Due to the materialistic, misogynistic and myopic tendencies of today’s rap, it’s hard to believe that there was ever room for A Tribe Called Quest. A four-man collective that combined a tag-team rhyming approach with obscure jazz riffs and rhythms, as well as eloquent verses about life from a laid-back, pro-black point of view, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip and Jarobi became superstars, earning five back-to-back gold and platinum albums in a heady nine-year run before abruptly disbanding in 1998.
In spite of the nearly 180-degree turn that rap has taken, their absence has been keenly felt and for the most part, unexplained, something that actor and diehard Tribe fan Michael Rapaport (“Higher Learning,” “Bamboozled”) sought to clarify with “Beats….,” an entertaining, yet emotionally-charged documentary about the group’s beloved catalog and life cycle as friends and foes.
Despite of the early sensationalist hype surrounding the film (uber-perfectionist Q-Tip refuses to do press for Beats….. re differences of opinion on the final cut), Mr. Rapaport’s first time behind the lens is usually flattering, allowing each member to expound on their roots, their interests and how they built the foundation for Tribe. With the exception of DJ Ali, a Brooklynite, Phife and Q-Tip met as kindergartners and loved hip-hop, but Phife didn’t take MCing seriously until he met a beat-boxing Jarobi during a b-ball game. Later, with a serendipitous sequence of events, Ali met Q-Tip in high school and the group fell into place, championed by another friend related to the iconic NY personality Red Alert, who introduced them to a presently-recording Jungle Brothers. While dropping verses on couple of their songs, Q-Tip met De La Soul, aligned with the Native Tongues collective and within a year’s time, they released their debut (People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm), one so cerebral and anti-gangsta that it sealed ATCQ’s rep as earnest intellectuals for the hip-hop set.
As fans groove to the hits (“Bonita Applebaum,” “Can I Kick It,” “Check the Rime,” “Scenario,” “Award Tour,” “Electric Relaxation,” etc.) and reminisce, what’s apparent is that ATCQ is made up of individuals who interact like a family, tied to the cause yet chafing at their personal and creative constraints and bound to clash from time to time. The most pivotal moment, a scene Mr. Rapaport fell into that actually depicts a verbal and (brief) physical tussle between Phife and Tip during their 2008 “Rock the Bells Tour”, demonstrates the damage done when underlying issues fester (Phife’s diabetes, Q-Tip’s patriarchal approach) and egos attack.
“We’re in a group together, but you ain’t my daddy!” Phife bristles in one shot, and Q-Tip, who “never sought to become the Ginsu Master of this ****,” is perplexed and infuriated. Ali, the calm in the center of their storms, is the picture of neutrality as friends and family shake their heads. The documentary sheds a light on the dysfunction in a way that humanizes the musicians without exploiting their flaws, giving fans a glimpse into the past, knowledge about their present situations and, surprisingly, hope for the future.