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.

"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.

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