The first time I heard hip hop, I was a lonely 14-year-old white kid in Macon, Ga., riding home on the school bus. That day, the daily argument over the radio was won by the black kids, and the driver tuned into WIBB—“the 5,000-watt box”—and the strangest and most thrilling song I’d ever heard came through the speakers. The music was a pastiche of parts of old records, electronic beats and random strange sounds, and even stranger, the frontmen talked instead of sang. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s classic “The Message” hit me like a thunderbolt that day.
But somewhere around 1990, hip hop took a turn toward darker subject matter. Subjects like racial injustice, gang life and the drug trade had always been a part of hip-hop lyrics, but now they began to dominate the genre, and the attitude was defiant, militant even. And while Public Enemy and NWA remain two of my favorite hip-hop outfits of all time, I began to feel like an outsider, if not an interloper.
Then a tiny little group of conscientious objectors to the hip-hop wars began to emerge—acts like De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Leaders of the New School, and most prominently, A Tribe Called Quest. The music brought jazz into the hip-hop world through samples and an innovative approach to the music. The lyrics, while not shying from controversy, were thoughtful, erudite, and clever, celebrating wit and wordplay. Rather than confining themselves to the narrow subject parameters hip hop had drawn for itself, they rapped about philosophy, life, women, their own musical prowess and blackness itself. Although matching the star power and charisma of Ice-T, Ice Cube, or Chuck D was a tough task, Tribe frontman Q-Tip was up to the challenge. He delivered his provocative lyrics with a curiously nasal voice and a weird, meandering delivery. He also happened to be good looking, a great performer and an impeccable dresser. Q-Tip became a hero to an awful lot of us, and that includes actor/filmmaker Michael Rapaport, whose new documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest just opened in New York and L.A.
Rapaport got bit by the hip-hop bug early on, too—in his case it was The Sugarhill Gang. “My dad worked at a radio station and he brought home this promo copy of Rapper’s Delight, the bright orange one, and I fell in love instantly,” he remembers. “I was nine.”
His love affair continued into high school, where he says, “All I cared about was basically basketball and girls and hip hop. And sleeping.” His was often one of the few white faces at hip-hop shows. “Early on it was basically me and MC Serch,” he laughs. “I’d see him around a lot. And we’d have this competitive thing about who was more down. These two white guys. ‘Oh yeah? Well I just took my first class on Islam. Take that, Serch.’ So we laugh about that now.”
For Rapaport—who’s had recurring roles on several TV shows, including Friends, Boston Public, The War at Home, Prison Break and My Name Is Earl, and starred alongside Will Smith in Hitch—a documentary on A Tribe Called Quest was due. “In the world of hip hop, A Tribe Called Quest is like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin or those guys,” he says. “And I always liked those documentaries, and I thought these guys should have one too.”
The film traces the group’s compelling story, getting perspective from other hip-hop giants like Common, Mos Def, Ludacris and, most memorably, De La Soul. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White came together in the late ’80s in the Jamaica neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., as part of the Native Tongues Posse with De La Soul. The Tribe’s breakthrough second album, The Low End Theory, dropped in 1991 and was a shot across the bow of hard rap’s dominance. “Tribe and the Native Tongues helped make it cool to be intelligent,” says Martin Kelley, director of Beatmakers and Step Off, and a longtime DJ himself. “They made music that could stand toe-to-toe with any hardcore hip hop and yet still embodied individuality and innovation.”
Rapaport also filmed backstage during the big 2008 comeback show, capturing the conflict that had the group declaring it would be the last Tribe show ever. The extent of bad blood between members of the group on full display in the new film is surprising. “The first 45 minutes are about where they came from, how they were inspired, how the group came together, and what its impact was,” Rapaport says, “and that came out about like I thought it would. But the interpersonal stuff, and the more emotional stuff, the dynamics of the group, was something I couldn’t predict.”
Pointedly, Phife Dawg (a first-rate MC who suffered from Q-Tip’s long shadow—he’s the Dickey Betts to Tip’s Duane Allman) was the only band member to attend the film’s premiere at Sundance. Rumors began to fly about the rest of the group’s purported dissatisfaction with the film. Q-Tip eventually emerged as the spokesman for the discontent, brandishing a copy of a producer’s email mistakenly forwarded to him that spoke of “fucking [the band] out of everything else.” Rapaport contends that the exchange got heated because Q-Tip lobbied at the last minute for producer credits without doing any actual producing. Ali and Jarobi have since endorsed the film, but the bitterness between Q-Tip and Rapaport has only gotten more intense.
Q-Tip has spoken publicly of the need for rappers to tell their own stories, but Rapaport believes documentaries generally don’t work that way; that the director’s job is to tell the truth as he sees it. “I didn’t do this film for the group. This is the story that I wanted to tell, as a filmmaker and as a fan.” But Q-Tip isn’t buying it. According to Rapaport, the last email from Q-Tip told him, “All you have to do is stay white and be privileged.”
After all the rancor, Rapaport still calls ATCQ his “favorite group” and the film his “love letter to A Tribe Called Quest.” “I’m a real fan,” he says, “and I didn’t know anything about [the tensions] before I made the film.”
When we come together with people that share our vision, we scratch and scrape and make our way, and we hope we can all be friends at the end. But it doesn’t always work out that way. But Rapaport’s film still allows us to relive the glory days when four guys from Queens shook up the hip-hop world.