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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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Actor Michael Rapaport, a longtime fan of A Tribe Called Quest, says he always thought there should be a documentary about the influential Queens hip-hop group. And a few years ago, he decided he wanted to be the one to make it.

 

“In 2008, with Rock the Bells, they were headlining with other more relevant bands like De La Soul and Mos Def even though they hadn’t put out an album for ten years,” Rapaport said, during a publicity tour in San Francisco with Tribe member Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor).

Rapaport’s strong feelings about the group and their music is shared by many others. In the movie, various musicians, including Common, Ludacris and Pharrell Williams testify to the influence and unique style of ATCQ’s songs such as “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” and “Can I Kick It?”

The whole project came together quickly, Rapaport said, after he asked Tribe member Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed), who he had known for about 15 years, if he could make a film about the band.

“He said he had to ask the rest of the group,” Rapaport said. “That was on a Monday. That Saturday we were down in L.A. filming.”

Along with documenting that 2008 Rock the Bells tour, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest covers the group’s rise to stardom, their gold and platinum records, their participation in the collective Native Languages, and the group’s sudden breakup in 1998.

The focus of the movie, though, is on the relationships between the four members: Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White. The documentary particularly charts the tensions between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, childhood friends, and their growing rivalry, including a blow up backstage at the Rock the Bells tour.

Rapaport, who has appeared in movies including True Romance, Copland, and Mighty Aphrodite, said he didn’t plan how the movie would go.

“You can’t dictate what the story is going to be,” he said. “They were part of this golden era of hip-hop, and you think, ‘Wow, they did all that?’ But then their relationship was one I could understand. I think everyone can relate to personal problems with friends and relationships. I can. I live in conflict. It’s something I’m used to.”

Q-Tip’s reaction to the movie, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, has been controversial.

In December, Q-Tip tweeted he was "not in support of the a tribe called quest documentary ... The filmmaker should respect the band to the point of honoring the few requests that's was made abt the piece.”

Rapaport says that situation between him and Q-Tip has been blown out of proportion.

“I think the process was hard for him. He’s very private and very guarded,” Rapaport said. “I think once he sees the finished film with an audience, he’s going to love it.”

Phife agreed that seeing the movie with an audience will make a difference for Q-Tip. He said it did for him at Sundance, where it surprised him to see the lighter parts of the movie and how much people enjoyed it.

His favorite part of the movie, Phife said, was when he and his wife are in their kitchen, and she tells him he and Q-Tip need to go to therapy. Phife’s close relationship with his wife is documented in the movie, and she donates a kidney to him when he needs a transplant due to diabetes. At first it was difficult to put his fight with diabetes in front of a camera, Phife says.

“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.