Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Few Gripes with "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest"

I was 7-years-old when A Tribe Called Quest’s first album People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythms was released but my brother was 17. Thanks to him, I quickly learned that ATCQ was the pinnacle of Hip Hop groups. While I heard plenty of NWA and Public Enemy in our house, nothing compared to his love for Tribe. I followed after my brother like a hungry puppy. If he liked it, it HAD to be the best and Tribe was his absolute favorite Hip Hop group (and still is).

The love for Tribe, and all the artists represented in the Native Tongues, grew feverishly in our house with each release. I was too young to fully understand the lyrics but I wasn’t too young to recognize the feeling. This music made me feel damn good. It induced feverish dancing (Buddy), coy coolness (Bonita Applebum), pure uncut hype (Scenario) and quiet contemplation (Stressed Out).

Years passed and Tribe broke up. I’ve since fallen madly in love with the groups ATCQ paved the way for: Outkast and The Roots being the most notable. When I heard that Michael Rappaport was directing “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” I thought surely the documentary would focus on Tribes impact and legacy. Sadly, this was not the case.

Rappaport’s story was almost elementarily linear. He seemed to be rushing through the history of Tribe to get to the recent beef between Q-Tip and Phife. Tribe’s foundation and first albums were succinctly detailed in the beginning of the film to make room for the more salacious footage of strife within the group.

Rappaport is a self professed Tribe fan, so, I was surprised at the film’s lack of focus on the music. Q-Tip explained where he came up with some of the samples for some of the beats and where in the hell “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” came from. It would have been nice to have more of these insights into how one of Hip Hop’s greatest groups actually created the classics we still rock to today.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad agrees with me. In an interview with Exclaim.ca he said:

"I think it's decent," Muhammad says. "What I would like to have seen from it, and this is one of the issues that Q-Tip and I have had with the director, is that we felt that -- we're perfectionists in everything we do and we understand the culture and we understand the art form, we understood ourselves and we felt the music was not -- he didn't spend enough time on the composition, on the music. Periods of music that we were pulling from was as important as the way we compiled it, what we pulled away and sampled. He would say 'I've only got 90 minutes to get it done, I gotta shorten it up.' I felt there was too much time on the bickering and not enough time on the musicality of it. But other than that it's pretty fair."

The interviews chosen for the documentary were entertaining and informative. Pharrell, Black Thought and Questlove all provided comical quips and insights from a fan’s perspective. What was missing from this footage was any real discussion of Tribe’s legacy. The very short clips from these artists don’t do ATCQ’s oeuvre justice. No where in the film was their almost religious connection and significance to their fanbase explained.

Another disappointment in “Beats, Rhymes & Life” was that Rappaport chose to use the perspective of a Tribe fan, taking for granted that his audience was already familiar with the group. Anyone watching this film without a working knowledge of ATCQ’s work and impact would walk away not understanding that Tribe was (and is) a big fucking deal. They created a movement within Hip Hop that is still alive today but this film didn’t reflect the immensity of the task.

I will say that I think Q-Tip was in a huff about nothing prior to the release of the documentary. He wasn’t necessarily portrayed as the big bad wolf in “Beats, Rhymes & Life.” If you must choose sides, Tip clearly comes out as the villain in the film but I should hope that fans are able to be a bit more mature with their judgements. I don’t think it was an issue of ego but a lack of sensitivity and understanding. We’ve probably all been guilty of the same thing. Phife isn’t at all guilt free in my view. His hyper sensitivity and lack of communication exacerbated the tensions between the two.

Despite the many flaws in the film, I still thought it was pretty good. The insights that were uncovered in the hour and a half were well worth the price of admission and the trip down memory lane is priceless.

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