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Songs in the Key of Strife: Michael Rapaport on His New Documentary

The actor/director and Tribe member Phife Dog discuss "A Tribe Called Quest," a new documentary about the fabled rap group.

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“Then I thought if I could help one person with what they’re going through healthwise, it’s worth it, ” he said. “The greatest reward with Tribe was not going platinum or having all those people out on the dance floor. It was when someone would come up to us and say, ‘Yo, I lost my dad, but you guys’ music helped me get through it.”

Dealing with these kinds of stories made the movie far more than a concert film, Rapaport said.

“You couldn’t predict that the film would have had these depths and deal with these struggles with health,” he said. “Then in the middle of filming for Phife to need a kidney transplant? And guess what – his wife is his donor. That’s the beauty of documentary filmmaking.”

Rapaport said he was trying to get at what made ATCQ such a seminal band.

“Something that was brought up a lot in the movie by people like Pherrell was that Tribe had this inclusiveness,” he said. “It made you feel like you could be yourself because Tribe was being themselves.”

ATCQ broke stereotypes of hip-hop, says DJ and Native Tongues member Monie Love in the movie.

“We didn’t have to do ‘Fuck tha Police,” Love said, referring to the NWA song. “We’re allowed to be different.’”

The Beastie Boys’ Mike D concurred. “Up until then rap was more about, like, boasting,” he said. “They came out, and it was like party records, but doing it with a consciousness.”

The artists interviewed in the movie agree that Q-Tip and Phife Dawg were great together.

“They were stars,” Rapaport said. “They just had it, you know? They had this charisma.”

Phife is still working on his second solo album, Songs in the Key of Phife. The rapper, who says he loves sports as much if not more than music, is also recruiting for a Connecticut prep school’s basketball team and working on a sports show, Fananlyst.

Phife joked that while watching the documentary he realized he and Q-Tip were like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, yet says he would love to make music with him again.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed about that,” he said. “I’m just taking it day by day.”

Beats, Rhymes and Lifeopens in New York and Los Angeles Friday, July 8.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.