The Quest to Understand Tribe

2011-07-08 (Limited)

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.

“Industry rule number 4,080 / Record company people are shady”

After Tribe’s debut, Jarobi ended up leaving the group to pursue his passion for the culinary arts, but frequently returns to the music, and since Q-Tip refers to Jarobi as the “spirit of A Tribe Called Quest”, you can at least understand that Jarobi’s absences have changed the dynamic of the group.

When Tribe finally called it quits, Ali Shaheed Muhammad was forced to find other outlets for his artistry, mostly in production work, a side project with Raphael Saadiq and Dawn Robinson as super-group “Lucy Pearl”, and working on his own compositions.

All of these situations are the results of a series of decisions and in turn affect later decisions. What we don’t get is how special A Tribe Called Quest is within the musical landscape of the era. We are treated to commentary about others making music alongside Tribe as part of the “Native Tongue” collective — artists such as Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Black Sheep, Brand Nubian, Leaders of the New School, Monie Love, and Queen Latifah. Still, the film lacks an appreciation for A Tribe Called Quest’s accomplishments within the context of ’90s hip-hop and, further, in terms of the decade’s musical landscape overall.

Beats, Rhymes & Life overlooks other aspects of Tribe’s legacy. Despite the film being introduced and later on anchored by the group’s fracturing appearance at the Rock the Bells festival in 2008, there’s no talk of Tribe’s energy onstage. There’s some footage of it that hints at what Tribe brings to the concert arena, and it’s easy to see that Q-Tip’s energy in this regard is truly infectious and boundless. Yet, the live element of hip-hop, whether good or bad, escapes discussion here.

What also escapes discussion is an acknowledgment of factors other than internal discord precipitating the group’s breakup. When Q-Tip remembers the breakup as a group decision, he mentions that he felt distressed about Tribe’s relationship with their record company. His impression was that the label wasn’t listening to the group anymore and had a different perspective on the group’s direction. It’s odd that this angle isn’t explored further in the film, especially when you consider that Q-Tip is the author of one of hip-hop’s most quoted couplets: “Industry rule number 4,080 / Record company people are shady”. I don’t know how a movie about A Tribe Called Quest fails to mention that line. While we’re on the subject of omissions, I find it unfathomable that Busta Rhymes makes a brief appearance in the film but there’s no mention of The Low End Theory‘s posse cut “Scenario” or Busta’s spotlight-stealing verse in it. Totally baffling.

Since the film gives so much attention to the disagreements between Q-Tip and Phife, we don’t learn as much about them as individuals. Yes, we learn that Q-Tip loves visiting record stores to collect music, and much of his collection has inspired his sonic output. And, yes, Phife loves sports. But what about Q-Tip’s activities after the breakup of A Tribe Called Quest? The film skips to his critically acclaimed album, 2008’s The Renaissance, as evidence of his solo career, yet makes no mention of his first solo outing, 1999’s Amplified or the circumstances surrounding his ahead-of-its-time follow-up Kamaal the Abstract, which was originally shelved but eventually released in 2009. Nor does the film mention anything about Q-Tip’s journey into the film world, with roles in 1993’s Poetic Justice, 2000’s Disappearing Acts, 2002’s Brown Sugar, and 2004’s She Hate Me.

Of course, it’s not Q-Tip’s movie. It’s supposed to be about the group. Problem is, there’s even less information about Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi. What about their specific contributions to Tribe’s albums? What did they add to the songwriting? The production? None of these questions were answered. We learn that, early on in Tribe’s career arc, Jarobi left the group to follow his passion for the culinary arts, but we aren’t told what this entails. Did he go to cooking school? Did he own a restaurant? Did he have the idea that provided the genesis for the Hell’s Kitchen reality show competition? What in the world did he do?

As for Ali Shaheed Muhammad, he does mention his own post-Tribe work, and we are treated to studio footage of him with Mary J. Blige. Mostly, though, he’s quiet, often to the point of stoicism, his innermost thoughts only conveyed by the brightness of his eyes. I would have enjoyed learning more about Ali and Jarobi in this documentary, to help round out the group portrait the film originally seemed to be creating. Look, A Tribe Called Quest broke up in 1998, so there’s a lot of time between that and Q-Tip’s 2008 solo outing that could be covered for these guys.

As it stands, the film portrays Ali and Jarobi as mere bystanders to Q-Tip’s career-oriented decision making and Phife’s carefree disposition. Phife comes off as an underdog of sorts, a fun-loving, witty person who wasn’t as concerned with success in hip-hop as he was with maintaining camaraderie with his group mates. His diabetes, and the complications that arise from it, place him in a sympathetic light, which isn’t a bad thing at all, except that Q-Tip seems to be the villain. Some of Q-tip’s interview segments were edited so that, while Q-Tip is making a point, you see Phife’s disagreeing facial expression from what appears to be a separate interview segment.

Q-Tip says he wasn’t worried about “sophomore jinx” when Tribe started work on The Low End Theory, but then we get Phife’s recollection that Q-Tip was putting pressure on the group to up the ante for that record. Q-Tip says he felt it was a group decision to call it quits for A Tribe Called Quest, but then we hear Jarobi say he felt like Q-Tip made the decision unilaterally. As Phife is preparing for his surgery, he gets a text message from Q-Tip wishing him well, and even though Phife says this bit of positive energy was all he needed from his friend, I couldn’t help but think, “What? A text message? That’s it?”

And then comes the unfortunate transition from Phife’s transplant to Q-Tip’s solo success that’s punctuated by Q-Tip’s single, “Life is Better”, representing a sense of tension and contrast. Phife surviving his surgery is juxtaposed against sights and sounds of Q-Tip bouncing around like he’s having the time of his life — hot songs, new album, performances, interviews, and people saying just the right thing to summarize a moment (i.e., “Oh my gosh, love your new song!” as he’s walking across the street). It’s hard to tell if this is all on purpose or not, considering the rather clumsy camera work that employs the shaky camera technique at its most irritating and the inclusion of meandering images that either linger too long or feature unnecessary footage. You know, The Renaissance album contained other songs that would’ve made that transition smoother and probably would have fit better. “Believe”, featuring D’Angelo, springs to mind.

Hip-hop was groundbreaking. A Tribe Called Quest was groundbreaking. Both deserve a groundbreaking documentary, not a documentary of average quality centered on discord, and seemingly intent upon manufacturing a plot thread instead of providing a comprehensive view of Tribe’s career. This one should have been better.