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

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

Editor’s note: We don’t really do film reviews often here at Potholes — actually this is the first — but we felt that Michael Rapaport’s documentary on A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, Rhymes & Life, absolutely deserved some coverage and some critical analysis.

Hit the skip for the film review.

A Tribe Called Quest’s (ATCQ) legacy is one of the most indelible in music history. It’s a career that spanned a decade with five albums as a group, and over two decades with their respective solo endeavors. The essence of their sound and attitude has influenced other artist and shaped the personality traits of their fans. It is only fitting that someone stepped up and attempted to represent Tribe’s relevance to the spirit and legacy of Hip Hop culture. Michael Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, not only outlines the history behind the group, but succinctly captures the comedy, drama, pain, and glory of ATCQ’s career.

Beats, Rhymes and Life moves through three phases: the formation of the group in Queens and their High School (with fellow Native Tongue-ers The Jungle Brothers); the impact of their first three albums; and the subsequent music industry politics and personal drama between Q-Tip & Phife. Archival footage and interviews with Quest, Black Thought, Mike D, Pharrell and others show how Tribe stepped into the culture providing an alternative. ATCQ was a group rooted in respect of their African roots, having a positive attitude, and crafting songs with a jazz sensibility, but a heavy low end. It was a vibe captured by the images and colors of their just as legendary album covers. Any of us drifting into our thirties understand how before swagger became the go to terminology for the cool, Tribe embodied swag without any of its pompous tendencies and this documentary does a great job of capturing their essence.

Rapaport’s documentary is also keen on showing how powerful and enduring songs like “Bonita Applebum”, “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”, “Buggin’ Out”, “Excursions” and a few others are. There is a scene in particular where Q-Tip speaks on how and why he purchased Lonnie Smith’s Drive. The album contains the song “Spinning Wheel”, which provides the drum sample for “Can I Kick It”. It was a moment where every crate-digger and musician at the LA Ford Amphitheatre premier got giddy with insight and understanding. It was one of many moments where the energy of the space reflected the love these artist have for their craft. There is also a hilarious scene where former manager Chris Lighty talks about how obsessive-compulsive Q-Tip is about music, that if it wasn’t for Lighty literally snatching the album tracks from Tip, waiting for Tribe albums would’ve been like waiting for Guns-N-Roses’ Chinese Democracy. 

To conclude, Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes & Life was very short on the public drama surrounding the release of the film. Yes, we get details into why the group split, but it respectfully frames Phife and Tip as friend’s whose personal natures just drifted apart. Their personal beef does engulf the film’s narrative and actually leave us with a very positive conclusion to their professional relationship and the power of their music. The audience at the LA premier was reflective of that: multi-racial, polyethnic, and ranging in ages from tweens to people in their 50s. Some may argue the film could’ve gone deeper into the meaning and music of the albums (in particular the role of Jay Dee and Consequence on Beats Rhymes & Life), but many Tribe fans are “headz” and can fill in the blanks themselves. This film, along with Ava Duvernay’s This Is The Life: How The West Was One, are beginning to show the importance of how certain scenes and groups need to be reflected upon and documented. They hopefully open the door for future films about the various legacies and narratives within Hip Hop culture.