Music

The Quest to Understand Tribe

This is supposed to be a documentary, not a fan letter. So how about some balance? It's big picture time when it comes to telling the story of hip-hop.


Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Rated: R
Director: Michael Rapaport
Cast: Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi, Michael Rapaport
Length: 95 minutes
Studio: State Street
Year: 2011
UK Release Date: 2011-11-21 (Limited)
US Release Date: 2011-07-08 (Limited)
Website

Forget Midnight Marauders. The best album from the '90s pioneering rap group A Tribe Called Quest (often referred to hereinafter as "Tribe") is 1991's The Low End Theory. Actually, there's a respectable number of critics and fans who believe the Midnight Marauders album to be the group's top product. But for my money, it's The Low End Theory. Its subject matter is more diverse, frontline emcees Kamaal Ibn John Fareed (a.k.a. "Q-Tip") and Malik Taylor (a.k.a. "Phife Dawg") exhibited better synergy, and its bass has more boom.

I absolutely love The Low End Theory.

I wish I had the same enthusiasm for the Michael Rapaport-directed Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the documentary chronicling A Tribe Called Quest's career and personnel tensions. It is, after all, a dream of an idea. You've got an innovative rap group making groundbreaking music during what many consider to be hip-hop's "golden age". The songs are banging ("Bonita Applebum", "Check the Rhime" [sic], "Award Tour" -- what more could you ask for?) and the personalities (particularly Q-Tip and Phife) are compelling and entertaining. It seems impossible to screw up. Yet, Beats, Rhymes & Life, while a passable effort, doesn't do justice to its source material.

That's a shame, too, as the film arrives at a pivotal moment in the hip-hop time line. During hip-hop's ascension from street corner novelty to global phenomenon, the culture has made its mark outside of the elements of music, dance, art, and deejaying. Its impact can be found in fashion, television, and film as well. In particular, the world of film poses a reflective challenge, as hip-hop related films initially showcased the culture (see Wild Style (1983), Beat Street (1984), Breakin' (1984), Krush Groove (1985), and the like) but are now aimed at archiving its history through biopics (Notorious), semi-autobiographical story lines (8 Mile (2002), and documentaries [Tupac: Resurrection (2003)].

Early works, focusing on depicting hip-hop culture, are significant to hip-hop's growth, while attempts to document and archive become critical to its understanding. What we say about it today shapes the way people will understand it in the future. That's probably why authors and filmmakers are keen to preserve hip-hop's history, as rappers themselves are producing memoirs (such as Jay-Z's Decoded (2010)) and autobiographies (Prodigy's My Infamous Life and Ice-T's ICE: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption -- From South Central to Hollywood).

Hip-hop personalities make for intriguing figures on the big screen, which is magnified by the built-in tension between the controversy rap engenders in society and the natural struggle to succeed in such a competitive field. Some really cool movies, either documentaries or biopics, could be made based on the truth and lore surrounding such figures and collectives as the Juice Crew, Sugar Hill Records, DJ Red Alert, DJ Kool Herc, KRS-One, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa.

Within this context, Beats, Rhymes & Life is such a promising but vexing documentary. Its promise resides in its intention to chronicle the career arc of A Tribe Called Quest, one of hip-hop's most appreciated and venerable acts. The film begins with the group's appearance at the 2008 Rock the Bells concert, a reunion performance plagued by the rift between front men Q-Tip and Phife. Once this core conflict is established, the film travels back to the beginning, to the origins of the friendship between Q-Tip and Phife, and then links these two with band mates Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White. Inevitably, the film catalogues the group's record label signing and their eventual release of a discography featuring, arguably, three of hip-hop's most important recordings in People's Instinctive Travels & the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991), and Midnight Marauders (1993).

The group members are naturally engaging, affable, and forthcoming, from the energetic Jarobi to the stoic but gentle Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Q-Tip is the music lover who early on found solace in creating sounds and later found inspiration in crafting beats and assembling song productions. Phife is the rhyme fanatic who became an avid sports enthusiast. Music industry colleagues and peers (Questlove, Black Thought, Bob Power, Pharrell Williams, Busta Rhymes, Chris Lighty, and more) join the fray to add comments and varying perspectives to the group members' recollections and anecdotes.

So, all in all, it's a cool vibe, with Q-Tip visiting his old high school and noting its close proximity to the police headquarters and how, as students he was forever using his school desks as percussion. Phife, the self-styled "funky diabetic", presents the same gregarious personality he displays on record. Q-Tip likes to talk about song lyrics and the older recordings that inspired the songs. He wants to express himself, and he eventually embarked on a solo career to continue his musical journey. Phife, on the other hand, isn't as crazy about hip-hop as he used to be. In its current form, he says, he could "take it or leave it."

The contrasting dynamic between Q-Tip and Phife is designed to keep viewers engaged. After all, who doesn't want to see two headstrong personalities discussing their disagreements and shortcomings? It's one of the few aspects of the film that succeeds in giving viewers true insider access to the crew's inner workings. Unfortunately, the stress in their relationship dominates the back end of the film. Phife accuses Q-Tip of seeing the group as "Q-Tip & A Tribe Called Quest", likening the leader-plus-group billing to Diana Ross & the Supremes or Michael Jackson & the Jackson 5. "And I'm supposed to be Tito?" Phife demands, before he adds, touchingly, "No disrespect to Tito." He believed Q-Tip saw himself as the star of the show, with the rest of the members playing supporting, background roles.

Q-Tip, for his part, paints his involvement as collaborative, and indicative of a collective effort. This back-and-forth drama between Q-Tip and Phife, with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi literally and figuratively caught in the middle, carries the film to its conclusion.

Therein lies the problem with Beats, Rhymes & Life, this prolonged civil war between A Tribe Called Quest's chief vocalists. Discord within the group's personnel should certainly be part of the account, but the disproportionate attention it gets is tedious, gossipy, and almost uncouth. It turns the tide of the movie from being music-oriented -- with Q-Tip talking about how he created the beat for the group's monster cut "Can I Kick It" -- and transforms it into a forum for bickering buddies. Considering what the film really ought to be -- an insightful tribute as well as a smart critique of an important hip-hop crew -- all of this focus on pitting one member against another just misses the point.

What's completely maddening about this approach is how, when the rift between Q-Tip and Phife finally boils over at the 2008 Rock the Bells show, their altercation is reduced to subtitles. It's impossible to hear what they're saying, which is not only annoying but anticlimactic. I get it: we all love Tribe and we all want so badly for them to be able to perform together. We'd love another Tribe album. We want to know why they couldn't get back together in the studio. But this is supposed to be a documentary, not a fan letter. So how about some balance? It's big picture time when it comes to telling the story of hip-hop.

A Tribe Called Quest needed a documentary that was positional as well as situational. By that, I mean the film should have positioned the group within the climate of 1990s hip-hop, not only as a point of origin, but as a point of comparison. After all, Tribe's recordings, particularly the first three highly regarded Tribe fixtures, keep company with top flight rap albums -- stuff like Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet (1990), Main Source's Breaking Atoms (1991), De La Soul's De La Soul is Dead (1991), Dr. Dre's The Chronic (1992), Black Moon's Enta Da Stage (1993), Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993), and Nas's Illmatic (1994).

The situational aspect of the film is fine, and acknowledging that the group members found themselves in certain situations at certain times is crucial to the chronology. People have to make decisions when faced with difficult situations, and those decisions have consequences.

In the film, Q-Tip reveals that music was a form of escape for him in his formative years, especially around the time his father was dying. That "escape" became a hobby, and later became his chosen profession.

Likewise, Phife discusses his struggle with diabetes, particularly his inability to kick his addiction to sugar, which ultimately requires that he undergo a liver transplant. Touchingly, his wife is his donor.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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