s team that he’d accidentally been CCed on that said, “First off let’s close the billing block and put it on the poster so they can’t get on that. Then we’ll fuck them on everything else.” It was referring to the band’s request to be listed as producers and the initial producers’ staunch resistance to acquiesce. (They eventually did.) All of which brings us to this interview. We spoke with Michael Rapaport about the situation at a weird Monster Energy Drink/Conair suite at the Trump Soho on Tuesday.

How has it been going so far in Tribeca?
It’s going good. I’m anticipating a very fun, special night at the screening. It’s such a New York movie about such a New York group. They’re from Queens and I’m from Manhattan, so it’s a big deal to me, as a director, to have this film in New York, in front of my home crowd.

Who’s coming to the screening from the group?
Phife is on the plane, he's coming, and Q-Tip I know is in New York, and Ali is in New York, and Jarobi is just a short plane ride away in Atlanta. So I don't know who is gonna make it, but I know Phife, he'll be here. [Ed note: Phife and Ali attended.]

Did you converse with Q-Tip and Ali and Jarobi?
I talked to them, yeah. I talked to them.

Recently?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We haven’t spoken on the phone in a couple weeks, but we text message often.

Okay. Before or after the MTV interview?
Before, after, probably during. I reach out to them all the time.

What did they say about their possible attendance?
Honestly, I haven’t talked to them in the last few days — it’s literally like moment to moment with them. But if I were a betting man, I would say they would come. I wouldn’t bet my life savings on it, but I’d put down 5Gs. Trust me, if they were coming, I would be so happy for them to be there, because at the end of the day, this I told them, "There’s only one Tribeca Film Festival, and you only have one documentary about your group." You know, it’s a onetime thing, and for them to experience New York’s appreciation of the group via the film is something that is going to be different for them than anything else that they’ve ever experienced.

In the MTV interview, they kept talking about how they thought you were singling Q-Tip out as the bad guy, when they were acting as a group.
Listen, you’re the leader of the group, you get the most girls, you get singled out by the director of the documentary. That’s just the way it works. He’s the star; he’s the one I speak to the most; he’s the one I went to first when I was making the film. Here’s the deal: I have a different relationship with Q-Tip than I have with Jarobi; I have a different relationship with Phife than I have with Q-Tip. And there’s four of them. I’ve dealt with them through this entire process as individuals. So why they said I singled him out, it’s because I did single him out. Because me and him had different conversations than I had with Jarobi or Phife. That’s my reality. Period.

I guess he was the one who went on his own individual Twitter against you.
That’s right. And this all could be something in the wind if they come to the movie and they see the response I’m anticipating; all the shit is going to be like, whoosh! I guarantee if they come to the movie and watch it with the audience, you’ll never hear a peep about this ever again. Ever again. They haven’t seen the movie — only Phife has seen the movie with an audience, which is a big deal. Watching a movie about yourself in a sterile screening room with two or three of your friends is a lot different than watching a movie in front of an unbiased audience. It’s a feel-good movie, I think.

What was your relationship with Tip like when you were beginning the movie?
We’re friends — I’ve always considered him a friend. I like Tip; I admire him.

How’d you meet?
I met him on the street fifteen years ago. I introduced myself to Q-Tip on West Broadway near Houston Street, and I remember because when you meet somebody that you kind of look up to, you remember meeting them. I was a huge Tribe fan at the time, and this was when they were in their prime. He was with a girl — Q-Tip is always with a pretty girl — and he was just strolling down, and I remember it was nice out, and I said, “Yo, man. I’m a big fan.” I think he kind of recognized me from Zebrahead. It had just come out, so it was a mutual thing. He was kind of like, at that time, one of the princes of the city. He was an icon. He was a star.

Wasn’t Nas involved in the making of this movie?
Nas wasn’t involved in the making of it; Nas was kind of like a supporter from a distance.

Did he help get the band all on board?
I called each one. I called Q-Tip and said, “I wanna do the documentary.” He said, “Okay, you gotta call the rest of the guys.” “Okay, what’s their numbers?” Called Ali, who I knew a little bit, too: “Cool.” Called Jarobi: “Cool.” Talked to Phife and he said to me, “They all said, ‘Cool?’” And I said, “Yeah.” And he goes, “As long as it could be honest.” That was it.

So what were they saying in that MTV interview about how Nas being involved was the reason they all wanted to get on board?
If A Tribe Called Quest can, they should get that MTV interview deleted and thrown away. Because as far as I’m concerned, that was just a — you know, what were they saying? You know, Nas and I ran into each other when I started doing the documentary, and I told him what I wanted to do, and he was like, “Cool, that’s dope.” Nas is not a producer of the film, Nas hasn’t seen the film, and Nas had no vested sort of stake in the film. He was just a supporter of it. So what they were saying — you gotta ask them what they were saying. To me, it was a little confusing what they were saying on that MTV interview. I didn’t like the MTV interview as a fan of A Tribe Called Quest, because I think that it wasn’t the best way to present themselves.

As being angry?
Yeah, because they’re A Tribe Called Quest! You know? They’re not angry. As individuals, of course, they’re going to be angry, as we all are. But as a group, they shouldn’t have done that interview. Their music is so positive and honest. A Tribe Called Quest shouldn't be on MTV with two out of three members and one member calling in and another member not being there because he doesn't want to be there, talking some wild, confusing shit about a documentary that they say they support.

At the end of it, they seemed to be saying “we support the film” after, you know, six parts of this interview being about why they don’t like this movie. They made it into a sort of a warning bell to anybody else in hip-hop having a documentary made about them, that you should have more creative control.
No, you shouldn’t! There’s never — no one has ever done a documentary about themselves. It’s never been done, unless someone shows it to me, I don’t think that there’s ever been one done. I don’t even think that you can call it a documentary at that point. It’s just why President Obama doesn’t interview himself. He doesn’t go on 60 Minutes [pretends to interview himself], “Well, Mr. President, what do you think?” “Yeah, well the inflation in the country … ” You don’t do that! Doing a documentary is sort of a form of reporting, unless you’re writing an autobiography. And this film isn’t an autobiography, and I’m the director, and at the end of the day I need to tell the story that I see fit, and I need to tell the story from the perspective that I think is the most honest.

The major discrepancy is about how much producing control they had.
The story is that at the 29th hour, A Tribe Called Quest wanted to have their names put up as producers.

But before then they were just participants?
Just participants.

But they already had the deal that they got 50 percent of the net profits?
Yes. The producer thing came up on December 19th when I wrapped picture. I got the note saying that the group is ready to sign off on the final cut, that they want producer credits and their managers want producer credits. And then shit went awry.

They wanted producing credit, and then what happened?
And then somebody from my crew, my team sent a fucked-up e-mail and pressed reply all, and —

The one —
The infamous e-mail. That’s the e-mail. And then shit went more awry. The thing about it that’s frustrating for me is that I hope for hip-hop’s sake that this doesn’t scare off any other director from making a documentary about hip-hop. Because it’s important to document Big Daddy Kane, the Cold Crush Brothers, De La Soul. They should be documented. We’ve already documented the Doors, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones. They’ve been documented many, many times. The next group, the next form of music that should be documented is hip-hop music and those artists, and I hope that other directors and other distribution companies and other financers don’t go, “Well, fuck, if Tribe, the conscious, smart group is bugging out, what the fuck is Wu Tang Clan gonna do?” You know what I mean? Because the Wu Tang documentary, that has to be done at some point. Who the fuck wouldn’t want to go see a documentary about the Wu Tang Clan? But the way things are going, I hope that someone else gets to make one. Because this has been such a circus, and I don’t give a shit about the e-mail, and the reply all. I know that I didn’t send the e-mail, you know, and I know that my intentions have always been pure and genuine, so I don’t give a fuck about any of that stuff. I give a fuck that I’ve spent my own money, a lot of money, damn near $100,000 of my own personal money, on this film, along with other investors. And the film has damn near trumped everything personal in my life. This has been the fight of my life making this movie. It’s crazy. And all because of what? Nothing. The movie is such a flattering portrayal of the group. I hope somehow you can use all this.

Well, okay! Does the beef actually ultimately help the profitability of the movie?
I have no idea, because the movie’s not out yet. It may or may not help the profitability of the movie. It hasn’t helped my sleep, it hasn’t helped my stress, and it hasn’t helped my overall disposition over the last few months. It’s made me irritable, it’s made me frustrated, it’s made me scared, it’s made me mad, and all these other things. So, trust me, the last thing that I would have wanted is to have all this strife. If and when A Tribe Called Quest sees this movie with an audience, they’ll … whoosh. It will just go away.

But it did cross my mind: Tribe gets 50 percent of the proceeds from this movie. If they somehow think that the beef is gonna make people go see it more, why not orchestrate this controversy?
Believe me, I promise you: I wouldn’t participate in that. None of us are good actors.

A friend of mine who reads a lot of rapper’s blogs and Twitter feeds and stuff said that he was getting the general sense that the hip-hop community at large was coming out against the movie. Is that the feeling that you’re getting?
Nah, I haven’t heard that. I think that music fans are going to want to see this movie. And I think that the thing that I was lucky to sort of capture is that it’s so much beyond the music, if I can use that term. It’s such an intimate portrayal about four friends. So, I’m not concerned about the blogs or “Mike Rapaport fucked A Tribe Called Quest.”

Now there was some sort of controversy that I didn’t realize when you were at Sundance, that they didn’t know the movie was accepted to Sundance, or something.
Me and the producers submitted the movie to Sundance —

Along with Tribe?
No, but there’s no agreement, “Before you submit the movie to Sundance, you must ask us if we want to go to Sundance.” We talked about Sundance from the beginning. They knew, like, five minutes after I knew that it was accepted to Sundance. You bet your ass that they knew right after. [Mimes phone call.] “Yo, we got accepted to Sundance.”

I guess maybe they were upset that they didn’t know it was submitted?
So what?! It’s my movie. I paid for it. And I’m the director. This isn’t a trial by committee. They get "reasonable consultation" about the movie. That's the signed thing.

You came into this as a fan. Are you less of a fan?
I love the group; I still love the music; I still get off on the music. I will not be the director of A Tribe Called Quest documentary, part two. This conflict has definitely changed my perception of them as individuals, but the music is the music.

Do they have control over the soundtrack?
Yeah, the soundtrack is their domain. They have control over it. And at this point, up until now, they have chosen not to do anything with the soundtrack.

And what was the question that you wanted to answer by doing the movie?
The question that I wanted to answer by doing the movie was, “Will A Tribe Called Quest make more music?” And I think we got our answer because there’s no soundtrack. But it’s not too late yet.

Because you haven’t released the movie yet.
We’ve got release in July, and what better way to go off into the sunset, to make one original song for your documentary? And to see A Tribe Called Quest at the fucking Oscars performing a brand-new song — that would be crazy for hip-hop. They could write the song for me. I'll perform the shit myself. If they write the song, I'll do it. I'll hire look-alikes to do it.

There's an intense fight you capture between Phife and Q-Tip. Did they realize the cameras were on?
No, they didn’t realize the cameras were there until afterwards. But it's not like the fight was like, “Holy shit, there’s Q-Tip punching Phife in the head, and Phife did a drop kick to Q-Tip’s head!” It was like brothers fighting, you know? They’re brothers. They’re best friends. You get tired of your best friends. You don’t wanna party all the time with your brother. You want to see him and eat dinner with him, and even then it’s like, “Aw, shit, this guy.” That’s what their relationship has been like that. They’ve been married to this thing that they’ve been married to, and they’ve been friends since they were 4. You know, you change, you evolve, you want different friends. But everyone’s like, “We want you guys to be together!” Because it means so much to the fans.

Why don't you think they became a cultural phenomenon on the level of Wu Tang?
Because they came before Wu Tang. When Tribe was at its biggest, when Midnight Marauders came out, hip-hop wasn’t as big as it became soon after that. You know, like — if you said like, Midnight Marauders was their apex, you know that was their highest thing, then came Biggie, then came Jay-Z, then came Wu Tang. They were just getting started. Just like why is, you know, Kenny G somebody like that — way more people probably bought one Kenny G album than all of Miles Davis's albums. But without Miles Davis, no one would know a trumpet from a hole in the wall, you know what I mean? Not to compare Wu Tang to that by any means, but they set the table. A Tribe Called Quest set the table.

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Remy Martin