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Beats, Rhymes, and Life: Growing Up Tribe

Jr. | , Guthrie P. Ramsey | 8/15/2011, 10:40 a.m.

A most compelling feature of Beats, Rhymes, and Life, told in the words of the artists themselves, are explanations of the creative processes that became their stock and trade. Since the appearance of Tricia Rose's groundbreaking book about hip hop culture Black Noise (1994), writing on the genre has exploded into a cottage industry. Writers deftly consider the music's social context with an emphasis on the subject matter of the lyrics. What is generally lacking, however, is what we get a glimpse of in the film: how the music is put together.

We learn that Tribe constituted a delicate ecology of personal and artistic abilities and connections. It's amazing to witness Q-Tip reveal his insatiable appetite for recordings from all genres. In one scene he's in a workspace retracing how and from what sources he put together the beat of a track with a turntable. His command and understanding of sound organization could have been the subject of a documentary itself. Combining samples from jazz and sources from across the sonic spectrum, this technique worked well within hip hop conventions but was heard as an expression setting Tribe apart from their contemporaries. As poets, their rhymes or flows cruised the American vernacular for referents that were twisted, cleverly taken out of context, dipped in positive self-awareness, and then employed as wit and "consciousness."

If Q-Tip is featured as the driven, single-minded artist, then Phife, his rapping counterpart, comes across as the reluctant artist. He's just as passionate about sports as he is music, and describes writing some of his most compelling and memorable flows while traveling to the recording on the subway. The film depicts the group's DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad as accompanists in the worlds of jazz and classical genres are-as studious, observant, and musically keeping the train on the track with an ample skill set, verve and understatement. (I wish we could have gotten a close look of the notebooks that he always carried onstage!). And founding but occasional member Jarobi White says that his participation was about the spirituality of fraternity and support he got from the group.

Such youthful ecologies are difficult to sustain over time. But as the throngs of screaming fans proved as they turned out for Tribe's fateful 2008 reunion tour, an event that serves as a frame for this enjoyable documentary: life may change, but rhymes and beats are forever.