Michael Rapaport clearly adores A Tribe Called Quest, and it shows in his documentary, Beats Rhymes & Life. As a band, Tribe’s influence in hip-hop is undeniable. The band aggressively integrated deep-cut jazz samples and rhythms in new ways, broadening hip-hop’s sonic palette. It was also a trailblazer in what now goes by the name of conscious rap, for rhyming less about drugs and thugs than Steve Biko, applebum butts, and wallets lost in El Segundo. Unlike, say, Common, the band rarely overplayed its message and Rapaport doesn’t either: The overwhelming vibe of the first half of this film, is, appropriately, that of a great house party, as Rapaport queues up your favorite mid-nineties cuts. He well conveys the innovation of that first album, 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm — the excitement that led to the band’s then-huge-for-hip-hop advance ($350,000) and questionable fashion choices.
And all of that, including the formation of the supergroup Native Tongues Posse (which united De La Soul, Queen Latifah, the Jungle Brothers, and others) and the run-up to 1991’s beloved The Low End Theory, not to mention the great vintage concert footage, ultimately gets buried by Rapaport’s decision to focus on the act’s underwhelming nostalgia-act afterlife. The film is overstuffed with underwhelming video of two recent reunion performances, when the band was years past its prime. It’s a bit like a Rolling Stones doc that hurries through Altamont and Sticky Fingers and zooms in on the Steel Wheels tour.
Unfortunately, Rapaport seems determined to make this a film that’s less about how music gets made or what it means to its fans than he is doggedly determined to bend the latter half of his narrative into a dramatic Some Kind of Monster soap opera of band dysfunction.
As band rivalries go, this is slim pickings. Phife Dawg plays the shrill, clownish Robin to his longtime friend Q-Tip’s calm, perfectionist Batman. Stoic, dapper Ali Muhammad and off-on member Jarobi White are never more than bemusedly caught between the two. Phife gets off some good lines, but by battle-rap standards, the disses are hardly heavy. Here’s the basics: Phife says Q-Tip is a fame-hungry front man who shouldn’t have broken up the band in 1998. Q-Tip says he doesn’t know why Phife’s always creating so much friction, when all he’s ever tried to do is make good music. There’s one aborted scuffle in the film, and more than enough petulant whining by Phife, who gets the lion’s share of screen time, likely because he was the most willing to talk smack — and because his diabetes poses a very real threat to his health. But if Q-Tip seems bored by the repetitive back-and-forth, most of the audience will be too. It’s that rare music doc that leaves you craving more music.
The final act dwells on Tribe’s breakup-reunite-breakup cycle, from 1998 to 2010, which is actually quite simple: Tribe Called Quest broke up in 1998 because they didn’t like each other and Q-Tip wanted to go solo. They got back together to cash in. Simple. There’s nothing wrong with that — but it’s Rapaport’s mistake to spend so much time and energy unpacking something so much more obvious, and so much less interesting, than Tribe’s music.