The contrast between the two men could not be more striking. First, Q-Tip, impeccably dressed in scarf and fedora, looking every bit the star as he rides high on the wave of a successful solo career. And then there’s Phife Dawg, unshaven, in ill health, bitterly reflecting on his beef with his former best friend and his diminishing professional opportunities in the world of hip-hop. The two lead rappers of the legendary hip-hop outfit A Tribe Called Quest—their sad falling out and divergent career paths—are the chief focus of longtime actor/first-time filmmaker Michael Rapaport’s documentary profile Beats, Rhymes & Life. Other group members like the mild-mannered DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad are simply caught in the middle.
Rapaport’s film is as much a “Where are they now?” as a “Why did they matter in the first place?”—though he doesn’t shortchange the latter question, bringing on a veritable who’s-who of hip-hop stars (the Roots, the Beastie Boys, De La Soul) to answer the inquiry. It will come as no surprise to the group’s legions of fans to learn that their appeal rested in the yin-yang rapping of the “abstract” rhymer Q-Tip and the earthy Phife, the Afrocentric positivity as a response to the increasingly nihilistic gangsterism of the day, and the wide range of samples (jazz, funk) the outfit employed. Still, Rapaport keeps the already converted in mind, giving us such moments as Q-Tip in his studio demonstrating how he pulled the drum track for the group’s classic hit “Can I Kick It?” from one of his father’s old Lonnie Smith records, and a round of Tribe associates discussing their favorite lyrics (popular choice: “Let me hit it from the back girl, I won’t catch a hernia/Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman’s furniture”).
But while Rapaport dutifully traces the trajectory of the group’s career via talking heads, archival footage, and trips down memory lane where he revisits old haunts with Q-Tip, Phife, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, his film is one rooted firmly in the present and specifically the melancholy of its difference from the past. Announcing from the film’s opening sequence—with the band on what they all agree will be their final live appearance in 2008—that this will not be a film simply about how great its subject is, the director centers his project on the breakup of the group, the lingering animosities between its two rappers and Phife’s deteriorating physical health due to poorly monitored diabetes. There’s a genuine sadness created by the juxtaposition of the vital music that’s a near constant on the soundtrack and the weakened condition of Phife as he prepares for a kidney transplant, explains how he’s all but given up rapping for basketball scouting, and waxes bitterly about Q-Tip’s unilateral decision to disband the group in 1998.
Even as an “18 months later” epilogue ensures us that everything’s hunky dory, this is one surprisingly grim celebration of a group Rapaport obviously loves. As is generally the case with documentaries of artists and musicians, the work is more compelling than the lives, and one could argue that the filmmaker would have been better off focusing more energy on the specifics of song creation and analysis (or at least a look at the early days of the group), but as present-day concerns begin to take over the film’s focus, Rapaport gives us something else. The film offers instead what might seem to some viewers a less interesting set of concerns, namely a reminder of time’s passage and the vicissitudes of fate. It’s not always an elegant affair (how could it be when it focuses as much time considering an impending kidney transplant as it does the group’s classic third record Midnight Marauders?), but it’s a surprisingly resonant one. Or at least it proved to be for this longtime Tribe fan.