Director Michael Rapaport, top right, breaking it down with A Tribe Called Quest member Q-Tip. Jarobi White, below left, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Mohammad and Phife Dawg. AFP Photos
They were the “Rolling Stones of hip-hop” in the 1990s, before breaking up in 1998 — but now the story of A Tribe Called Quest is being told, at the Sundance Film festival.
“Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,” by US actor-turned-filmmaker Michael Rapaport is in competition at the prestigious independent film festival, which closes on Sunday.
The band’s five albums all went either gold or platinum, and its four members — all from the Queens borough of New York — are credited with revolutionizing the genre.
They notably brought jazz influences into hip-hop, and broached social problems in their lyrics.
“I’ve always been a fan,” said Rapaport, a blond-haired American who notably played Denny in Woody Allen’s crime comedy “Small Time Crooks,” and has been in the TV series “Prison Break.”
The idea came to him in 2006, when he saw them perform — despite their split after their last album “The Love Movement” in 1998, they have reunited for a number of gigs over the last decade.
“I saw them perform, and I had such a great time, the environment was so happy, I was just: ‘I want to make a movie about those guys,’” he said.
After an initial segment which focuses on the music, the documentary explores the reasons for the separation of band members Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Mohammed and Jarobi White.
Some of the interviews pull no punches. “I thought the movie was gonna be more just a sort of a concert, celebration, an exploration of just the music,” Rapaport said.
“I really had no idea that we would go into personal stuff and I really didn’t suspect I was gonna have access to it.
“So when I started getting access to it and I realized that it was gonna be more than just an overview of the group as musicians, it was exciting and scary at the same time, because it was much more complicated.”
On more than one occasion the filmmaker found himself in the middle of rows in corridors — including one memorable one in San Francisco — which throw a harsh light on the bitterness and frustrations of the childhood friends.
The band members weren’t always totally comfortable with the camera. “Sometimes they forgot, sometimes they were not happy with it, they were concerned, I don’t think they wanted to be over the top, they were protective.
“But ultimately they gave me the trust that I needed to have the material to tell the story that had to be told.”
Despite veering towards introspection, the film does not neglect the music, asking musicians including DJ Red Alert, the Jungle Brothers, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, the Beastie Boys and Kanye West to comment on the band’s influence.
“The music was fun, soulful, conscious, there was a message in it. It was never preachy. It has humor and the beat is amazing. The substance and the depth of the music is what makes it unique,” Rapaport said.
“A Tribe Called Quest means the same thing to people that like hip hop as the Rolling Stones or the Doors mean to people that like rock ’n’ roll. If you grew up with this music, they’re as precious as those groups are.”
And even though they separated more than a decade ago, Rapaport is convinced they will never really split.
“I think they are so close. They spend so much time together and they are married to A tribe called quest. There’s no escaping that. There’s no divorce in it.” AFP