One of the hottest films at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is Beats, Rhymes & Life, Michael Rapaport’s new film about New York City hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest. And, in some ways, it completes a rock-doc trilogy that began with 1984’s mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap and continued in 2008 with the amazingly true Anvil!: The Story of Anvil.
Each film is about a group that rises from obscurity, achieves greatness in their field and breaks up due to personality conflicts, only to reform for a triumphant concert in Japan — Tokyo’s Summer Sonic 2010, in Tribe’s case.
Making his directorial debut, Rapaport succeeds in telling a story nearly as inspirational as Anvil and quotable as Spinal Tap — even if no one’s microphone goes to eleven. Fresh from an advance screening Thursday night in New York City, Hive compiled the five overarching themes in soundbite form.
1. “Music was a place of refuge. It was everything to me.”
Early in the film, charismatic MC, producer and group leader Q-Tip remembers becoming obsessed with hip-hop in high school, just as his father lay dying of emphysema. Tip can be as cocksure as they come, but here, he’s humble enough to admit music saved his life.
2. “The hardest part about being in a group is constantly considering somebody but yourself.”
A natural-born star destined for solo success, Q-Tip sums up why he’s unable to get along with Phife Dawg, the scrappy diabetic rapper behind some of Tribe’s best lyrics. True, Tip can be self-centered, but he was good enough to text Phife words of encouragement before his 2008 kidney-transplant surgery. “The smaller things mean a lot,” says Phife, setting up an inadvertent rhyme. “That was hot.”
3. “That’s why I’m saying a therapist would be important.”
As far as Phife’s wife is concerned, her husband’s beef with Tip is nothing a little counseling can’t cure. Phife is skeptical, to say the least. “I know what the problem is,” he says. “I’m not going to pay [someone] to tell us nothing!”
4. “We’re all his sons. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Tribe albums.”
Super fan Pharrell Williams joins Busta Rhymes, Common and numerous other artists — including members of the Roots, De La Soul and the Beastie Boys – gives props to Tip’s rhyming and production skills. Former Jive Records exec Barry Weiss puts it another way: “I love Q-Tip but he’s a fucking nut.”
5. “This is A Tribe Called Go Figure. You never know what’s going to happen. That’s the fun part, too.”
Toward the end of the film, Phife leaves open the possibility that he, Tip, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and sometime member Jarobi White will reform, and record the sixth and final album they owe Jive. Of course, Tip opens the film by insisting it would take a nod from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to get all four back onstage together, so it’s anyone’s guess whether the Midnight Marauders will ride again.