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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.

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.