In an industry dominated by larger-than-life personalities, sometimes with egos to match, even a touch of false modesty is refreshing. But for first-time feature director Michael Rapaport, better known for his acting turns in True Romance (1993) and TV’s Boston Public, humility is no act.
After a decade spent seeking the right opportunity to get behind the camera, the native New Yorker, a self-proclaimed “hard-core fan” of the seminal hip-hop trio (and sometime quartet) A Tribe Called Quest, saw the stars align in 2008, when Tribe reunited for an abbreviated summer tour.
His mission? To document the band’s traveling road show and, after five albums released over 13 increasingly tumultuous years, pay tribute to its legacy, warts and all. The result is Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, a vibrant new documentary that is as much a celebration of the group’s heyday as a chronicle of the personal and creative differences that tore them apart.
Yet Rapaport, so often cast as a brash, cocky loudmouth, is playing against type today. He acknowledges his desire to cast Tribe in as reverential a light as filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) and Martin Scorsese (The Last Waltz) once shone on Bob Dylan and The Band. His biggest fear, he says, was letting down his hip-hop heroes, and himself.
“I knew from day one that we had a great story,” says Rapaport, 41. “All the ingredients were there, so the only failure in telling that story could be my own. I didn’t want to make a bad movie or a glorified DVD extra. And because people know me as an actor, I didn’t want to embarrass myself, much less the group.”
"There's a moment between 'Action!' and 'Cut!' where, as an actor, I'm riding a natural high, and I got that same rush talking to the group, in a completely unscripted, unpredictable environment. They were so emotionally genuine, and I immediately recognized that their story went beyond musical accomplishments. The last thing I wanted to do was fuck it up."
According to Tribe co-founder and Oakland resident Phife Dawg – born Malik Taylor – Rapaport can put those anxieties to rest. (“He aced that thing,” gushes Phife, 40. “Like the bar exam or something.”)
Phife, whose sometimes-combative relationship with unofficial frontman Q-Tip is portrayed in the film as a root cause of the band's dissolution, says Beats captures Tribe at their most "human," whether giddily celebrating their earliest brushes with fame or, roughly two decades later, feuding backstage at Mountain View's Shoreline Amphitheatre during 2008's Rock the Bells tour.
Does he wish Rapaport had painted a sunnier portrait, focusing less on the group's combustible dynamic than on the platinum-selling success of their signature recordings, The Low End Theory (1991) and their 1993 follow-up, Midnight Marauders? "Not at all," Phife says. "If this is it for Tribe, we're going out with a bang. This is the story coming full circle.
"It's perfect, really – the good, the bad, the whatever, it's all in there, and I think we owe that to the fans. That, and maybe one more album, but it's far too early to talk about that, so, you know, knock on wood."
Considering Phife's unqualified vote of confidence, it might be tempting to assume that Rapaport faced no greater obstacle than his own misgivings about how best to use the hundreds of hours of footage he recorded. But while the director says he reached an emotional low point in the editing room, struggling to piece the puzzle together, a greater problem lay ahead.
Unhappy with his portrayal in the film, Q-Tip (born Kamaal Ibn John Fareed) demanded edits of his own, as well as producers’ credits for the band. Rapaport, unwilling to compromise the integrity of the story, reluctantly agreed to the latter but refused to concede editing rights. Predictably, a Twitter war ensued, with Q-Tip flatly stating, "I am not in support of the A Tribe Called Quest documentary."
Now a truce, however precarious, has been reached. Though Phife doesn’t try to sugarcoat the controversy, which has been documented exhaustively ever since Beats earned a standing ovation at its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January, he offers a few words of explanation.
“Q-Tip guards the Tribe brand with his life,” he says. “He didn’t like the way he was depicted, but the funny thing is, he came off just fine. And he hasn’t even seen the final product yet.
"It’s unfortunate, this misunderstanding, but we all go about things the wrong way sometimes. I think when he sees the movie, he’ll wonder why he was trippin’ in the first place. This is a time to be celebrating.”
Given the band's tempestuous recent history, it is perhaps fitting that Tribe, which also includes DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and on-again, off-again contributor Jarobi White, can't even agree on whether to endorse a movie they nominally produced. (To date, Phife is the only member to promote the film on the festival circuit.)
Yet that hardly rules out the possibility of another tour. After vowing in 2008 never to appear together again on the same stage – unless, Q-Tip says in the film, they were to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – Tribe reunited last year for an apparently peaceful one-off show in Japan. Could history repeat itself?
"Being that we haven't done anything in the studio since 1998, we have to start counting our blessings that people still hold us relevant and want us to do shows," says Phife, who admits the group was "far apart" during the recording of their ironically titled last album, The Love Movement. "It's bugged out how people still treat us like we're one of the hottest things in the music industry.
"It's definitely up in the air right now, whether we'll tour, but if we're smart we'll make it happen. At the end of the day we'll always be attached at the hip. If there are people out there offering us money, we'd be out of our minds not to take it, especially in this recession. Besides, I like [buying] nice things, so let's do it."
Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is now playing at the AMC Metreon. For tickets and showtimes, click here.