Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest could signal Michael Rappaport’s transition from actor to real-deal documentary filmmaker. Blending both an overview of hip hop history dating back to the late 80s and an in-depth dissection of the conflicts that ultimately drove apart the eponymous monumentally influential rap group, Beats, Rhymes, & Life is an exquisite piece of filmmaking, the sort of offering that handily, thoroughly defeats any stodgy stigmas potentially associated with the term “documentary”. At no point is Rappaport’s film boring or inert; rather it’s vivacious, alive, brimming with energy and passion for both the broader topic of an era of hip hop long past and also the specific focus of its narrative, the seminal 1990s rap group known as A Tribe Called Quest.
I observed and experienced Beats, Rhymes, & Life on a deeply and profoundly personal level throughout its duration. The film behaved as something of a time portal for me, taking me back to high school and reminding me of my love for hip hop and specifically the cultural pillar of rapping– an endeavor I never actively participated in (because what does a nerdy white boy from the ‘burbs have to rap about?), but one for which I had an appreciation even during my pre-teen days. Beats, Rhymes, & Life strictly speaks to the history of its musical genre and to the trials of Malick “Phife Dawg” Taylor, Kamaal Ibn John “Q-Tip” Fareed, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White, but Rappaport’s status as a fan can easily point toward our own individual experiences with rap– which is exactly the effect the film had on me.
Which is not to say that Beats, Rhymes, & Life has nothing to say to outsiders lacking familiarity with A Tribe Called Quest or even a bare-bones grasp of hip hop’s development as a culture and movement. Rappaport’s film speaks to rap connoisseurs first but he’s too strong an educator and too thoughtful a filmmaker to leave members of his audience in the dark who aren’t familiar with the materials and people examined here. Beats, Rhymes, & Life isn’t just made for fans, by a fan, with the express intent of functioning as a constructed dialogue of exclusio; in point of fact, Rappaport appears to be just as keen to share his own enthusiasm with the non-converted and make his veneration for the DJs and MCs featured here palatable to everybody.
By coupling that infectious reverence with sharp documentarian proclivities, though, Rappaport yields a work that’s as thoughtfully and thoroughly researched as it is ebullient. Beats, Rhymes, & Life certainly has a mind of its own and clearly possesses a strong understanding of its dual subjects, but more than that the film understands how important perspective is for supporting its theses and conclusions. To that end Rappaport presents an impressive line-up of interviewees, from people who witnessed firsthand the birth of hip hop aesthetics– Angie Martinez, Bobbito Garcia, DJ Red Alert, the members of De La Soul– to the talents influenced by these early figures, like Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and Black Thought of The Roots, Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D., and Lonnie “Common” Lynn.
There’s pedigree and authority to supplement Rappaport’s studies, all of it in service of painting a picture of the period in which A Tribe Called Quest came together and began impacting the face of hip hop culture. And filtered through that lens, we learn of how the group’s emergence shaped the direction of rap music as well as informed a transformation in some of hip hop’s broader cultural mores. Tribe represented the latest (and arguably most popular) act in a growing number of artists seeking to steer away from what many perceived as the negative personalities of other hip hop sub-cultures, particularly the violent and gritty textures of gangster rap as embodied by acts like N.W.A.; in other words Beats, Rhymes, & Life tracks the advent of A Tribe Called Quest through the effect their presence had on the advancement of hip hop’s cultural inclinations and framework.
Taken from this angle, Rappaport couldn’t have chosen a better focus. Tribe came into being as a product of their collective influences, of course, but through their own inception they came to be a proactive rather than reactive driving force in the hip hop community. In short, we’re not watching the effect hip hop had on a group of three MCs and one DJ, but the reverse. The result is a totally exciting tour through hip hop’s continuous evolution from the 90s even up to today, seen through the eyes of Rappaport’s guests and his primary focal points.
Beats, Rhymes, & Life also reads as tragic on a number of levels, largely due to how good Rappaport is at serving as our guide through the life and times of Tribe. As the film’s first hour wraps up, the tone shifts as Rappaport gently comes to the central focus of the documentary and begins to peel back the layers behind the group’s combustion. Taylor, Fareed, Muhammad, and White each become so familiar, knowable, and human to us in the preceding footage that when we learn of the wedges that drove them apart, Beats, Rhymes, & Life becomes heartbreaking. We’re not just watching a musical powerhouse unravel, we’re seeing lifelong friends tear themselves apart, and in each clip with each member (particularly Fareed and Taylor, around whom Tribe’s break-up most revolves) there’s an abundance of raw, genuine emotion as the now-grown men open up to the camera about the split and the effect it had on all of them. The friendships never truly dissolved (in one powerful scene, White struggles to avoid breaking down on camera as he discusses Taylor’s battle with diabetes), but they did become inflamed, and in contrast to the quartet’s soaring highs their ugly lows are difficult to digest and utterly compelling.
So then it should go without saying Rappaport deserves some serious accolades. With Beats, Rhymes, & Life, he’s given us the full circumference of A Tribe Called Quest, from the group’s artistic achievements to their personal conflicts as individuals and as complete human beings. In a year with some stiff competition among documentaries, this film engages, entertains, teaches, and moves us with style and verve, bringing 1990’s New York and the establishment of hip hop to life as told through the eyes of one of its most vital crews.