Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest

I left this film in a state of nostalgia for “conscious” hip hop and speechless because I couldn’t remember the last time I saw such an emotionally moving documentary.  It’s definitely not the originality in the subject matter that drives the film.  I mean Tribe is undeniably pioneers of a new brand of hip hop.  We’ve all heard of the complaints. WTF happened to good hip hop?  We’ve all seen and heard about the break-ups of legendary squabbling bands.  But the true greatness that is Beats, Rhymes & Life is not these heartbreaks, it’s how Rapaport so intimately captures human emotions in each of its context.  Rapaport uses timeless archival concert footage and signature singles like Bonita Applebum, El Segundo, and Can We Kick It, which perhaps is my biggest “I wish” was that he should have included more. The snippets were such a tease, but I guess that just shows how great innovative and influential Tribe Called Quest was that even a little snippet is enough to make you want more, to put you in a state of nostalgia, to make you feel regret for the stunting of a band’s creativity and decline of entire genre.  Certainly, emotions were yanked.
But what about the celebration and tribute?  One of the things I loved most about this film.  It was clear that everyone in the film, including Rapaport, loved Tribe – that they were emblematic of hip hop, holding a special place in everyone’s heart. This was also true for the in-theatre audience.  And let’s not forget the orgasmic display of hip hop giants, representing by their mere presence or the declaration that “I am Hip Hop” or echoed in their sentiments towards Tribe and that period in time when good music was being made.  Hearing their commentary had the effect of shit, that was taken straight from the mouth of the dragon…or was it horse? Whatever, dragon sounds way cooler. Anyways, you just had to believe it if fire was spit from the mouth of the dragon. I particularly liked being reminded of Tribe’s contribution to hip hop and other influential djs, emcees, rappers, artists…They really brought together a community literally and figuratively.  They changed the tone of rap.  Can you say Native Tongues? Craziness.  But these artists’ recognition of those who came before and how Tribe paved the way for artists like Common, Ludacris, Pharell, who I think was the best at conveying the impact of Tribe on our generation.

So yes, you get a slice of what the culture of the time was, but then there is more – the drama, the tensions, and the hardships of keeping the band together when there’s so much raw talent.  For me, the latter half of the film is less awe-inspiring, but in no way less great.  It was human.  Rapaport effectively captures the vulnerabilities of the members of Tribe.  It’s brings down the immortal, halo-wearing status of A Tribe Called Quest to a human level that is accessible and touching to fans.  We get artistic integrity. We get sibling rivalry. We get brotherhood. We get love. Life. Family. We get life-threatening diabetes. And yet, we get comedy in light of the most serious situations.  We get honesty and rawness of emotions from Phife, the ranty one, Ali, who is practically just trying not to piss his pants as he watches and crying over why his parents just can’t keep it together, Q-Tip, the one who wears the pants, and who else? Oh, Jarobi, the sibling that left the nest, choosing not to be around for his dysfunctional family, but remains the heart and spirit according to the rest.  How can you not get emotional when you see a grown man cry over friendship and loss?  Finally, we get the no matter what, at the end of the day, a simple few words is enough to remind us we are family.  One word on the conflict/drama, which I have mixed feelings. Rapaport did a good job in highlighting the tension between Phife and Q-tip, without vilifying either individuals take on the conflict, that it was a matter of difference in their perceptions of the same events and lack of communication and understanding between the two. However, I can’t help but think that the film is slightly misleading in its story-telling of the rise, the fall, and the reconciliation of Tribe.  Also, I would much rather have seen more original concert footage and music, than the underwhelming reunion clips.  Anyhow, Michael Rapaport did a lot. Go be moved. Go listen to the Low End Theory… $11

If you heart Beats Rhymes & Life:

Recommendations from Lil D:
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Waiting for Superman
The Devil and Daniel Johnston

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