Tuesday 8 November 2011

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

Year: 2011
Director: Michael Rapaport
Starring: Q-Tip, Phife Dogg,  Ali Shaheed Muhammad

I can almost pinpoint the main moments when I became a hip-hop fan. It was 1995-1996. It was when Batman forever came out and I brought the soundtrack CD which featured Method Man's The Riddler. That period of time I remember owning Gangsters Paradise by Coolio. Skip forward two years and I was introduced to the Radio 1 Rap Show and Channel 4's late night "Flava" program by my mate Darren. It was around that time I asked my father to bring me back some CD's as he went to see his sister in America. One of the albums he brought back was People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. That's when I became A Tribe called Quest fan.

Maybe there was a sub-concious thing going on under the surface, but the purchase of that album clearly shaped my taste in the genre, perhaps more than I even know. Since then I've not only become a hip-hop fan, but a certain type of hip hop fan. East Coast rapper?  New York in particular? Concious lyrics? Good chance I'll want to listen to you. I've got Dre, Snoop and Tupac albums and while I have time for rap that gets a little "thuggish". However that certain brand of hip-hop, often misguidedly considered alternative or emo* is what often appears when I shuffle my tracks on my Ipod. Tribe didn't just subscribe to that brand, they damn near invented many aspects of it.

So now we come to Beats, Rhymes & Life (aptly named after the Tribes more sobering forth album), a rarity in music documentary in that a hip-hop group go under the microscope. Considering the turbulent and eclectic life of hip-hop as a whole; from it's D.I.Y grass-roots foundations as a genre, to the multi-million dollar business rap has become. I'm always a little shocked at the lack of films (documentaries especially) with hip hop at it's core. Nick Bloomfield's revealing Biggie and Tupac and the fun loving Scratch by Doug Pray are great entries, and many will mention Style Wars as part of the stable. Yet, the handful of known and unknown films out there don't compare to other genres especially when it comes to artists.

This is where Rapaport's film kicks in. Its energetic first act half starts with a title sequence that not only highlights the band and the vibrancy they brought, but reminds one of the same bold, colourful entrance that Spike Lee gave Do the Right Thing. The film then follows a quite typical music documentary narrative, which ebbs and flows much like so many of it's ilk. This doesn't stop the film (especially the first segments) from being informative, engaging and funny.

What makes the Tribe the perfect hip-hop candidate for a documentary is their personalities as a group and as individuals. We discover that Q-Tip is the creative force and while no one would like to say he's the leader, it is him that conveys the drive of the artist. Despite having a nickname "the abstract" Tip at times comes across as calculating and focused. Phife on the flip side is the the more raw of the two rappers, a diabetic sports fan who's addicted to sugar. The more outspoken and impulsive of the two, many of the taking heads reference his punchlines and lyrics throughout the movie. The very different voices of the duo is pointed out at one moment (Tip - Calm and collected lyricism, Phife - High pitched, rougher flow) and what is interesting is that their lyrical style also mirror their off-stage personalities.

It's no surprise that as the film moves on, Phife becomes the heart of the film, while Q-Tip slowly evolves into what could be the antagonist of the piece. The films first half with it's wit, charm and sheer abashed love of the music and what it brought to people and each other is soon lost to a more dramatic focus as the film settles on Phife's illness and the varying factors that lead to the groups split. It's no surprise that Q-Tip is angry at the movie, as while the film doesn't paint him as evil, it does do a good job of angling Tip as the biggest factor in the tribe becoming archipelagos. Jerobi, who left the group early and Ali the DJ sit awkwardly on the sidelines as the film tries to make us take sides between the ill Phife and the more driven Tip. It's in these moments that film doesn't work as well as it could as it becomes as fragmented as the group themselves.

The film works best as a celebration of not only the music but of the artists that Tribe help bring to the surface. Talk of the creation of People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm and The Low End Theory are highlights. There are talking heads of Common, Pete Rock, Beastie Boys and Pharrell (one of the most revealing in terms of a new generation artist talking about the old school) share small insightful moments. The films credits feature brief snippets of Mos Def and Talib Kweli and quite simply...they don't get enough to say.

This doesn't sway from Beats Rhymes & Life from being a ineffective movie. The concert footage is full of energy. The short history of the group and their childhood is milder than one would expect and this along with the the nature of the tribe and the image they portray is handled well by Rapaport. An actor by trade (True Romance, Special, Bamboozled), his first feature film is clearly a documentation of something he loves. His off screen voice can hardly contain the excitement.

Beats Rhymes and Life left me grinning although I wish Rapaport took a little more from Doug Pray's book and less from Joe Berlingers. A Tribe called quest are not Metallica and while the film doesn't have that Spinal Tap feel that Some kind of Monster has, it fares better when it concentrates on the love over the arguments. Q-Tip states early on that after the Rock the Bells tour, the only time the group will be back together is is they qualify for the Rock and Roll hall of fame. Beats, Rhymes & Life is at it's best when it showcases joy and creation of the music that will hopefully make that possible.

*Emo rap is a bullshit term to give hip-hop that isn't isn't ghetto or gangster. Why? Because before the now more common, mainstream view of hip-hop or rap as aggressive thuggery and the materialistic bling era. Hip-hop was music which at times often had a real voice and message, be it social, political or otherwise. The idea that anything that doesn't talk about "bitches" and "money" and all that other nonsense must be labelled (often somewhat negatively) degrades and sidelines what hip-hop was and can be about.