Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest
Rhymes and reasons in rap documentary
As a rapumentary, “Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest’’ is perfectly standard. The rascally Noo Yawk actor Michael Rapaport affixed himself to A Tribe Called Quest while it toured the world in 2008 and managed to be present as two of its three steady members worked out whether they could continue to work with each other. On the one hand, welcome to the music business. On the other, if A Tribe Called Quest can’t stay together who can? It’s a worry that eventually gets at the eccentricity of both the music and the movie.
Egos and hurt feelings threaten to undo the group, but, really, what appears to be estranging Kamaal Fareed from Malik Taylor is a complex fraternal commitment. Taylor, whose stage name is Phife Dawg, has both serious diabetes and, as he admits, a serious sugar jones (this might be the only act in pop music whose addict has a sweet tooth). Fareed, who’s better known as Q-Tip, appears to have been overly concerned about Taylor’s health. He was a nag. He also became the star of the outfit. Fareed raps conversationally. He sounds in need of Sudafed. Taylor is the cleverer lyricist. But Fareed has a jazzy sense of structure and works obsessively hard - he seems like a genius. Stardom was something he wanted even if he might deny it (Taylor would call that lying).
In the 1980s, A Tribe Called Quest started as a quartet in Queens, and, after Q-Tip’s insistence that each member yield to the greater good of the group, Jarobi White went his own way (he’s since been touring with them, partly out of support of Taylor). Taylor and the group’s inventive, amiable DJ - Ali Shaheed Muhammad - remained, and two stupendous albums - 1991’s “The Low End Theory’’ and 1993’s “Midnight Marauders’’ - were recorded.
Muhammad does speak in the film, but what you remember most about him here is the stoic way he observes the quarrel between his two friends. Psychically, he’s still standing behind two turntables. He does as much observing as Rapaport does, and you leave with the sense that his equanimity is the group’s tacit spiritual bond. The only rap group that’s lowered its guard to this extent is the very different Public Enemy, whose members let Robert Patton-Spruill enshrine them in the underseen documentary “Welcome to the Terrordome.’’
Rapaport isn’t a natural filmmaker. In tagging along with these guys, what does he hope to accomplish? He fails to find the band at a crucial cultural moment the way Barbara Koppel caught the Dixie Chicks in crisis during the George W. Bush administration. The movie lacks the sort of gimmick that turned “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster’’ into a psychological epic. There the squabbling metal band attended group therapy. There’s a flicker here of the same scenario after Taylor’s wife proposes that he and Fareed just take their beef to a professional. He laughs it off and later bemoans that he’s Florence Ballard to Fareed’s Diana Ross (again, he’s the cleverer lyricist). It’s funny, except that it’s sad, too. And that sadness permeates everything else in the film.
Somewhat against the odds, Rapaport manages to parlay his access and sycophancy into the plaint of a concerned fan: Please, fellas, squash this. It’s a wish that might be too late to grant. Taylor still tours with the group, but he moved to Atlanta in the 1990s, recruits for a basketball league, and seems disenchanted with what rap has become (he’s 40 now). His dismay enriches the film’s general wistfulness.
For a 30-something-year-old culture, hip-hop has undergone great evolutionary shifts. Party music became an art form that, by the late 1980s, had grown expansively political. Public Enemy was throwing radical hand grenades. N.W.A. was committing gangsta assault. And DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were in pursuit of hugs. If you were a young African-American during this era, you felt the crush of a certain kind of monolith. Black and proud, yes, but not quite old enough to know what to do with all this multiplatinum militancy yet sophisticated enough to know the answer wasn’t the even-better-selling “Me So Horny’’ or “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson.’’
A Tribe Called Quest arrived as part of a movement of rappers called the Native Tongues, which included De La Soul, Queen Latifah, and the producer Prince Paul. They weren’t interested in civil rights and urban wrongs so much as they were preoccupied with identity politics, social norms, and being weird. If you were nerdy, funky, bohemian, and socially aware and not pessimistically so, these people made original, sample-derived music for you. The music didn’t aim to inspire dreams of the presidency, but, at its very best, it also rewarded your intelligence, curiosity, and sense of idiosyncrasy as it demonstrated what else black people and rap could be.
Sitting on some steps inside his home, Taylor inadvertently laments the change he helped foster. Now Kanye West is rapping on Katy Perry records, Jay-Z was an industry executive, and Ice-T is playing a New York cop. Everything rose and converged. Taylor has surveyed the landscape and senses that his achievement and those of his cohort have been so thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream that they’ve put themselves out of business.