1. Rare early concert footage? Check!
2. Band fights? Check!
3. Camera there at the right time to CATCH said "Band Fight"? Check!
4. Coming of age tale? Check!
5. The line "We didn't know we were going to be stars"? Check!
6. Cameos? Check!
7. The Ego vs. the Regular Guy? Check!
8. Open-ended opportunity for a new album? Check!
8. Japan? Check!
I'm not implying that there is a formula for a great music documentary, but it does help when certain areas are hit. The new A Tribe Called Quest doc, "Beats, Rhymes, & Life" directed by Michael Rapaport hits all of them. The timing for this doc couldn't be more prescient. As we wait for albums by Kanye & Jay-Z, another record from Dr. Dre, and hip-hop has emerged as one of (if not the) dominant mainstream music forms there seems to be an identity crisis in the rap scene. One that, after watching this doc, you couldn't help but feel could be somewhat healed by A Tribe Called Quest.
The breakup of the group has remained one of the most intriguing in music. And Rapaport does a brilliant job of not taking sides. When Tribe started, NWA was singing "Fuck the Police" on the left coast but the vibe back east was much different. Eccentric, positive, and with far crazier costumes, Tribe, with their like-minded counterparts like Queen Latifah and De La Soul, were preaching dignity and self-respect. The soul was love and a musical experimentation that's unrivaled in hip hop to this day. In fact, this general optimism and love movement (to steal from Tribe's 1999 album title) made the rift in the band between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg harder to understand and more difficult to stomach. The general malaise between the two lasted (lasts?) for over a decade which Rapaport captures with objective clarity. You're never sure what side to take in Beats, Rhymes, & Life and indeed never sure that there's a side that should be taken. As is pointed out, Phife and Q-Tip are like Yin and Yang, constantly opposing but the best when united into a whole. One of the most devastating parts of the film is a backstage interview during the Rock the Bells tour of 2008 when De La Soul is asked "Do you think this is going to be the last Tribe show?" And the brutally honest response is "I hope so."
Coming from Linden & Farmers in the early 90s, Tribe established themselves as pioneers. As Pharrell Williams admits -- "Me, Madlib, J-Dilla, in a way, we're all their children." Or as Common puts it "Tribe introduced me to jazz." Tribe was willing to go further and put more in than anyone else in the rap game. You can't help but feel nostalgic at the early part of this film when the Tribe comes blaring through and the community of artists begin to realize their potential. More than anything, this is where Rapaport succeeds -- in capturing the spirit of an age. Mostly because he gets out of the way and lets the music do the work. The lingering question is: What destroyed this? And while no cause is sought out or given, we're left with the unsettling realization that its a deadly combination of people and time. And while things can be forgiven they can never be the same. The spirit of Tribe can't be recaptured, but we have a document to remember by and that, hopefully, can make us better today than we were yesterday and even better tomorrow.