When we listen to the music of our favorite groups or see a concert, we as viewers only get a glimpse of the struggle, joy and heartache that goes into the art we enjoy. Our stars are all too human, and in Michael Rapaport’s excellent new documentary “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” we see the members of the Tribe in all their humanity, great and petty.
Rapaport, a character actor you’d know if you saw him, is a huge Tribe fan who followed the group when they reunited for a tour in 2008, 10 years after they released their last album and went their separate ways. When we see them together again the old grievances come out in full force. Not everyone wanted the band to break up and not everyone was happy about how things went down.
But before we get to the infighting and recriminations, we hear about the early days in Queens, where Q-Tip and Phife Dawg grew up just blocks apart and started rhyming together. As close as two brothers, they met Ali Shaheed Muhammad at lower Manhattan’s Murry Bergtraum High School, where the band was formed with Jarobi White. We hear the story of those early days, listening to DJ Red Alert and Run-D.M.C. It was all love and aspiration back then, which led to several of the most iconic albums of classic hip-hop, including “The Low End Theory.”
But these were young men with egos and it should not be surprising that their friendship would fray. The real friction was between the two oldest friends-when Q-Tip decided that the band had said all it could say, Phife was none too pleased. The intervening 10 years did little to heal the rift, and when the band comes together for the 2008 tour, the sparks fly.
The film occasionally veers into VH1 “Behind the Music” territory, but Rapaport is able to keep things entertaining and we see these four men reflect on their past even as they work towards healing the rift that has formed between them. As Phife Dawg’s health deteriorates due to diabetes and kidney disease, we watch the members of the band come back together to support him.
We get the story behind the songs we love, but more importantly we see the humanity behind the names and the voices. “Beats, Rhymes and Life” is a must-see for any serious hip-hop fan.