David Gately

Warring Tribesmen

In A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, David Gately, Hip hop, Hip hop, Phife, Phife, Q-Tip, Q-Tip, Rhymes & Life, Rhymes & Life, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest on July 17, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Jesus and Judas. Beavis and Butthead. Q-Tip and Phife. Rodney King said it best: Can’t we all just get along?

Apparently not. Which is too bad because A Tribe Called Quest, the 1990s groundbreaking hip-hop group in which Q-Tip and Phife are members, and Michael Rapaport’s new rockumentary based on the band, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, are equally exceptional. Both are worth seeing. The latter is in theaters now. The former, which should be rechristened A Tribe Called Dysfunctional, can not be seen now, unfortunately, because they split, suddenly and with infamous acrimony, in 1998.

Though Tribe has reunited three times in the past 10 years, primarily as part of the lineup for the Rock the Bells annual hip hop festival, the kinship is incapable of getting along. It is the Tribe’s unique journey – adored by unwavering fans worldwide but sadly undermined by Q-Tip and Phife’s immortally toxic bromance – that is the subject of Rappaport’s film.

Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed, formerly Jonathan Davis) and Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) were childhood friends from Queens, New York. Together with DJ-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and a fourth member, rapper Jarobi White, who left the group after their first album, formed A Tribe Called Quest in 1985 when all four were 15 years old. Between 1990 and 1998 they released five critically and commercially successful albums.

Tribe came along at the right time. Their innovative fusing of beatbox and jazz during hip hop’s “golden-age” (1985 to 1995) helped propel the fledgling musical hyphenate of artist as mix-master producer extraordinaire. Many of their songs – Bonita Applebum, Can I Kick It?, and I Left My Wallet in El Segundo – are regarded as classics.

John Bush of Allmusic.com called Tribe “the most intelligent, artistic rap group during the 1990s.” Editors of About.com ranked them #4 on their list of the “25 Best Rap Groups of all Time.” In 2005, the group received a special achievement award at the Billboard R&B Hip-Hop Awards.

The documentary has three intersecting storylines: Tribe’s rise and impact, Q-Tip and Phife’s bad blood and, as a sidebar and reason for the group’s 2006 reunion, Phife’s struggle with diabetes and eventual kidney transplant.

We never really learn the crux of the animosity between Q-Tip and Phife, other than the two are strong-willed and stubborn. It happens in the best of bands. In the end tough, Q-Tip, behind a self-imposed cloak of purist integrity, comes off as the more uncompromising control-freak. Like a lopsided doubles’ tennis game, Ali and Jarobi (who rejoined the group for the 2006 tour) are the victims of Tribe’s uneven match. Both come off as reasoned, balanced tribesmen from the get-go, negligently tossed aside by Q-Tip and Phife’s constant and selfish warring.

The movie’s many talking heads, including Pharrell Williams and ?uestionlove of The Roots, testify to Tribe’s monumental footprint in contemporary hip hop. Without Tribe, William proclaims, “there would be no me, The Roots or Kanye (West).”

Conflicts aside, Beats, Rhymes & Life is a compelling film. Tribe’s music is endlessly infectious and provocative. The group’s voyage is rich. And the character-study of friendship gone bad is timeless. Rapaport, a Jewish, sometime actor and comedian who has appeared on TV in Boston Public, Prison Break and Friends, deserves much of the credit. His directorial debut, filmed over four years, is a stellar contribution to the genus of music documentaries.

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