Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
Directed by Michael Rapaport
Opens July 8
Rap documentaries, like rap, remain a fluid genre compared to the rigid conventions—sex, drugs, etc.—of rock 'n' roll docs. But Michael Rapaport's Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest offers a promising model, full of backstage feuds and post-break-up reconciliations, studio sessions, tour diaries, fly-on-the-wall observations and probing interviews, music history and close-readings of canonical songs. Scenes devoted to recounting the group's formation during the fertile late-80s New York hip-hop scene are especially enjoyable, paired with the likes of Pharrell Williams, ?estlove, Common, Mos Def and the Beastie Boys rhapsodizing about a sample in "Bonita Applebum” or Phife's opening verse from "Buggin Out,” and those records' powerful impact on the history of music. When the four dudes from Queens and Brooklyn "came out wearing,” as Black Thought from The Roots recalls, "some pretty questionable shit,” they rerouted an entire cultural movement.
More powerful, though, are the relationships and dramas that come into focus in incredibly candid moments Rapaport shares with Ali Shaheed, Jarobi, Phife and Q-Tip—particularly as the latter two clash more openly, and Phife's diabetes-related health problems worsen. These unguarded scenes are rare in music documentaries, particularly those about rappers, whose habitual posturing often hinders genuine self-reflection.
Rapaport portrays all four members of the group with great depth, though the feud between its two self-appointed leaders eventually becomes the central narrative. Touring with the group and visiting with each member places the first-time director on the scene for moments of incredible intensity, as when Phife gets an encouraging text message from Q-Tip—their first communication in months—moments before going into surgery to receive his wife's kidney. Beats, Rhymes & Life concludes on a note of optimism, one made all the more hopeful given Tribe's difficult travels.