By Ryan B. PatrickMaking his directorial debut with Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, film actor and self-professed hip-hop junkie Michael Rapaport ― known more for his dramatic and comedic acting turns in Zebrahead, Higher Learning and TV's Prison Break ― scarcely knew what he was getting himself into when he shone a candid digital lens on the legendary hip-hop group. Initially conceived as a tribute-slash-concert movie, the music documentary by the New York-native proved to be so much more than that ― evolving into a rare glimpse into the oft-times dysfunctional inner workings and interpersonal relationships of the close-knit collective ― Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and "lost member" Jarobi.
The frank footage surprised both director and subject, culminating into awkwardly public clashes (by way of internet interviews and tweets) revolving around producer credits (the members wanted it, Rapaport initially wasn't of the same mindset), claims over who should have the final edit, and varying shades of beef from the respective ACTQ members (most vocally Q-Tip) over how they were portrayed on screen. All involved are now aboard with the end product ― even Q-Tip, who has since given the doc a clipped co-sign ― and Rapaport notes that he's pleased with how the film firmly acknowledges ACTQ's rock star status. Beats, Rhymes & Life unfolds as more careful chronicle than hallowed hagiography, giving an insightful and affecting ode to one of hip-hop's greatest all-time music groups.
Did you know what you were getting yourself into when starting on this doc? I knew what Tribe meant to people; I knew what it meant to me. Once I started, I felt the pressure: I didn't want to fuck it up. I feel like I didn't fuck it up, I feel proud of the response. The whole process has been frightening, enlightening and gratifying ― I'm proud to have pulled it off. It was a challenge to make the film on every level.
Q-Tip beef? Overblown issue or real shit? It was absolutely real. It was upsetting. I'm not proud of it. I'm sure he probably isn't proud of it. I can only speak for myself ― I felt that I had to defend the film and myself. We both decided to agree to disagree. Ultimately I think that the group loved the movie. I think it's because none of us knew the film was going to be as interpersonal as it was. That's really what caused the whole thing. Because you're seeing this thing as more a concert film and anecdotes about the songs and then it's like "What the fuck?" And when I showed them the movie ― it was in a little room ― it was like that. And I was sensitive to that fact ― I'm a person in the public eye and if someone made a film about me I'd be like "What the fuck?" too. We could have conducted ourselves better in public ― I know I could have and he would probably say the same thing ― but we're agreed to move forward and that's that.
Were you surprised over the relationships between Q-Tip and Phife? And the Jarobi was actually an integral member? Yeah it surprised me. Even as a fan I didn't know any of that [interpersonal] stuff. Jarobi was like an urban myth. You'd hear he was locked up, on crack, in a mental institution: you'd hear all this crazy stuff. But they'd always shout him out and he pop up in videos and interviews. So I knew he was part of the group and his part in the movie is bigger than even I'd thought it would be. His relationship with Phife and the way they talk about each other, for me the great thing about this movie is showing men ― black men ― being loving and caring in a way. Being vulnerable. [Tribe] are like a band. Like the Ramones are from Queens, Tribe are from Queens. They're a band and they made music. Those were the things about the film that I'm proud to present, [especially] to people that have misconceptions about the culture of hip-hop. I'm proud of that. There's such a consciousness. It wasn't in your face as Public Enemy or X-Clan but they would do it in subtle ways where you would catch it on the third or fourth listen. A song like "Sucka Nigga" is epic: it's so smart, it's so conscious. It's such a prolific song. And then you got the "Bonita"'s, the "Check the Rhimes" ― they did it.
How much is on the cutting room floor? Enough of a "director's cut" with new narrative? Well we're putting together the DVD and it feels that way. The director's cut, the extras, it's a lot. It's about making choices and what ended up in the final film was really challenging. It certainly was a learning process making the film but fortunately I had a good team around me and I was able to stay focused. I went in with an initial plan and when the film told me what it was I went with it. That's the beauty to documentary filmmaking: you have an idea of what you want and then you get what you're given and work with it.