Starring: Q-Tip, Phife Dog, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White
Directed by: Michael Rapaport (TV’s “Boston Public”)
There is a reason that the late ‘80s/early ‘90s are considered to be the “golden age” of hip-hop. A truly original American art form had emerged and was stretching its legs, enjoying mainstream success and critical acclaim. Acts like LL Cool J, Run D.M.C., and the Beastie Boys were the ambassadors, creating music that crossed cultural lines. If you grew up in the suburbs in the late ‘80s, at some point you sang along with “Going Back to Cali,” “It’s Tricky,” or “Hey Ladies” pumping out of a boom box, before gangsta rap came along and scared your mom into forbidding you from listening to all things hip-hop.
The late ’80s also saw the birth of A Tribe Called Quest. The group, made up of Q-Tip, Phife Dog, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White (or, as they call themselves, “A-E-I-O-U, and sometimes Y”), built on the foundation laid by both the mainstream and underground pioneers of hip-hop to become legends in their own right, only to break up in 1998.
Directed by actor Michael Rapaport, the documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” opens during the group’s 2008 reunion tour, hinting at the tensions still present between the members, notably Q-Tip and Phife Dog. The film then takes us back to their early days, as told by the individual members of the group interspersed with funky animation set to the Tribe’s hit songs. The details are recounted: Q-Tip and Phife Dog were childhood friends; Muhammad and Jarobi came along and the group was formed; the first album was released to critical acclaim; Jarobi left the group to be a chef; the group kept going yet problems between Q-Tip and Phife Dog arose, and so on.
Refreshingly, and maybe a little shockingly, the demise of A Tribe Called Quest is relatively mundane, at least as far as what we’re used to hearing about these break-ups: Q-Tip and Phife started hating each other the way only lifelong friends can, with the almost stoic Muhammad caught in the middle. Phife’s life-threatening diabetes also provides a catalyst, as his illness and unwillingness to take care of himself affect his ability to tour and perform. In a bittersweet turn of events, however, Phife’s illness also provides the group with an actual need to reunite. Clearly a fan, Rapaport nonetheless keeps himself mostly removed from the proceedings, instead allowing the Tribe and their contemporaries to tell the intriguing story of a group that continues to inspire.