Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (2011)
Who knew Michael Rapaport had it in him?
Beats Rhymes & Life is a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest. For those unfamiliar, A Tribe Called Quest is a hip-hop group that blew up in the late ’80s/early ’90s, released five albums over the course of eight years – three of which are generally considered gamechangers – and then broke up in 1998. Nearly a decade later, they reunited, started going on tour, and continued to tease fans with a long-awaited sixth album that has yet to see the light of day.
If you’re not into hip-hop, I won’t be throwing the first stone, but if you’re even in the least bit interested, A Tribe Called Quest is a damn good place to get acquainted. See, once upon a time I was just like you, a high school freshman at a new school in the Bronx with a jones for rock and a bitter hate for rap songs that weren’t called “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” But as I quickly learned, it’s hard to escape hip-hop when you go to school in the Bronx, and if you don’t like it, then you’re in the minority. Luckily, it started to grow on me instead of leading to my total alienation from the school cafeteria, and by the time I was sophomore, I was battling kids like B. Rabbit, yo.
Alright, maybe not, but you get the idea. I don’t remember what the tipping point was or what hip-hop album first found its way into my trusty Discman, but People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, the debut album by A Tribe Called Quest, was an early revelation. When I listen to it today, I can’t help but roll my eyes at how many times Q-Tip, Phife, and Jarobi use their names to string lyrics together and how the deepest song is about Q-Tip losing his wallet in El Segundo, but it’s still fun, it’s still catchy, and the samples are still cool as hell. If you haven’t heard ’em, the easiest, crudest way to describe A Tribe Called Quest is that they’re a jazz/hip-hop fusion. Don’t quote me on that, but I think it’s pretty accurate complement.
So being a fan and getting to see a movie like this that allows me to rediscover a band that I already love and from an angle that I’ve never seen before, that’s something special. What’s even better is that first-time director Michael Rapaport is telling their story from the same set of shoes and it comes across not only in his interactions with the group, but in the testimonials he gets out of them. I for one never really knew why ATCQ broke up, and while part of what makes their reunion interesting is hearing their sides of the story, it’s seeing how raw their wounds are that really drives it all home.
It’s no big surprise that even the greatest of bands come and go, but Q-Tip, Phife, Jarobi, and Ali are the closest thing you can get to family without blood coming into the picture. It’s a connection that brought them together as kids, it’s a connection that gave them their jump-off, it’s a connection that tore them apart, and it’s a connection that keeps bringing them back despite everything that’s gone down in the past. It goes without saying that music is a huge part of this movie and a huge part of the group, but it’s that family dynamic and the honesty that comes out of these four guys that really elevates this from being a 90-minute episode of Behind the Music.
As you’ve probably gathered, I found a lot to enjoy from this movie and I’ve been listening to ATQC like gangbusters ever since. Though even for someone who just found out they exist, I’d be pretty surprised if an appreciation wasn’t to be gained for what they do, what they did, and why music needs groups like A Tribe Called Quest. I could go on about it ’til my brain gives out, but hip-hop these days tends to be a sad state of affairs. There have always been exceptions to the rule and there always will be, but back in the late ’80s/early ’90s, the hip-hop game was different – from the beats, to the rhymes, to the life. Artists used to actually put effort and creativity into the beats they laid down, their words used to mean something even if it was as extreme as “fuck the police,” and the life was more about a movement, a message. Today, it feels like a status symbol that can be achieved with the absolute minimum amount of effort and talent, and on the rare occasion that I do listen to the radio, it sucks to keep hearing the clicks and whistles.
Honestly, you remember how big that “Superman that ho!” song by Soulja Boy was a couple years ago? That’s the shit I’m talking about, folks, and that shit was no fluke either. Not trying to make any rash generalizations, but serenity now…
The point is, A Tribe Called Quest is a group that stands for everything that was once great, and continues to be, about hip-hop. Unless I’m mistaken, I don’t think there are a whole lot of documentaries about hip-hop acts. Granted, hip-hop doesn’t exactly have the same kind of lengthy history as blues, jazz, or rock and roll, but it’s a damn shame nonetheless because it’s music that can get written off pretty unfairly and music that deserves just as much respect and attention as the rest of ’em. I feel like a lot of people throw the word “innovators” out when talking about legends in the music industry, especially in the world of hip-hop, but the description truly fits for A Tribe Called Quest.
Word on the street is that Q-Tip hasn’t been the biggest fan of this movie, but Beats Rhymes & Life is nevertheless a fantastic introduction to a group that deserves to be heard. Coming from the viewpoint of someone who’s already on the bandwagon, it really was something to see the group from such a genuine, behind-the-scenes perspective, and hat’s off to Rapaport for all the flow, style, and love he made this with. There are a bunch of great moments here, moments that gave me goosebumps because the music is just that good and the passion behind it is just that palpable, and even if the subject matter isn’t perking your interest, give it a shot, it may just surprise you.
Better yet, do yourself a favor. Go listen to The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. That’s what’s up.