Ahh, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg! They must be the best hiphop duo of all time (or, at least, they’re tied with these guys), although both rappers refuse to call themselves a duo and insist that A Tribe Called Quest has always been four people: Q-Tip the Abstract, Phife Diggy, mixmaster Ali Shaheed Muhammamed, and not-quite-into-it but real-good-buddy Jarobi, who may or may not be in the group at any time (nobody ever seems to know for sure).
The Tribe circle has also included De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Jungle Brothers, Afrika Bambataa, Charlie Brown and Busta Rhymes (who was introduced to the world on “Scenario”, from Tribe’s second album). It was a social movement for sure, with clear political and spiritual intent. “That’s why they call it a tribe”, somebody says in a superb new movie about A Tribe Called Quest, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which I recently caught in a New York City theater.
I was concerned, when I first heard about this film, that it might focus on dull music-industry hype or downward-spiral drama, instead of simply celebrating the sense of sheer fun and artistic freedom that this Queens hiphop outfit represented during the old-school days. I needn’t have worried: director Jonathan Rapaport gets the Tribe, and gets why they called it a tribe.
The film bursts open with a colorful streets/cartoon montage that recalls Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and may remind you, if you’ve forgotten, just how bright and happy all that graffiti and b-boying was. Beats, Rhymes and Life is beautiful to look at, and one reason it works as a film is that it succeeds in finding a strong visual corollary for Quest’s upbeat but raunchy music.
There’s plenty of human drama here, especially when the cool-as-snow Q-Tip and the irascible, stubborn Phife Dawg try to get along for a reunion tour of Japan, during which the tears and curses inevitably flow. The very suave and stylishly-dressed Q-Tip comes off well during the fight scenes — he appears to have the patience of Barack Obama — and we can forgive the grimy, sports-jersey wearing Diggy Musberger for not making much sense during these scenes (he seems to be angry at Tip for breathing), since he may be suffering from diabetic pain and is, really, the best rhymer of the two.
Beats, Rhymes and Life is an excellent film, the best hiphop movie since Jay-Z’s Fade to Black (which Q-Tip was also in), and I have only two small complaints. First, while Phife Dawg’s poet mother Cheryl Boyce Taylor does appear in a few scenes, it’s too bad the movie doesn’t include scenes of her own spoken-word spittin’, which certainly must have influenced Phife Malik Taylor Dawg’s rapping in his childhood years. I’ve met Cheryl Boyce Taylor twice, both times at the Bowery Poetry Club, and I know she’s a talent in her own right.
Also, what will all the drama back-and-forth, the film just doesn’t have enough of the Tribe’s great music. It was because they sounded good, after all, that this group mattered. De La Soul and Jungle Brothers also had great clothes and gave great radio interviews. But it’s ATCQ’s magnetic verses and smooth, skippy jazz tracks that make them timeless, and I wished for more actual songs in the film.
But the musical starvation works to the film’s advantage by the end, when Tip and Phife burst into a great, raggedy, thumping “The Chase Part II”, one of the killer tracks from their best album, Midnight Marauders. They’re rehearsing for a reunion concert in Japan, amidst all the fussing and fighting, but they still have their hilarious dance moves. This song provides the best three minutes in the film. Especially when Phife and Tip look at each other and sum it all up in joyous harmony:
Battling? Whatever! Hot damn! Gimme the microphone, boy, one time, blam …