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

A decade after the release of their last studio album, A Tribe Called Quest reunited in 2008 for short concert tour, during which some old wounds were ripped open, long-festering resentments flared and some nasty, nasty things were said. As luck would have it, actor and first-time director Michael Rapaport was on hand with the crew of his documentary, “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.”

After opening with a taste of the drama to come, Rapaport smartly circles back to the beginning, letting each member of the group—Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Mohammed and Jarobi White--contribute to the story of their coming together. Not surprisingly, the tension that has long threatened the band exists almost entirely between Phife and Q-Tip, the two who have known each other since they were 2.

Of course, you can’t tell the story of the Tribe without talking about the Native Tongues, the informal collective of rap acts which Q-Tip named after a line on an obscure record called "The New Birth." Among the Tongues were seminal acts like De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, Queen Latifah and a host of others. The Tribe and the rest of the Tongues were a new breed of rappers, less about boasting and bombast, more about partying, positivity and community.

Throughout the film, Questlove and Black Thought of The Roots, Pharrell Williams, Common, Busta Rhymes, Beastie Boys and others to testify to the Tribe's greatness and influence. Additionally, Rapaport has compiled a great collection of videos, home movies and assorted clips of the band from their early days.

Not to criticize the film or to diminish the story of Tribe, but it’s striking how familiar their story is—two creative forces in a band unable to set aside their egos. Lennon walked away from McCartney, Richards and Jagger barely tolerate one another... Phife and Q-Tip are in a classic on-again, off-again marriage that leaves the rest of the family confused and exhausted. Rapaport deftly allows both men to make their case against the other, and then have impartial parties corroborate the charges against both.

What Rapaport lacks in technical skill he makes up for with a passion for his subject that is plain to see, at times a little too plain. And when the closing credits roll, it’s hard not to wince at the sight of Tribe being listed as producers, a fact that Rapaport has acknowledge was not ideal.

"They don't have final cut. I don't think in a documentary as intimate as this – as emotional, as personal as it is – that the people it's about should have a say. It's hard for them to have perspective," Rapaport told Rolling Stone.

That said, “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” is a great story about a great band that was at the heart of a movement that left an indelible stamp on popular music and still has heads bouncing all around the world 15 years removed from their heyday.

“Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” opens in limited release Friday, July 8. You can read our interview with director Michael Rapaport here.

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