Beats, Rhymes and Life is a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest one of the most popular hip-hop groups of the 90’s. At a time when gangster rap was prominent, A Tribe Called Quest along with The Jungle Brothers and De La Soul created the Native Tongues, a collective of hip-hop artist who preferred bohemian, earthy and jazzy vibes as opposed to Gangster rap’s tales of inner city hardships, violence and despair. Tribe’s playful and smooth outlook helped pioneer a jazz based sound when a majority of hip-hop acts at the time were still sampling loops from Parliament Funkadelic and James Brown records. Actor Michael Rapaport (Higher Learning, Bamboozled) in his directorial debut does an admirable job of recounting the group’s rise and explaining its unfortunate dissolution.
A large part of the film focuses on the relationship between Q-Tip and Phife, who grew up together in Queens, New York admiring other rappers from their borough like Run-DMC and LL Cool J. Other group members Jarobi White, (who left the group early to pursue a culinary career) and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (the quiet, independent one of the group) were caught in the middle of the mounting tension between Q-Tip and Phife, who bickered over everything from front man status to image control. Rapaport does a good job of getting each member’s point of view about the conflict that persisted throughout three classic albums and two good ones.
The dynamic between Q-Tip and Phife bought to mind other duos in legendary groups that were polar opposites but created magic together like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend to name a few. Although, early reviews reported that the documentary made Q-Tip look like an egotistical, controlling and self-centered diva, I didn’t see it that way at all. Q-Tip was the mad scientist of Tribe; He seemed extremely driven and focused. He is a perfectionist and he takes music very seriously, whereas Phife wasn't as passionate about the group as should've been, he was a good emcee that could’ve been great if he had took his craft more seriously. Phife came off more resentful and jealous because Q-Tip was a natural born leader and naturally got the most attention. Because of continuing conflict that included Phife’s medical issues, the group disbanded in 1998.
The group reunited in 2008 for the Rock the Bells tour largely in part to pay for Phife’s medical expenses, and we see that the animosity still exists between the two old friends which almost brings them to blows. The members of Tribe all seem to be doing well and have made peace with the past, no one was strung out on drugs or lost all of their money, no Behind the Music melodrama here, but the group fell victim to two of the members' stubbornness and sensitive egos.
Beats, Rhymes and Life is an entertaining, riveting and surprisingly emotional trip down memory lane about one of hip-hop’s most beloved, influential and pioneering acts. Now, a Public Enemy doc would be nice, I’m putting that out into the universe.
Side note: I know Q-Tip is a dope producer but I never gave much thought to him being the production genius that he is before I saw this documentary. I always viewed ATCQ as a unit that was equally responsible for the creation of their albums. After seeing the doc it became clear that Q-Tip was the visionary and the creative force behind the group. He is responsible for musically putting together the group’s most memorable songs. Think of your favorite Tribe song for a minute---more than likely Q-Tip created that beat and orchestrated the studio sessions that brought it to life. I have a renewed respect for him after seeing this movie. He is a bit eccentric and stubborn about his art but what highly creative person isn’t?