Beats, Rhymes, and Life: Not a Documentary, But An Irresponsible Disservice

I remember the first time I heard A Tribe Called Quest I was 8 years old and after school I would watch Rap City. The first song I remember seeing ATCQ was “Bonita Applebum”. After I heard this track I was hooked it. ATCQ began to fuel my soon addiction to hip hop. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed, and even Jarobi provided apart of the blueprint for this culture called hip hop. Recently, there has been a documentary to come out headed by actor Micheal Rappaport which delves into the groups rise, fall, and indefinite limbo. This weeks guest post comes from my big bro The Negro Intellectual himself soon to be Dr. Vernon Mitchell (@Negrointellect) and his blog The Negro Intellectual. Vernon was able to checkout a sneak preview of the upcoming documentary and he had a few problems with the production and direction of the documentary.


Recently, I had the chance to view Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the new documentary directed by actor Michael Rapaport. You’ll likely remember him from his roles as “Zack” in Zebrahead (1992); “Remy” from Higher Learning (1995); or from Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000); where he portrayed “Mr. Thomas Dunwitty,” the racist, self-centered, and egotistical television producer who believed he knew black people better than they knew themselves.

Like most folk my age who love hip hop—the culture and the music — I have an affinity for what A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) brought to our lives. For a self-professed “brainy jock” (cool term for nerd who played sports) like myself, ATCQ was part of my life’s soundtrack. I distinctly remember when each album dropped and what I was doing when the day I purchased it. All five albums mean something different to me—though some are better than others. Like most fans I can have an intense debate about why I believe The Low End Theory was the masterpiece of their discography vs. Midnight Marauders, much in the same way folk argue over sports or politics. Thus, it was with the greatest anticipation I went to see Rapaport’s documentary.

I entered the theater like a Star Wars or Harry Potter fan—all decked out in my ATCQ gear, rocking my Midnight Marauders tee and a super fresh pair of Air Jordan Retro Ones that were dedicated to the group (my most coveted pair of sneaks). I sat down ready to see what I hoped was a reliving of some old musical memories and a telling of Tribe’s story by another fan—Michael Rapaport. Unfortunately, from the very outset of the film Rapaport shows his hand. He is out to sell the story of family feud and personal beef. The documentary begins by looking at the rift between Q-Tip and Phife—an unfortunate, sad, and self-serving mistake.

As a historian, this is a mistake I’m intimately familiar with and must always be cautious of in my own writing. As juicy as personal details are, one always has to resist the temptation to allow them to drive the analysis. Why? Because history is not about sensationalizing subject(s). When that occurs it ceases to be history and becomes tabloid-esque sensationalism. For instance, many have critiqued and criticized the late Professor Manning Marable for his recent biography of Malcolm X entitled, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Scores of folk find Marable’s scholarship slanderous because they believe he is sensationalizing aspects of Brother Malcolm’s private life. I’m not saying exclude private details or conflicts, because they are important, but they should not be the driving force of the story you tell.

Documentarians face a similar challenge. Like historians, they have to be able to provide a narrative that explores the nuances of their subject without allowing them to overpower the larger story. A good documentary should leave the viewer with a fuller understanding of the inner workings and outside influences that inform why this subject’s story is worthy of telling. It is not about taking sides, but providing a three-dimensional view of your subject matter.

Q-Tip and Phife’s relationship, or the complex nature of it, is no secret. It has never been. Any fan has known that for years. We all have family issues. We all have functional levels of dysfunction. Those issues however, do not have to be put on display to understand how the persons in that family interact. Instead, Rapaport seems to have let his fictional character “Mr. Dunwitty” take charge of directing.

It was great to reminisce about A Tribe Called Quest, but Mr. Rapaport did Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and hip hop a disservice. What he directed is not a documentary. Sensationalized, with a few moments of welcome nostalgia for fans like myself, it is a patchwork quilt of a film —more akin to reality shows on the family of Viacom networks.

Part of the problem is Rapaport’s use of external sources — or lack there of. I found it incredibly odd that he used not one journalist or scholar that could capture the broader implications of what the group was able to create and the indelible mark they left on hip hop and popular culture. Hell, I would have even liked to hear from fans on the street giving their reflections of the group during their 1990s reign.

The absence of journalists from The Source, VIBE, or The Village Voice from that era is at the very least irresponsible. During the late 1980s and the entire decade of the 1990s an argument can be made that journalists were just as integral to the development and analysis of hip-hop as the artists themselves. Their insight, even on a small scale, would have been a great supplement to artist interviews and help to contextualize the Native Tongues Movement.

One of the gross missteps of the movie, and my biggest critique, is that Rapaport did not devote more time to the most important thing about ATCQ — the music. More time should have been spent examining the five albums that A Tribe Called Quest created. What Rapaport gave us was akin to making a documentary about The Beatles that focuses solely on the deteriorating relationship between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. If Rapaport set out to make a film about Q-Tip and Phife’s relationship, then mission accomplished. If the goal was to make a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, then it is a miserable failure.

Make sure you check out Vernon Mitchell on twitter @negrointellect and his blog The Negro Intellectual.

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9 responses to “Beats, Rhymes, and Life: Not a Documentary, But An Irresponsible Disservice

  1. Now I am torn if I want to see this because I do want to see what all the drama is about but then on the other hand I don’t want to see Q-tip displayed in a total negative light

  2. This post absolutely expresses my feelings about this documentary. I was so excited when I first heard about it because I knew that Michael Rapaport is a head and that he would be able to do justice to a movie about hip hop royalty.

    I expected inside information and behind the scenes information and I guess I got that, but I wasn’t expecting the cheap sensationalism. Everything that I’ve now seen about the “beef” between Tip and Phife left the same sick feeling in my stomach as I get if I watch TMZ or read Perez Hilton.

    And I do not watch TMZ or read Perez Hilton.

    I don’t feel like my life or my appreciation for ATCQ was in any way enriched by what I saw in that movie. It was great to reminisce and it inspired me to include more Tribe in my regular iTunes playlists, but at the end of the day all I got from the movie was a bunch of information I did not need or want.

  3. I have to strongly and respectfully disagree. What I took away from this documentary was a true passion for hip-hop along with a balanced approach that focused on the negative as well as the postive. I feel if this had been sensationalized then we wouldn’t have gathered that this is a group of men who (though starkly different) have a lot of love for each other. I’m a tribe stan so perhaps I only saw the good, but definitely think it was worth seeing. Any documentary is going to have bias from the viewpoint of the director. A documentary is based on factual record and to include too many journalists and fans wouldn’t have had the punch that it did. I liked hearing from other musicians (namely Black Thought and PHarrell who were real and funny) about the effect Tribe has had on their music. The music was a constant throughout the film and it allows you to see how talented and musically in tune hip hop used to be. :)

  4. Good Post!

    I haven’t seen the doc yet but I’ll give it a shot when (or if) it opens in Charleston. My views on Quest won’t change drastically based on what their work meant to me as a kid and young adult. (It still seems like yesterday when one of my sisters took the Geto Boys tape I was listening to and gave me a Quest tape.) I always expect some level of strife behind the curtains of my favorite acts. I’m sure if I saw behind the scenes at what happens with the Roots or the Stones I would probably not be surprised at any friction between group members. I’ll watch and do my best to maintain my objectivity. My history studies have taught me to expect a lot of muck underneath the surface.

  5. Interesting perspective as I’ve heard nothing but praise from other sources. Thanks for posting this. I’m going to see it this weekend.

  6. I’ve seen the film, look forward to seeing it again, and have to respectfully disagree with the thoughts expressed in this commentary as well. I felt it served up the real, warts and all, and I don’t have issue with that. When I walked out of the theater, I couldn’t wait to bump Tribe in my iPod on my way home…

  7. I’ve been meaning to reply to this post for a min. I was super excited to see this movie. To the point I was trying to get people at work to switch shifts with me to see it when it opened on Friday here in Chicago. Like most people here, I’m a huge Tribe fan but due to upbringing I was a late bloomer as far as hip hop is concerned. So I expected to be educated on all the things about this group that I got into after the fact. I drove an hour to get to a theater that was showing it. I played ATCQ albums the whole week leading up to me going to see the movie.

    And then I saw the movie. I will say that I was “entertained” with it. The same way you may see a car accident and slow down on the expressway. I had a feeling of it was “ok” but I left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. I really couldn’t put my finger on it. When my boy asked me what I thought about it I gave him the “eh, it was cool… I enjoyed it”

    Then I read this post and I started to think back. What did I gain from watching this? There’s not much I learned about the group and the inspiration behind the music I love that I didn’t already know. It basically cemented a true Tribe fan’s biggest fear; they will never get back together.

    I’ve never seen the documentary on the Beatles but I wonder how similar it is to this.

  8. Pingback: MLK…He Was One of Us « From Ashy to Classy·

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