If you are a fan of hip-hop music, watch this. If you are a fan of A Tribe Called Quest, tell everyone to see it, bring friends to the theaters. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest is, in my opinion, what a hip-hop documentary should be. It represents the best in music documentaries, and Michael Rapaport did an excellent job in putting this together, and I’ll tell you why.
For me, I was someone just out of high school when I knew that Public Enemy‘s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back would be a life changer. I had been a fan of rap music for nine years before the album dropped, my high school experience was complete shit, and what saved me was being in radio/TV production class and hip-hop. In radio/TV class, I got to be a radio DJ on a station whose format was hard rock/heavy metal. I grew up on hard rock, I’m a certified headbanger, and sadly the only way I could play hip-hop was on April Fool’s Day, as a joke. I did it, and I remember playing the then-new P.E. song “Prophets Of Rage” and getting a barrage of calls telling me “turn off that shit”. I was hooked. Almost a year later, I saw De La Soul‘s “Potholes In My Lawn” video and was immediately hooked, I had to know what it was. March 1989, I bought the 3 Feet High And Rising tape, played it endlessly. I then heard about Jungle Brothers, loved them. Then came A Tribe Called Quest.
Rap music affected me in a big way, and A Tribe Called Quest were one of those groups that were on the top for me. Solid beats, solid rhymes, solid vibe. It was indeed a Tribe Vibe, and this tribe were the Native Tongues. I’m Hawaiian, so the word “native” is not used lightly. When you are a Native Hawaiian, you are a true Hawaiian, it’s deep, it’s to the bone, in the blood. To be a Native Tongue not only meant speaking a common language, but you were true to the spirit and the source of what you were doing. Some of these things are mentioned in this documentary which covers the origins of the group, what they did as kids as they made their way towards each other, and how through miscommunication and perhaps a few bruised egos tore up what mentally, and socially connected the tribe.
One of the benefits of this documentary is that it is Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi without egos. They are themselves, understanding not so much their roles in hip-hop history, but their connections with each other as friends and associates through music. It’s also great to hear comments from Pharrell Williams, Large Professor, Mike D., Mike G., Afrika Baby Bam, Monie Love, and Chris Lighty. speak on how their music and work as a group affected them. Along the way, one can see how the bruised egos turned into open wounds, and in many ways its bittersweet.
One thing that the movie reveals is something I’ve believed for a long time. There came a time when the music stopped feeling special, or at least that unique quality started to be branded and marketed. While that last statement is never said properly, it seems that what the music industry was becoming had a major factor in the group becoming less of a unit and more as co-workers who at times couldn’t stand each other.
Beats, Rhymes & Life also hints at the changes of the music, how they’ve become elders, and how their audience has become older too, all while influencing those who truly wish to listen, learn and understand what A Tribe Called Quest were about. Just as they talk about a need for community, I think as a fan I seeked that too, especially in a town that lacked what I was looking for through the music, and perhaps in life. I found good friends, and I will never doubt those friends, but somehow hip-hop became the loudest chain for all of us. As kids, we all wanted to build up fantasies and myths about our favorite groups, to where we were honoring streets like Linden and Farmers without ever setting food in the city these streets are on. What this documentary does is pop the myth, or in truth allow us to see what we’ve always known: these guys have always been regular guys with a deep love for music, they just happened to have the right chemistry at the right time, and that’s what created that magic we heard and ideally shared. Yet as we see these men in their 40’s, and as some of us see ourselves there or getting there, we watch and go “what now? Is this where we all walk into the sunset and say goodbye?”
We don’t want the good times to end, and yet we are perhaps waiting for that whale to take us deep into the abyss, to places unknown, with our without the community that we defined as being home. This film is very much about Beats, Rhymes & Life, journalists who archived their lives through music and made some of us put on backpacks, or have enough water to get us from here to there. With luck, this documentary will not only entertain those of us who still feel the connection to the Tribe Vibe, but also teach the current and next generation about one of the best hip-hop groups ever, of any and all eras. Also, for a music that is based on communication, don’t allow a breakdown in communication amongst friends break down to where you lose sight of who you are. I also liked the idea that fans should be able to show support to what each of them have done away from ATCQ, and while everyone wants to relive the magic that made them fans in the first place, you’re not less of a fan if you decide to explore elsewhere. Exploring elsewhere is what Tip, Phife, Ali, and Jarobi continue to do on their paths of rhythm, for even though they may be on their own separate journeys, something will always bring them back together, even if it means simply us putting the needle back on the turntable, popping the tape back into the deck, or cuing up the iPod to the playlist of choice.