To review the Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, CBC film critic Eli Glasner invited CBC producer Sean Brocklehurst. Under the pseudonym of "Brock Boogie" Sean has been a hip hop producer and DJ for nearly 20 years.
ELI: Alright Sean, now the reason I asked you to check out this Tribe doc with me is to help fill in some gaps in my hip hop knowledge. First, let's get some basics out of the way. Beats Rhymes & Life, directed by actor Michael Rapaport is a film looking at the formation, the evolution, and eventual dissolution of A Tribe Called Quest. B.R&L is much deeper than your average Behind the Music biopic. We're walking Linden Boulevard in Queens with Q-Tip. We're in studio with Ali. We're courtside with Phife Dawg and in Jarobi's restaurant. But before we get into the personal dynamics, give us Tribe's place in hip hop history. What makes them deserve the documentary approach?
SEAN: A Tribe Called Quest were pioneers of the genre. People talk about Grand Master Flash, The Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa, and Run DMC as the pioneers but ATQC took what they created and completely changed the game. Unlike their forefathers, these guys spoke to everyone. I started listening to rap, non-stop (as it was called back then) in 1983, but when ATQC dropped their first album in '90...I finally felt like I fit in. They weren't just speaking to black Americans, they were communicating to everyone. Over the next four years they would go on to release 3 of hip-hop's greatest albums. Even Rolling Stone, which has no clue when it comes to hip-hop, put Tribe's second album (The Low End Theory) on its Best Albums of All-time list.
ELI: I loved the feel of the beginning of the doc, the slow motion shots of the Tribe crew walking down the city streets, with the soundtrack blaring. Then they segued into the a little bit of history. DJs rocking the block parties and the importance of the boom box in the glory days of the early 80s. I seem to remember thinking you weren't as taken with the start...
SEAN: I thought the first few minutes, with quotes from the band members to create tension, was a bit weak. But as soon as I heard the bass-line for Can I Kick It, and the opening credits started rolling, I was hooked! These guys got caught up in hip hop at the same time as I did. To hear them talk about how they had to be a part of that movement really brought the memories back. I loved how Rapaport used those iconic Jamel Shabazz photos and made them pop in 3D. The ode to the boom box, and its place in hip hop, was great...but it was the "digging for records" scene that really encapsulated Tribe's era to a tee. Samples were such a huge part of the music and Rapaport gave us a nice glimpse into that process when Q-Tip described how he made the beat for Can I Kick It.
ELI: Hip Hop neophyte that I am I didn't even realize the role Q-Tip had when it came to picking the samples. It's funny, the digging through the record bins also stuck in my mind. I noticed the delicacy in the way Q-Tip handled the vinyl. He can be a bit of a bombastic guy, but you see another side of him come through in thoese moments. The beat professor. I will say I wanted more about the music, sample selection, loops mixing, all of that. But it becomes obvious Beats Rhymes + Life isn't really that kind of doc.
So let's move on to the main event. The drama behind Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Director Michael Rapaport sets the stakes early, beginning with the Rock the Bells tour in 2008. He asks Q-Tip, "Do you think that was it?" Meaning, was that the last Tribe show? And Q-Tip's answer is pretty definitive. So my question is, how much was known about the reasons behind the Tribe break up before the documentary came out?
SEAN: I think every fan knew that the group was going through some internal problems after their fourth album, Beats Rhymes & Life, came out. It's definitely a fitting name for this documentary because evidence of Tribe's demise could be heard all over that album. As Phife Dawg said in the doc, 'the chemistry was shot,' and fans could certainly hear it. What most fans haven't known is why they split. I'd keep hearing rumours of a falling-out but never any explanation. This film definitely provides that closure. Although, it frustratingly leaves us hanging on the other huge question since the breakup...will they ever make another album!?!?
Michael Rapaport,director of the documentary Beat, Rhymes & Life, is shown in January (Victoria Will/Associated Press)
ELI: We'll the fact the group hasn't been able to get their act to even release the soundtrack says volumes. But first a word about poor ol' Phife Dawg who I think becomes the star of the film. He's certainly gets his share of screen time. We hear about his obsession with sports and his battle with diabetes. When they first brought the angle of Phife's sugar addiction I did roll my eyes a bit. But we learn that Phife's health problems and his failure to show up at the studio created a lot of the tension between him and Q-Tip. Q-Tip didn't kill the Tribe. Too many Dr. Peppers drinks did!
Although, seriously I think one of the moments that encapsulated it for me was closer to the end after Rapaport catches Phife and Q-Tip fighting before going on stage during the 2008 tour. After all the drama Rapaport asks Maseo from De La Soul about the future of Tribe. He says, if there's no love on stage, he doesn't want to see them. And that's one of the messages from this doc. We all have our favourite bands or performers and we want to keep them frozen in amber, Jurassic Park Style. But if there's a lesson from this film, it's that bands have a best before date, and that dynamic, the conditions that made Tribe the Beatles of the Hip Hop world, couldn't last.
What about you Sean. Are you still pining for one more A Tribe Called Quest album?
SEAN: Of course I am! What true fan of hip hop wouldn't! But I'm with Maseo. If they can't sort out their problems and revive that original chemistry, I'm not interested. I'm telling you, though, if they ever do sort it out and get back in the studio you can be sure that it will be another classic. I can't think of a more fitting way to give a dying genre the swift kick in the butt that it so desperately needs right now.
ELI: I hear that. Let's wrap it up. Although I did want more time in the studio, Beats Rhymes & Life is more about the personal than the process. It's about why two men grew apart and what keeps them connected. I hope the fallout behind the scenes between Rapaport and Tribe doesn't dismay other directors. There's still a whole crate of hip hop stories waiting to be told. I rate it 4 scratched records out of 5.
SEAN: I think it's a great film for any music lover to see. A Tribe Called Quest provided the soundtrack to my teens. I'd pop their tapes in my Walkman and take them everywhere!
But ultimately, for me, this film was like finding an old love letter from my wife. It took me back to a time when I was first falling head over heels in love...with hip hop. For that reason alone, I'm giving it 5 mics out of 5 (hip hop heads from the 90s will pick up on the reference).
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