Beats, Rhymes & Life (Review)

Hip Hop doc looks at A Tribe Called Quest's rise and fall

Rap and Hip Hop have the staying power few expected when the music first hit the scene back in the 1970s on the streets of New York. The founding fathers and godfathers of the movement have inspired their progeny, and the seed has spread across the country and the globe, generating beats that have caused rumptastic booties to quake and shake, sparking beef from sea to sea and regional civil wars in-between, creating legends in the minds and microphones of b-boys and b-girls.

Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, from actor and Hip Hop head Michael Rapaport, explores the breaks and the cracks in the road that have derailed A Tribe Called Quest, one of the most widely recognized crews to ever enter the game. A second-generation posse, the Tribe came together during the mid-’80s around Q-Tip and Phife Dog, best friends with the kind of kinship that ran as deep as blood, but it's apparent that these brothers had Cain and Abel potential. Their complementary rap styles and sensibilities (Tip was a hardworking alternative striver, while Phife was a sports nut b-boy) allowed them to attract diverse partners (quiet beats-maker Ali Shaheed Muhammad and loyal hype-man Jarobi White) and an extended family (from De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers to The Beastie Boys). But as the Native Tongues (the name of the larger collective of rappers and producers associated with the Tribe and its aesthetic) began to seize the spotlight, it was A Tribe Called Quest (and its co-leads) that claimed the spotlight like it was their birthright.

Alternative thanks to their Afrocentric leanings and their decidedly less hardcore approach to life and music, the group fearlessly appropriated Jazz, Rock, lazy days, sports and love in a teeming stew that gave birth to the next step in the continuation of Rap to sustain itself as an emerging art form. Q-Tip and Phife, their their traded verses, created a lexicon that seeped into the popular culture to such an extent that it isn’t too grandiose to equate them as Hip Hop’s version of Lennon and McCartney (especially in light of the stellar acts they inspired like Common, Mos Def and The Roots, all interviewed here, who have also carried on the tradition).

Therein lies the dark cloud that looms over Beats, Rhymes, & Life. The documentary captures the group on a half-hearted attempt at a reunion in 2006, one of many proposed gatherings since they last recorded together (1998’s The Love Movement). Q-Tip disbanded the Tribe after the fractured Movement and embarked on a solo career that has included a few stabs at acting as well, while Phife has struggled with diabetes and transitioning into a second career as a sports scout. It's easy to imagine that Tip might have actually been both Lennon and McCartney in this dynamic; so talented and driven that he in effect pushed his partner of the music entirely. But that would too easily diminish Phife’s impact and his own musical ambitions. He wanted to crew, the Tribe above all else. Each one is locked against the other, dominated by their own needs and desires.

Of course, this is larger than mere ego. This is an epic tale of pride and masculinity and maintaining street cred, things that, if they could take the time to step back from the situation, they would see that these things were what should have made them different. The creed of the Native Tongues was about moving beyond the pettiness and posturing; this was supposed to be a new consciousness.

Yet we have Q-Tip and Phife arguing over perceived slights on stage, going years without contact — even during Phife’s kidney transplant and recovery — and, most importantly, unable to produce more music together, a real shame since there is still one album left on their original contract with Jive Records. The Tribe has proven, despite all hope, to be all too human.

Rapaport has given fans a teasing hint of what was and what still could be, but Beats, Rhymes, & Life might, one day, serve a larger purpose. The film might become a key footnote in the history of Hip Hop; early proof of its footprint along the path of rhythm on the way to the documentation of its low end theory. How’s that for a scenario? Grade: B-plus

Opens Aug. 19. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.