Group dynamics are a funny thing. Musical group dynamics take it to a whole another level, and Hip Hop isn't immune. Michael Rapaport's Beats, Rhymes, and Life examines the often-tense interworkings of A Tribe Called Quest while still celebrating and looking back at one of Hip Hop's most influential and iconic groups.
Rapaport captures the beginnings of the group with some great interviews and rare footage from the early days. Scenes from Tip and Phife's Queen's neighborhood and Tip and Ali's trip back to their High School shaped the doc and gave us a glimpse of their growing process. Lest we forget too that before ATCQ was The Jungle Brothers, who it could be argued "paved" the way, a fact not glazed over. The entire Native Tongue vibe (a term we come to find out Q-Tip coined) is laid out and shown as it emerged in the late 80s.
The interviews really hit hard when the discussion veers from the Afrocentric, free-flowing, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (an album that a young Commish shunned for a bit, due to the band's non-hardcore look and jazzy, "hippie" loops. Until I really sat and listened, and in part due to my love for "Can I Kick It", this debut took a while for me to digest) to their second joint The Low End Theory. Pharrell Williams and Questlove of The Roots really shine when brought in to talk about the sophomore release.
It is also where Rapaport lays out the beginning of friction between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, the latter starting to battle his diabetes during this time. It is a tension that lasts until the present day. Phife seems to resent the light Q-Tip receives and the perception that he is the frontman and talent of the group. Key word: perception. Tip doesn't and hadn't done a thing to attract that perception, and stresses that to Phife throughout the film.
The film isn't without some omissions though; for one the actual music is limited to 10-15 second concert clips or show appearances. The great posse cut "Scenario" isn't discussed, nor the group's work on their legendary videos.
The thrust of the group's popularity (89-94) happened to occur when a young Commish was on the come up and making my own transition from young knucklehead to, well, older knucklehead. As my man Fresh Marcus said, "it was like a soundtrack to my youth." Exactly. The flick was a retrospective journey for many of us older heads that brought many a chuckle, some head scratching, and even a tear. Can I kick it? Yes, you can.