If you're one of the lucky few that has seen the hip-hop documentary "Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest," perhaps at either the Sundance or Tribeca film festivals, you know the film is a knock-out: a deeply insightful journey into the history of the seminal '90s rap group, their contextual legacy, that ventures very personally and intimately on the personal fissures and fractures that led to their break-up; lingering emotional issues that still cling to this day.
If you're a fan of the group and haven't seen the documentary, which is likely the norm -- it doesn't hit theaters until July 8th in limited release -- you're probably still fairly aware of all the behind-the-scenes drama that arrived even before the movie hit film festivals. It all started in early December 2010, almost six weeks before the film would make its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. One of the group members, arguably its leader, Q-Tip, would tweet, "I am not in support of the a tribe called quest documentary." This would set off a red light of alarm for fans in both the film and music communities and ignite a firestorm of controversy and beef that would extend over several months between various members of the group and the film's director, actor-turned-filmmaker Michael Rappaport. A lot of this he-said, she-said back and forth was documented very well by MTV News. Q-Tip would voice his concerns deeper just a few days later in December, alluding to problems he had with the film, but never articulating them and Rappaport would fire back in several interviews, noting at Sundance that he was "disappointed" with the band for not showing up as a group to support the doc at the film festival.
The beef has since quelled. In March, Q-Tip said he encouraged fans to watch the documentary, even though he still had some issues with it and even as far as mid-January in the heart of Sundance the band released a press statement that they were supporting the doc. But it's never been that easy or cut and dry. Just a week ago, Tribe rapper Phife Dawg told GQ magazine (not online) that if he had a chance to do it all over again, he wouldn't have agreed to being in the film. "Nah, I wouldn't. No way. As we speak there's still a lot of craziness going on. A Tribe Called Quest is really a Tribe Called Difficult." Why?
Well, as we noted in our review, the film is much more than your standard hagiographic music documentary and is, at times, "painfully honest....it's a moving portrait of brotherhood, unity and how the strongest of friendships can be susceptible to breakdown if unacceptable levels of rising toxicity run unchecked."
We recently had a chance to sit down with director Michael Rappaport and discuss the excellent documentary, the difficulties of bringing it to the screen and all the drama that ensued before its release. While Q-Tip and co. were opaque at the time when it came to articulating their problems with the documentary, all one needs to do is see the film to understand why. We said the film "nakedly depicts why the band collapsed in no uncertain terms" and that it "pulls no punches and is often hard to watch." There's a bitterness and animus among members of the group, particularly Tip and Phife and the film doesn't shy away from it.
Rappaport told The Playlist he can understand why the band were initially upset about the documentary as it shows all of them in an incredibly emotionally vulnerable state.
"See the thing about friction, the stuff that’s happened between me and Q-Tip and in the press is that he’s not mad at me," the director said. "I think he’s mad at the movie. Now, I think I might be the person he’s directed some of that energy to, and I’ve directed some of that back at him, but I think -- listen if someone was making a documentary about me as intimate as this, I’d be freaked out too! I’d be like, 'oh shit!' "
But Rappaport insists he didn't know what he was getting into and didn't realize the group had so many internal schizms going on.
"I didn’t intend the movie to be this way and I don’t think any of them thought the movie was going to be this way," he said about finding the movie and its story along the way while he was shooting. "I think it’s emotionally, they’re emotionally vulnerable, that’s the thing about it. They’re not doing anything crazy. There’s not anything like defaming or embarrassing, just emotionally they’re vulnerable. More vulnerable and more exposed then they’ve ever been, and maybe more [exposed] then they thought the movie was going to be."
While the director said he wasn't trying to create sensationalism, he said he just had to follow the story that was unraveling in front of him. It would have been hard to ignore; there were explosive personal dramas from day one when Rappaport and his film crew arrived on the 2008 Rock The Bells tour. "I walked into a fucking storm, a shit storm," he said of the Phife/Tip altercation depicted in the film that took place backstage at the show.
"I had to make a decision of what I was going to do as a filmmaker and I knew that in regards to the strife that I could not back down," he said. "I could not back down because John Cassavetes would roll over in his grave if he saw an independent filmmaker back down and I thought about that a lot. I thought, what would John Cassavetes do? Then it became like this tug of war to try to finish the movie -- which I knew at some point was the movie that I intended to make and that surpassed my goals even for the film -- and I just couldn’t [back down]."
Encapsulating the love/hate relationship of A Tribe Called Quest is difficult but it's all captured remarkably well in 'Beats Rhymes & Life.' It's a combustible mix of familial love, rivalry, boyhood friendships gone sour, outsized egos jockeying for position, misunderstandings grown out of proportion and to a certain degree, a refusal to just hug it out.
"It is a complex relationship," Rappaport said, noting a colossal understatement. It's a fascinating documentary, an engrossing story, both off and on the screen and it's one that seems to have a life unto itself beyond the film. Even this interview is just the tip of the iceberg. "Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest" hits theaters in limited release on July 8. More from this conversation closer to release date.
Oh, and if you're interested in Phife's full words in GQ they conclude, "[Tribe] is like the Knicks. We can be down two points, but we act like we're down twenty-two. We always make it hard on ourselves," he said. "I'm a rapper, but I'm a human being. I felt disrespected. I was like, 'You gonna come at me like that? Somebody that's show you love from jump street?' Enough is enough."