Shout out to Evan for strong-arming me into seeing Beats, Rhymes & Life in the theater with a room full of real fans. It was a great experience that brought back a lot of great memories and was well worth the effort. Overall I’m really happy someone went to the trouble (no pun intended) of telling the story of arguably the greatest group in hip-hop history. Michael Rappaport’s documentary was a quick reminder of what an inspiring era this was for the music and culture of hip-hop (I mean the Native Tongues alone = wow!), how much classic material A Tribe Called Quest produced over the years and how insanely talented Q-Tip is. I thought all the members of the group were treated fairly and I felt the same way about ATCQ coming out of the movie as I did going in.
But why start the film with Tip and Phife’s overhyped beef? That was a small part of a much bigger story that happened well after they were done recording music together. That played to me as an attention-grabbing gimmick reaching for headlines and I can see why the group wasn’t all that happy about it.
Much like when you go to see your favorite artist live and enjoy 90% of the concert there will always be that 10% you feel compelled to complain about. Given how close I am with the music and how familiar I am with the story there were bound to be things I felt were left out. The two biggest omissions to me were the story behind “Scenario” and the absence of the late, great Jay Dee aka JDilla.
I’m not trying to say that Tribe didn’t get initial respect within more open-minded hip-hop circles but the fact is pre-Scenario ATCQ were categorized as jazz rap or even worse alternative (aka white people) rap. They were grouped with the likes of US3 or Arrested Development and were often played on college radio stations that focused almost exclusively on indie rock. Black Thought of The Roots jokingly says in the film ATCQ had some of the more hardcore heads confused and a little suspicious. Post-Scenario (particularly after live performances like this) they were embraced almost universally as so-called “real” hip-hop. That’s a huge turning point in their career that was barely even hinted at.
I also couldn’t believe there was no more than a passing mention of the contributions of JDilla. This wasn’t just some dude who threw Tribe a few beats. He was part of the group, at least the Ummah production team, and introduced a new sound (for better or worse, opinions differ), not to mention producing the lead singles on both Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement. He also had a huge impact on Q-Tip musically and helped produce the majority of Tip’s first solo album (which also got no air time). Rappaport couldn’t find 2minutes in his movie to acknowledge this part of the story? Sad…
Beats, Rhymes & Life is a great document of an extremely creative era and a group that many of us loved so in that sense I have to give credit where credit is due. Despite minor complaints I enjoyed the movie start to finish and am very happy to see all the members of Tribe get some much deserved love while they’re still alive. Too often these type of films are made after the fact.
I’ll also add that hearing some of those old beats, seeing Q-Tip record digging and watching him put together a beat straight from vinyl had me cursing the greedy lawyers that introduced the stricter sampling laws in the late 90’s. That alone might be as much to blame for ruining hip-hop as any one artist or trend. And raise your hand if you didn’t know until after the fact that Q-Tip produced the first three albums virtually by himself. I was a huge fan and always thought Tip and Phife were the MC’s and Ali Shaheed Muhammed made the beats. That knowledge brought me a whole new level of respect for Q-Tip. And let’s not forget that Tip also had production on some Hall of Fame classics (Illmatic, The Infamous), was the guest MC of choice for most of the 90’s (and always came correct) and still enjoys a very successful career as a DJ today. So without disrespecting the group, acting like he wasn’t the star of the show is a little ridiculous.