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

Michael Rappaport’s love letter to one of the greatest bands to touch the mic

By Alex Floro

Don’t know anything about hip hop? Can’t distinguish between radio mush and quality tracks? Let Michael Rappaport’s love letter to one of the greatest bands to touch the mic, A Tribe Called Quest, be your guide. Two hours with this film will make you a hip hop, not just rap, fan for life. This documentary, “Beats, Rhymes & Life,” takes you through the history of the famous trio (occasionally a party of four) from their humble beginnings on Linden Blvd to cult status in alternative hip hop circles and eventual beef within the band. This group was one of the reasons I fell in love with hip hop, and needless to say I was quite excited to see the film. It definitely exceeded my expectations. But what can I say – Q Tip, Phife Dog, Ali Shaeed, and Jarobi never disappoint.

The problem with many musical biographies transferred onto film is the predictability of the highs and lows of the music industry and inevitable fighting between band members and/or behind the scenes people. Beats had some of the same old formula of ego clashing (especially between Q-Tip and Phife), but what saved it from just being another E! True Hollywood story was the quality of the music. Maybe I’m just being biased, but watching Q-Tip rummaging through vinyl stacks for the most obscure, yet satisfying, jazz and funk tracks made me feel all tingly as I became consumed in the music. My head was continuously rocking back and forth, and I found myself whispering along the lyrics (as did more than half of the audience). I was definitely “having eargasms as [I] start[ed] to consume” the soundtrack, a must if you’re looking to download some music this week. Read further to see my favorite tracks list.

Rappaport did an exceptional job of diving deep into the inner workings of Tribe and getting a true overview of each of the member’s backgrounds and viewpoints of every situation. He avoided the usual route of focusing on drama with their label and management (there’s enough of that in their tracks) and created a storyline that allowed the audience to become invested in the group, even if you didn’t know a single thing about ATCQ. The first half of the film was an exceptional overview of the early, and arguably the most creative, phase of the group. It smoothly transitioned to more serious topics such as Phife’s diabetes and frustrations with reaching a point that Q-Tip described as “a time where we had exhausted all that we needed to say.” Your heart broke when Jarobi broke into tears while discussing Phife’s medical condition. You could feel for Ali who is forever caught in the middle of the band’s most opinionated members, childhood friends Q-Tiip and Phife.

The band separated in 1998, with each of the members beginning their respective projects. But as Q-Tip rhymed in Verses from the Abstract, “progressions cant be made if we’re separated forever.”  Coming together at the request of Phife, the group propelled itself back into touring, beginning with the Rock the Bells tours and shows in Japan and Europe. Rappaport did a nice job with avoiding the storybook happy ending, and left the audience to make their own conclusions on how the band will get along from now on. This film was a true, honest portrayal of a band that has become part of the musical identity of hip hop fans, whether they are fully aware of it or not. Their music transitioned rap from primarily party records to having a powerful, intelligent, conscious voice to be reckoned with. They arguably paved the road for many contemporary producers and artists such as Pharell Williams, The Roots,  and Kanye West, just to name a few.  It is obvious that I would recommend this film to all hip hop fans, but also to fans of music in general. Even if you prefer Elvis over Ella Fitzgerald, Metallica over Michael Jackson, this film and A Tribe Called Quest is a testament to pursuing one’s own sound and vision, whether it be in music or any other endeavor.

Just Some of My Favorite ATCQ Tracks, not in any particular order:
-Mr. Mohammed (People’s Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm)
-Lyrics to Go (Midnight Marauders)
-Electric Relaxation (Midnight Marauders)
-Butter (Low End Theory)
and, finally, because I have a soft spot for this particular song:
-Bonita Applebum (People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm)

A Tribe Called Quest