Once upon a time, someone in the hip-hop community decreed that Bill Clinton had earned the “Black People Card”. I’m not certain, but it sounds like something Chris Rock would’ve said, so for now I’ll credit him with this. The argument was that Clinton was so cool, so down with black people, that had it not been for the colour of his skin, he’d be considered black on street cred alone. Think of the Black People Card as the Black Amex of the hip-hop community: you can’t apply for the card. If you ask, chances are you can’t afford it. No, you have to be sent an invitation. The hip-hop community—blacks by de facto—have to come to a consensus and say, “Yeah, he’s one of us.” Other members of the Black People Card club include Eminem, Rick Rubin and Al Pacino (hello, Scarface?); Justin Timberlake’s invitation—depending on whom you ask—is still pending. But you can certainly consider Michael Rappaport part of the club. As an actor he starred in 90s films that dealt with black social consciousness; he’s an avid fan of basketball and a true hip-hop head. So it was only fitting that if a white guy should do a documentary about one of the greatest rap groups of all time, it’d be him.
Beats, Rhymes & Life: the Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is a title lifted from the group’s fourth (and fourth-best) album. It has all of the ingredients that you look for in a rock—um—rapumentary:
History: From Linden Blvd in Queens, we’re introduced to Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, two knuckleheads who messed around and rapped at school as if it were a joke, until somehow they stumbled upon connections. They soon join forces with Ali Shaheed Mohammed and Jarobi White, and set out on their journey.
Culture: The vibe of New York in the late 80s and early 90s is well-depicted, as is Q-Tip’s love for the classics of soul records (quite impressive). It’s rare to see rappers and rap producers in the studio thumbing through old vinyl and explaining how some 10-second intro of a song from the late 70s turned into a monster hit of the 90s.
The Fame: The coolest part about Tribe’s story of success is how Rapport includes so much testimony from other rappers of the day on how great they were. Of course Q-Tip is going to prop hit own hits, but it’s even better when De Le Soul are doing it.
The Fall: And here’s where the film gets tricky, or dare I say, messy. While Phife’s struggles with diabetes was clearly a setback, the group essentially imploded the least exciting way possible, by clash of egos. The studio simply wasn’t big enough for Q-Tip and Phife anymore. With rock bands, there would’ve been drug rehabs, strangulations in the studio, someone sleeping with someone else’s girl, or in Van Halen’s case, very public decrees of hate. With A Tribe Called Quest, we essentially had a situation where two guys who’d spent literally their entire lives together simply got sick of spending their entire lives together. When they quarrel on screen its not compelling in the least; it’s just tiresome and a little sad (especially when Mohammed in particular stands in the middle of it and refuses to take sides). When a group can’t get along for no specific, paramount reason, it casts a low cloud over everything else, because these aren’t just any rappers we’re watching, these are pioneers who are still relatively young enough to continue on touring and recording original music. In fact the squabbling goes on five minutes too long, and the film turns into personal space for the two principle parties to sit there and whine and complain. Seriously, Rappaport should've moved on. It’s almost a shame, too, considering that there doesn’t really exist another proper, feature-length doc about a rap group at this level. My hope is that someone learns from this when it comes time to do the Wu-Tang Clan.