I love hiphop, but at the rate it’s going right now, I could do with or without it.
— Phife Dawg
“I can’t ever put a finger on Q-Tip, even though we’ve known each other longer than anyone else.” The observation pretty much sums up Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest at its start. The documentary goes onto look at Tribe’s beginnings, success, and travails, with a focus on the relationships at its center, the relationships that seem still to be a mystery to the individuals who are in them.
Michael Rapaport’s film begins at the Rock the Bells show in Seattle, 2008, and the performers look exhausted. Even as the sequence offers some regular-seeming shots of the lively stage show and the crowd elated, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s faces suggest a few other stories. These are less typical backstories — how the group came to be, how members worked and lived — than they are the complex, ever-present saga of Tribe. As the controversy surrounding the film indicates, no one story can possibly satisfy everyone involved.
Whether the subjects’ unhappiness with the film has to do with producing credits or their depictions in it, the pieces of stories in Beats, Rhymes, & Life are pretty much endlessly mesmerizing. The fact that the film begins with the end of Tribe — or one of its ends, anyway — lays down a kind of narrative gauntlet. “Is this the last show?” asks Q-Tip backstage. “I asked all you guys… It’s all over, man.” He looks at and away from the camera. “I did all I could for 20 years. I’m too old for this shit.” And he walks out.
It’s the sort of drama that Tribe fans know too well. If the group mattered once — back in the day, according to respectable interviewees like Nas and Prince Paul, Pos and Pharrell Williams — it is also, now, as legendary for its breakups as for its work. On one hand, the documentary looks back on the story of that work. Ali describes the effects of music, general, implacable, nutritional: “It’d be somewhat intoxicating,” he says, “a tool, a resource… a physical presence that was a part of your clique, your crew, your radio.” As they remember being high school students in 1988, in Queens, the film dutifully shows snapshots of skinny kids and yearbook photos (Q-Tip’s visit to Murry Bergtraum High School, including a hug with his old principal, now beaming, makes the usual two-pronged point about how confined he felt then, but how grateful he feels now).
As each member picks through his own memories, the film — which is sometimes frustrating and sometimes fascinating — manages a chronology and also a profile of how they came together and apart. Their memories tend to be self-centered, like they’re setting records straight, or competing even now. Q-Tip smiles — his charisma on full beam — when he recalls the first time he heard himself on the radio. “Alternative” as they seemed, they still worried, as they faced success, that they were caught up in what Q-Tip calls a “surface philosophy.” Even as they drew inspiration from the world they lived in (say, Fred Sanford, for “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”), but were feeling increasingly removed from that world.
The increasingly strained internal dynamic was at least partly typical: now they were supposed to be grownups, dealing with contracts and abrupt changes in environments. Jarobi White says he left the group (in 1990, before he returned in 2006) because “I just was really uncomfortable with all the rules. I don’t think I was really mature enough for that.” And the rules seem to have multiple sources, from label directives to Q-Tip’s efforts to manage the group. “What’s the hardest thing about being in a group?” Rapaport asks him. His answer — “Constantly considering someone else even before yourself” — suggests not only the burdens of relationships, generically, but also specifically, the growing — and increasingly public and tabloidized — conflict between Phife and Q-Tip.
Still, they sought to hang on, rejecting what seemed crass commercialism for intelligent art, aligned with Native Tongues, focused on “positive” messaging. They describe their dynamic on stage and ponder their choices, sort of. While Phife acknowledges he was a “knucklehead,” Q-Tip is more inclined to see himself as a victim of circumstances. Citing the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he says, “I feel like my life is like that shit, just a fucking social mishap.” Still, Q-Tip steers clear of personal details, focused on the career — his and Tribe’s (he appears in one interview looking especially “professional,” in topcoat and fedora). Ali notes Q-Tip’s legendary perfectionism, as he worked and reworked each album (“He could be Axl Rose”) and Phife sighs, “He’s a control freak.” When Tribe started to feel to him like “Diana Ross and the Supremes,” Phife resisted, and tensions increased.
It was Q-Tip’s decision to break up the group, a move that left Ali, for one, feeling relieved. But as Q-Tip stays focused on Tribe, more or less, Phife’s observations are more acutely emotional, premised in part on his daily life with diabetes. Diagnosed with Type 1 in 1990, he’s survived some seriously self-destructive behaviors (he essentially ignored his condition, partying and eating poorly, until he had to be hospitalized before a Dennis Miller Live appearance). The disruption was multilayered, as he and the other Tribe members had to come to grips with the disease’s incessant effects.
It appears that this literally life-or-death situation changed Tribe as much as it changed Phife. Group members are less able to talk about the other factors. The film documents this reluctance, and assembles pieces of their multiple versions of events. It’s this multiplicity, shaped by complications that reflect the Tribe so many fans remember. They looked like they were on a quest. They performed as if they were asking real questions and scrutinizing contexts, as if they wanted to understand themselves and the worlds that made them. Inevitably, those stories remain unfinished.