Hip-hop nostalgists set their sights on the late 1980s to mid-1990s as a golden age of creativity, when all sorts of rap luminaries were taking the maturing musical genre in innovative, intriguing directions.
Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, N.W.A., Nas, the Ultramagnetic MCs: The list of rappers at the top of their game in that action-packed period is long. And a key player in the history of hip-hop, in general, and in the movement known as the Native Tongues, in particular, was the Queens, New York, trio of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad known as A Tribe Called Quest.
Tribe - whose members also included Jarobi White, who left the band in 1990 and rejoined in 2006 - are the subject of actor and ardent fan Michael Rapaport's more compelling than most music documentary, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.
It's an all-access look inside the struggles and strife of the band, and a cultural history of a movement whose key players also included such chilled-out and consciousness-raising rap ambassadors as Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, and Black Sheep.
Rapaport, a veteran TV and movie actor whose biggest previous directing job was an episode of Boston Public, lovingly tells the tale of Tribe's rise. The band's spark is built on the connection between debonair dandy and musical sophisticate Q-Tip and streetwise pint-size rapper Phife Dawg, friends since age 2, whose relationship gets torn asunder during the course of the movie.
"The yin and the yang of those two - that was the perfect marriage," Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots says of the duo, who wind up cussing each other out backstage during their 2008 reunion on the "Rock the Bells" tour.
?uestlove also credits the existence of Tribe - a band bold enough to forge a marriage of hip-hop and bebop, who abjure macho posturing on hits like "Bonita Applebum" and the Lou Reed-sampling "Can I Kick It?", both off Tribe's landmark 1990 debut People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm - with giving the Roots the inspiration to purse an alternative hip-hop path.
And producer Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes tells the camera: "Q-Tip always picked the best samples. Myself, Kanye: We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Tribe."
In some ways, Beats, Rhymes & Life plays like a hip-hop version of the 2003 Metallica movie Some Kind of Monster, which found the San Francisco metal band nearly self-destructing on camera, and hiring a live-in psychologist.
B, R & L isn't quite so dramatic, in part because the squabbles that take place on camera happen long after the prime of the group's recording career. And also because the efforts to solve their problems with each other by Q-Tip and Phife are halfhearted at best, with Phife ignoring his wife's advice to seek rap therapy and pay someone to tell him what his problems are.
Still, the emotional honesty Rapaport captures on screen comes off as real, a cut above standard-issue Behind the Music drama in terms of believability. And the conflicts are all the more involving because of Phife's health problems, which begin when he is diagnosed with diabetes - which causes him to miss a key early-1990s Tribe TV appearance on The Dennis Miller Show - and worsen until he needs a kidney transplant.
This makes the high-voiced, highly likable rapper a figure of sympathy, much more than the highly talented Q-Tip, who appears to be always out for himself while nonetheless never reaching his full potential as an artist. It's no wonder he has expressed reservations with a movie that leaves the impression that he's the bad guy.
Despite the irresistible lightness and charm of their early work, the Tribe Called Quest story is in many ways a heavyhearted one. But in Rapaport's hands it receives a fair telling, and, more important, the music from their own musical golden age gets to be heard anew.EndText