I know myself well enough to know that I can be lazy. There’s a certain level of scatterbrain to my personality that can prevent me from doing certain activities I might enjoy.
That said, I don’t know that I have ever functioned with more single-mindedness of purpose as upon my discovery that the Tribe Called Quest documentary was going to get a Canadian premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs documentary film festival. One screening, one night only. I had to be there.
Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, had been whispered about for years, ever since word got out that actor Michael Rapaport was following the band with a camera during the 2008 Rock the Bells tour. The whispers turned to a roar last November when a trailer debuted, giving fans their first taste of what the film would be, before being quickly pulled after after group leader Q-Tip expressed his disapproval of the project.
Times done changed though, and with the band supporting the film’s final cut, it’s started showing to rapturous audiences at Sundance and Tribeca, as well as the Toronto stopover.
My attendance at this event was beyond mandatory. Only now that I look back on my musical fandom can I fully appreciate the monumental role Tribe played: bugging out when I first saw the video for ‘I Lost My Wallet in El Segundo’, falling asleep on my parents’ couch watching the video for ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)’, my jaw dropping into my lap the first time I heard ‘Award Tour’…as I’ve gone back and actually bought the albums, Tribe has proven themselves to me as the best to ever do it.
You know that episode of South Park where Butters is trying to become an evil genius, only to be told his every nefarious idea was already done on The Simpsons? Tribe is like the hip-hop version of that episode. I’d hear a cool beat in one song,only to find out later that Tribe had already used it years earlier. Eine Kleine Hedmusik by Coldcut? Tribe did it! [Vibes n’ Stuff from Low End Theory]. Jazzy Jeff’s ‘Da Ntro‘? Tribe did it! [‘Butter,’ also from Low End Theory]. When you fully get a sense of just how much they contributed to the music and the culture, you agree with Rapaport’s belief that, “A Tribe Called Quest meant the same thing as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones.”
The film traces the band’s origins from MCs Phife and Q-Tip’s first elementary school meeting, though their affiliation with the Native Tongues Collective, the release of their first three undisputed classic albums, through their sabbatical and reunion on the 2008 tour, a move that quickly reopened old wounds the members had been carrying around for years, specifically between Tip and Phife.
Much has been made about the ‘controversial’ nature of the doc, and how it paints Q-Tip as the villain, mistreating Phife and belittling the severity of his diabetes complications, culminating in an explosive argument on the last night of the tour. While the argument does happen, the film presents a much more balanced version of events than some early reviews might lead one to believe. If Tip is the somewhat insensitive, megalomaniacal perfectionist that any superior band requires, Phife is the oversensitive second lieutenant with a case of little brother syndrome, dissatisfied with a perception that puts him, as he phrases it, as the Tito Jackson to Q-Tip’s Michael. Honestly, once you see the film, you’d be hard pressed to understand just what it was Tip did that was so awful. As someone who’s played in a band with the same people for years, I know that the other people in the group can do things to rub you wrong in ways that would never make sense to outsiders. The Tip/Phife argument feels like one of those moments.
This disagreement, and the resolution of it in the wake of Phife’s kidney surgery and the acceptance of a Japenese tour, is the film’s only outright sour note, trying to shoehorn a three-act narrative into a story that doesn’t need it. If anything, it seems to gloss over what I always understood lead to the group’s dissolution in the first place: Q-Tip’s alleged unilateral addition of J.Dilla and Consequence to the group, something that only gets the briefest of mentions in the doc by the head of their record label.
Another misfire, as my Lady pointed out, is the film’s decision to use testimonials from more contemporary artists in place of testimony from people who were there. The only people who get more facetime than Pharell Williams in the movie are Tribe themselves, which should not be. I don’t need Pharell to tell me ‘Bonita Applebum’ was a game changer, I know ‘Bonita’ was a game changer. Maybe we could use that time to talk with De La or Monie Love some more, or include the Beatnuts or Dante Ross, who only show up in the end credits saying their names?
Still, these are minor, minor gripes, and for anyone who loves Golden Age Hip-Hop, or has a special place in their hearts for Tribe, the film is a must see, for the chance to finally know what the hell ‘semen’s furniture’ was a pun of; to watch Q-Tip break down the drum sample he used on ‘Can I Kick It?’; to watch Tip and Phife bust out their best old school dances during rehearsal as Ali laughs behind the decks, the film is packed with amazing moments, and provides insight into the band you’ll cherish.
For me, to be in a room with a few hundred like-minded people, who all hold this band so dear, who were all bobbing their heads when ‘Electric Relaxation’ came bumping through the speakers of the Bell Lightbox, is one of those unique pleasures that makes me feel at home in this city, and was more than worth the two hours I spent waiting on the rush ticket line.
Beats, Rhymes and Life begins limited engagements this summer. Peep the website to see if it’s in your city.
Always my favourite Tribe video, just because they look like they’re having so much goddamn fun. And Tip’s dance at 3:02 makes me pee a little.