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Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

A film by Michael Rapaport

When hip-hop music hit its so-called “golden age” in the late 1980s, a posse of New York crews lured a lot of ears (including those of yours truly) to a pioneering sound featuring upbeat, street-conscious but violence-free rap poetry that playfully accessed white soul riffs and ventured deeply into innovative jazz. The leading edge of this sonic spirit – dubbed Native Tongues, a loose collective that grew to include an array of acts – was A Tribe Called Quest, widely acknowledged as key players of this influential groove. (Toronto’s Dream Warriors also made a vital early 1990s contribution to jazz hip hop.) Actor Michael Rapaport is an ardent ATCQ fan. So his directorial debut, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, could easily have played out like an act of hero worship or one of those by-the-numbers music docs typically found on TV. But a combination of timing, access, a visual aesthetic that reflects ATCQ’s Afrocentric “surface philosophy” (as the crew’s look is described) and, most importantly, story-conscious editing elevates the doc above the norm. Its heart is the friendship of rapper-producer Q-Tip and rapper Phife Dawg, who grew up together in Queens. Along with like-minded friends, DJ-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and rapper Jarobi White, they formed ATCQ in the late 1980s while still at business high school and soon landed a record deal. (White left after the first album to attend culinary school, but remained an ally.) Recent interviews with individual ATCQ members, and props from an array of admiring hip hop luminaries (De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Beastie Boys, The Roots, Kanye West, Common et al), are woven together with archival footage, cinematographer Robert Benavides’ eye-catching details of the crew’s old neighbourhood and whimsical animation by James Blagden and Phillip Niemeyer – all illuminating the group’s cultural inspirations, creative process, career trajectory and musical high points. There’s a great sequence following Q-Tip (whose creative skills have landed him numerous career accolades) browsing at a local vinyl shop. He then “re-enacts” his discovery of a hot version of Spinning Wheel on an album by jazz organist Lonnie Smith, a loop of which propels Buggin’ Out, a key cut from ATCQ’s game-changing, jazz-soaked 1991 sophomore album The Low End Theory. That song opens with a memorable rap lyric by Phife Dawg, who was diagnosed with diabetes soon after the album’s release. His health and addiction to sugar gradually emerge in the film as an issue that impacts his friendship with Q-Tip. And that’s just the tip of the serious chill that eventually sets in. A Tribe Called Quest made five albums. The last dropped in 1998, along with surprise news of a break-up. But the beat went on, thanks to frequent demands for reunion shows. The film opens with raw footage captured after the crew’s final set headlining the 2008 Rock The Bells concert series. It’s clear something negative just went down backstage. But we don’t get to see what happened until much later in the film. In a riveting vérité sequence, Muhammad is a silent witness, whose visible sadness seems rooted in the knowledge that deep love lies just under the surface of an escalating conflict. Editor Lenny Mesina (with an assist from doc filmmaker AJ Schnack) definitely deserves some props for carving out a compelling universal storyline that turns the beats, rhymes and life of A Tribe Called Quest into a vital cinematic hip-hop-umentary. Courtesy Jennie Punter, The Globe and Mail Official Trailer
Showtimes: 

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Directed by: 
Michael Rapaport
Running Time: 
98
Country(ies): 
U.S.A.
Language: 
English
Starring: 
n/a
Screenplay by: 
n/a

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