What to Watch: Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
Since A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, Low End Theory, came out in 1991 I’ve been a fan. I can still remember the first time I saw the video for “Scenario”. The lines were clever—like Phife Dog’s of-the-moment opener, “Bo knows this and Bo knows that But Bo don’t know jack, cause Bo can’t rap”—and Busta Rhymes’ mesmerizing cameo. That year “Scenario” was on everyone’s mixtape. If you were in a car or at a party for more than 10 minutes, chances are you’d hear it.
Delving deeper, as fanatical teens are known to do, I liked them more and more. I loved their jazz samples and smart lyrics and stuck with them throughout the years, faithfully buying each album.
Earlier this year when I’d heard Michael Rapaport made a documentary about the group, I thought I’d heard wrong. Michael Rapaport? A Tribe Called Quest? Truly it was too awesome a pairing to be real.
For anyone who doesn’t know who Michael Rapaport is, he was usually the only white actor in 90s “black” movies, or “Hood films” as Wikipedia calls them, who wasn’t casted as a cop or corrupt politician. It was the era of Spike Lee and films like New Jack City, Boyz N the Hood, Above the Rim, and Menace II Society were huge; Rapaport was consistently authentic—he was the down white guy.
Beats, Rhymes & Life was Rapaport’s first time directing a film, a project that came about unintentionally. In passing, he’d mentioned to Q-Tip that someone needed to make a film about them. Q-Tip said, “do it”.
The first scene Michael shot became the film’s opening; the group was on their 2008 reunion tour. The footage shows the height of the group’s tension. Tribe had broken up in 1998, after their album The Love Movement was released. They’d known each other for nearly 30 years and spent 20 of those making music.
Q-Tip, Phife Dog, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were feeling the strain of living life as one entity. The film, however, is not about the group’s decline. Beats, Rhymes & Life doesn’t sensationalize the hard times, instead it’s a celebration of who this group was and what they meant to people.
When Rapaport looks back on Tribe’s early and glory days, he’s documenting the beginning—and rise—of hip hop, the revolution of the 80s, sparked by the radio. There were boomboxes on every stoop blasting DJ Red Alert, Run DMC, and LL Cool J—all influencers on Tribe’s style.
As Tribe’s sound became known on the street, in the venues, and on the radio, they, too, became the influential. Angie Martinez, Monie Love, the Beastie Boys, Common, Black Thought, and others all get on camera to tell stories and talk about what Tribe was to them. It made me remember how much fun East Coast hip hop was in the 90s.
In his interview with the New York Times, when asked if he thought it would be difficult to make a documentary about Tribe, Rapaport said, “Honestly, no. I was a little bit innocent about that,” which is exactly why he was the best man to shoot this film. Like Rapaport, A Tribe Called Quest always had an air of honesty and innocence. The group’s issues—largely isolated to Phife feelings towards Q-Tip, as the film shows—plays it out as a brotherly tiff, a misunderstanding between stubborn family members. Beats, Rhymes & Life is a trip down memory lane paved with love and affection.
Q&A with the New York Times
Q&A with PBS’s Art Beat
Q&A with WNYC’s Culture Editor
Interview on Sound of Young America
Interview on KCRW’s The Treatment
Interview on NPR’s All Things Considered
Interview on WNYC’s Soundcheck
New York Times review
A.V. Club review
What’s on the Shelf?
The Plot Against Hip Hop by Nelson George
“THE PLOT AGAINST HIP HOP is a noir novel set in the world of hip hop culture. The stabbing murder of esteemed music critic Dwayne Robinson in a Soho office building is dismissed by the NYPD as a gang initiation. But his old friend, bodyguard/security expert D Hunter, suspects there’s much more to his death. An old cassette tape, the theft of a manuscript Robinson was working on, and some veiled threats suggest there are larger forces at work.” [via Akashic] Review in Time Out New York. Interview at okayplayer.
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
“On the surface, Can’t Stop charts a smart history of the hip-hop movement as it’s come to be understood; Chang devotes a lot of attention to breakdancing and graffiti, as well as the music. Can’t Stop‘s real strength, however, derives from its big-picture vantage. Chang is a formidable reporter who follows individual actions to their collective vanishing point, such that principal figures like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Rakim, Public Enemy, and Ice Cube all wade in the lapping tides of black consciousness and political unrest. Chang’s approach to history seems to stem from a question he poses in regard to dub, the remixed reggae sound whose focus on shadows helped set the stage for hip-hop: ‘What kind of mirror is it that reflects everything but the person looking into it?’” [via The AV Club]
The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop by Dan Charnas
“Pulitzer-level reporting — Charnas interviewed more than 300 subjects — brings to life the story of the dollars behind the ballers in this absorbing account of hip-hop’s transformation from South Bronx cottage industry to multibillion-dollar global business.” [via Spin]
Interview on Fresh Air. Interview on Sound of Young America. Interview at Fader.
Decoded by Jay-Z
“. . . ‘Decoded’ is much better than it needs to be; in fact, it’s one of a handful of books that just about any hip-hop fan should own. Jay-Z explains not only what his lyrics mean but how they sound, even how they feel . . .” [via New Yorker]
Interview on Fresh Air. Video of Jay-Z in conversation with Cornell West at the New York Public Library (opens with sound).
Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label by Bill Adler, Dan Charnas, and Rick Rubin; Introduction by Russell Simmons
“Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label is a colossal read, with its oversize width reminiscent of a vinyl sleeve. But the inside isn’t daunting; in fact, it’s alluring, with photography steeped in the record company’s storied first years, alongside words from some of hip-hop’s historic moguls, such as Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin and Kevin Liles. With a relentless attention to aesthetic, Def Jam pays homage to both its past as a corporation and the past of the genre that it helped build.” [via The Root] Listen to Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons on NPR’s Weekend Edition.
What’s on your shelf this week? Comments are open.