Michael Rapaport Director of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest
Published Jul 25, 2011Making 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.
Do you now have a new appreciation for directors?
I didn't think that this would be a day at the beach. I knew it would be fucking hard. Most of what we shot was digital ― Panasonic HVX200 ― and we did shoot too much. When you look at documentary filmmakers and they're done three, four, five times ― it's crazy. We did shoot some film for the concerts. In my mind, if we were making a film, we had to shoot some film. I always look at ATCQ the same way my mom looks at the classic rock and roll groups. I love all those groups and I wanted to treat Tribe the same way the Rolling Stones and the Doors have been treated. I wanted to have that rock star look when they were on stage. They're not just rappers ― particularly Tribe went beyond the genre of music and are rock stars. That's the term. Q-Tip and Phife on stage they have this thing about them.
What struck me was how that era was so carefree and creative with samples? It was like the decline of hip-hop happened when you had to clear everything.
We do touch on it and Q-Tip wanted the film to be more about it. But that's a whole segue way. Tribe, Public Enemy, Stetsasonic, Biz Markie Eric B. ― they had run of the playground. It was like kids being in the toy store ― yo we can take the Barbie head and mix it on the Godzilla doll ― but then the cat got out of the bag and it was like "We're not about to let these fucking guys take our music. We're going to charge them." And the budgets went up. With Tribe and [the album Beats, Rhymes and Life], they had to change the way they made music. The business changed and the music changed. They became stars and the expectations for [that album] became high. They were like the Lakers with two championships and then they didn't win the third one. It became harder.
What are your thoughts on that and what was it like getting the music rights for the film?
The music clearance was fucking scary, a fucking nightmare.
I know Tribe are listed as producers. How did that come about and how cool are you with that billing?
They contributed to the film. They helped clear the music. But I just felt that having the subject having a producer credit could make [the film] seem like propaganda. The irony is that them wanting to get the producer credit and the way it all worked out clearly showed that this wasn't about propaganda. But that's what my point of view. And if some [footage] didn't accidentally get passed around they probably wouldn't have gotten the credit. Or they might have. Who knows. I felt that them wanting it was ego-driven and I didn't want to taint what was a very genuine depiction of my time with them. The way it played out was fucking crazy but we got past it.
You removed yourself from the film: was this a conscious decision?
We shot a lot of that stuff. But I know that I have some cachet as an actor and I didn't want it to be carried by me in any way. I thought that would be cheating. I wanted it to be a classic rock and roll style documentary. I love Michael Moore, I love Morgan Spurlock and no disrespect to them. I wanted it to be about them and that's why a lot of stuff got cut out. Some people are like "Why isn't there's more Busta Rhymes, why isn't there more Dilla?" I put a picture up in the editing room of the four of them and that was the framework [for the film]. Not everything could be in the movie and I damn sure didn't need to be all over it.
Thoughts on hip-hop today?
My relationship with hip-hop now is not as intense as when I was younger. The music to me isn't as emotionally charged. It's not as original or diverse. Yeah, there are a lot of great people doing it and I still get excited when I hear something special but it's changed. I'm excited about [the new] Jay-Z/Kanye, I'm excited that Nas is putting out shit, these Tyler, the Creator guys are nuts and very provocative, which is good because it gets people talking. There's always going to be good stuff but I don't want what happened to hip-hop what happened to rock and roll with like hair bands. And some of the stuff I hear is like hair bands ― this overhyped, lighting bolt, rap music shit. It's weird. It sounds familiar but it's like "what the fuck is this?" That's how I feel about some of (today's) hip-hop. It good that people like Nas and Jay-Z can police the culture. Jay-Z on "DOA" policed the culture. He shut that shit down and it's good that he did that.
Film is out. How has your perception of the band changed? Can you listen to the music the same way now?
I love the music. Of course right now I'm up to my fucking neck with this film ― I've got Native Tongues up my ass ― but I listened to Tribe just last night. The music is still the music and I have a better appreciation for it. It's been deconstructed so much. Those guys are good guys, they're nice guys. I didn't make the film for ATCQ, I made it about them. I made it for the fans and non-fans. I always told them while we were going through this shit, the way the four of you guys see this movie will be different from how everyone else sees it. I told them they're seeing all the subtext and all this shit and they gotta just let it go. That was the hardest thing and it's been a crazy ride. My relationship with the guys today is good. They gave me an opportunity to tell the story.