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Movie Review: Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (R)

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Length: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Age Appropriate for: 17+. Cursing, cursing, cursing. That’s about it — there’s no violence or sexual content, just profanity during the group members’ interviews and in their performed lyrics.

You’re not going to see ‘Beats, Rhymes & Life’ unless you already listen to hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, which means you also already know about the feud that’s crippled the group for years. Director Michael Rapaport’s investigation of that rift, and his depressing discoveries about the unfairness of friendship, are what make the documentary more than just ‘Behind the Music.’

By Roxana Hadadi

My family didn’t have cable when I was growing up, but I didn’t really mind it. I still had Saturday morning cartoons, and reruns of “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” and new episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Vampires + space + Ross and Rachel = teenage happiness.  

I didn’t really want for anything, until I moved into Cumberland Hall during my freshman year at the University of Maryland, College Park, and realized cable meant VH1 — which meant “Behind the Music” — which meant wonderfully depraved musical shenanigans at my fingertips. Bandmates hating each other! Bandmates realizing their inner flaws! Bandmates duking it out! It didn’t even matter what musicians the episode was about; it was always the same horrible storyline that I loved laughing at. Rarely did “Behind the Music” ever tell you anything completely revelatory or juicy about a performer that a magazine profile or a gossip blog hadn’t already shared.

But while Michael Rapaport’s “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” somewhat follows the “Behind the Music” formula by taking a look at why iconic hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest fell apart more than a decade ago in 1998, the documentary puts that VH1 show to shame. Here’s what I should have been watching all those boring weekday nights in college, not another investigation into Britney Spears’ hair-shaving incident. With “Beats, Rhymes & Life,” named after A Tribe Called Quest’s 1996 album, Rapaport set out wanting to make a documentary about the breakup of his favorite group, and much of the documentary’s latter half is about just that. The divisions between childhood friends Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, the reasons behind why the group decided to embark on a tense tour in 2006 and how things stand now between the physically ailing Phife (who has struggled for years with diabetes) and the standoffish Q-Tip are all featured.

Q-Tip has publicly feuded with Rapaport over the documentary — a few weeks ago in an interview with MTV, he commanded other rappers to “be in charge of your own stories” — but what he can’t deny is that Rapaport effectively captures the pioneering decisions the group made: The choice to use old-school jazz and soul samples in beats, their encouragement of black youth to reach out to each other and learn their histories, their linking up with other New York City musicians to form Native Tongues, a hip-hop collective. How many of those ideas came from Q-Tip and how many came from the rest of the group, though, is what Rapaport and the musician can’t agree on.

And it seems like Q-Tip can’t agree with Phife or fellow group members Ali Shaheed Muhammad or Jarobi White, either. Rapaport starts the documentary by asking Q-Tip after a 2008 concert in Seattle if that was the last A Tribe Called Quest show ever, and Q-Tip refuses to answer: “Everybody has said that. So what? I did everything I could do. I’m too old for this … I’m out.” That kind of sidestepping is indicative of Q-Tip, Rapaport argues, as he often features the bombastic rapper talking about how he created beats for the group or thought of sample ideas or dreamt up their performance style without any input from others. Ali Shaheed, who refuses to really take sides in the group’s breakup, won’t talk bad about Q-Tip — but Rapaport finds Phife and Jarobi more than willing. “I could go with or without it,” Phife sighs when asked by Rapaport if he would ever fully return to the group, and given the deep schism between him and Q-Tip, it’s easy to see why.

Rapaport spend a lot of time probing that rupture, abandoning the documentary’s charmingly genial first third (interviews with former teachers, DJs, radio emcees and musicians like the Beastie Boys about A Tribe Called Quest’s beginnings and legacy) for a pretty honest and spite-filled series of barbs between Q-Tip, Phife and Jarobi about what went wrong all those years ago. There’s still a pall over the group, Rapaport knows, and he struggles to get it quite right. Was it just Q-Tip’s ego, Phife’s suffering health or Jarobi’s need to be with his family? Where was Ali Shaheed when all this was going down? And now, in 2011, how much does what happened back then really matter?

It’s not that hard to understand why Q-Tip wasn’t that psyched about “Beats, Rhymes & Life”: Rapaport basically makes him seem like a ragingly maniacal jerk. He includes numerous backstage moments when Q-Tip bashes on Phife and one of their actual physical altercations, and he plays our emotions by heavily highlighting Phife’s sickness. Seeing the man yo-yo from chubby to drastically thin, from energetic and excited to morose and downtrodden, does more for getting you on Phife’s side of the fight than any apology from Q-Tip ever could. And, since he’s Q-Tip, none ever comes. But what if Rapaport had more access to Q-Tip, more insight into Ali Shaheed’s allegiances, more accurate memories from everyone about a decade ago? It feels like Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed especially kept Rapaport at arm’s length, creating a sometimes uneven documentary that plays more on audiences’ emotions than necessarily giving us crucial knowledge about the group’s creative process or cohesion together.

Fans of the hip-hop group will of course get the most use out of “Beats, Rhymes & Life,” and it’s not really a documentary someone without any hip-hop knowledge could enjoy. But Rapaport’s critical eye on A Tribe Called Quest isn’t just about four men from New York City who would revolutionize hip-hop: it’s about the idea of loyalty, the image and reality of it, and how it’s supposed to connect them forever. Maybe Q-Tip has the most problems with that, but for viewers, the harsh realities of friendship are the most riveting parts of “Beats, Rhymes & Life.”

“Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” is playing in limited release in the Washington, D.C., area. Showtimes are available at AMC Loews Georgetown 14 and Landmark’s E Street Cinema in Northwest D.C. and at AMC Loews Shirlington 7 in Arlington, Va.

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