Michael Rapaport on His Tribe Called Quest Documentary

The actor moved behind the camera to film Beats, Rhymes and Life, a documentary that charts the career of rap group A Tribe Called Quest

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Robert Benavides / Sony Pictures Classics

When he was a teenager, actor Michael Rapaport loved the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. Then again, so did a lot of people. The Queens-born collective—formed in 1991 and made up of rappers Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, and producer Ali Shaheed Mohamed—stood out as one of the most creative and successful hip-hop groups of the ’90s. Singles like “Scenario” broke through the Billboard Hot 100 and their sophisticated flair for videos (check out “Award Tour” and “Electric Relaxation”) hinted at a burgeoning maturity for the rebellious art form. Then in 1998, the group suddenly broke up.

A Tribe Called quest embarked on a reunion tour in 2008 and agreed to let Rapaport chronicle the journey. The result is his feature-length directorial debut, Beats, Rhymes and Life: the Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. After an emotional screening at Sundance—which several of the members boycotted because they didn’t like the way they were depicted—the documentary played to enthusiastic crowds when it opened this summer. This week sees the DVD release of Beats, Rhymes and Life. Rapaport spoke with TIME about A Tribe Called Quest’s music and his contentious relationship with the group.

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You came to this project as a long time fan of Tribe. What made you decide to turn the passion of a fan into the passion of a filmmaker?

For me, when they broke up in 1998, I was left unsatisfied and curious as to what happened and…whether or not they’d make more music. The real director’s mission statement that spawned the whole project was, “Will A Tribe Called Quest make more music?”

Do you remember the first time you heard their music?

I heard them on the radio in ‘87 or ‘88 on [New York City station] 98.7 KISS-FM, on Red Alert’s show. I was a teenager and I heard Q-Tip on the Jungle Brothers’ song “The Promo.” It was very exciting. It was very new. The music and the culture around hip-hop was evolving. I think there’s an emotional quality to their music and there’s a vulnerability to the music. For me, A Tribe Called Quest was my Beatles.

After filming them, did you feel like you had a definitive reason for their break-up?

In any relationship that comes to an end, there’s never just a baseline reason why. You say, “Oh, I broke up with my girlfriend.” Someone says, “Why?” You say, “Well, you got three hours? And then maybe after I tell you my version, you’ve got to talk to her.” I knew from the beginning I wasn’t going to answer that question. I didn’t want to take sides. I just wanted to give an idea that these guys have a very brotherly relationship. When they get on the stage, it’s magical.

Jarobi didn’t rap very much and sort of disappeared from the group’s public profile. What’s his role in A Tribe Called Quest?

I think Q-Tip answers that question in the best way possible. He said, “Jarobi is the spirit of a Tribe Called Quest.” He’s like the middle child between Q-Tip and Phife. The three of them grew up together and then they met Ali later. I think he really understood everyone’s strengths as musicians, too. When you’re in sync, the music is better.

Phife has the most clearly delineated arc in the movie. We see him go from somebody who didn’t take music seriously to the most crucial member of the group. Do you think his lyrical talent is more a case of nature or nurture?

I can’t really say. At that time, especially in New York, there weren’t that many options [for kids]. You played ball. You were a hoodlum. You were a school kid. Or you rhymed. It was like, “Yo! You play ball?” “Nah, I rhyme.” It was like an identity. And Phife was definitely, “Yeah, I rhyme.” I think it was effortless to him. Phife himself says that Q-Tip pushed him.

You focus a lot on the Native Tongues collective in the movie—the loose affiliation of various hip-hop acts that included the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Native Tongues changed the course of hip-hop, but why do you think that impact wasn’t more enduring?

I have to disagree, I think it was incredibly enduring. Contingencies like Odd Future Wolf Pack Kill Them All show that influence, too. They’re very dark and obviously their music is totally different. But they’re a contingent of musicians. It’s not like the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s not a group. Odd Future is just a bunch of musicians. And that’s derived from Native Tongues.

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There was some tension between A Tribe Called Quest and you during the run-up to the film’s release.

Yep.

Where do you guys stand now?

Well, I talk to Phife. I think I’m going to remain friends with Phife. I haven’t spoken to Q-Tip in a while.

You know, this film brought out a lot of bad qualities in me. I was in a defensive mode, protecting something that was very precious to me. The film came from the depths of my best intentions.

Listen, I’m 41 years old. I’ve got two kids. I’ve got a career. The last thing I need to be doing is having a beef with A Tribe Called Quest. It’s silly and it was unnecessary. It ain’t the first time that a director hasn’t seen eye to eye with a subject and it ain’t going to be the last time.

If you had to pick a favorite Tribe song, what would it be?

“Lyrics to Go” is a really great song because of the sample, the flow of it. That Minnie Riperton sample something where people go, “Oh  s—, I didn’t even know that was a sample.” It’s so well done and it’s so interwoven. They never really made a bad song.

There’s a great moment in the film when Busta Rhymes talks about the Tribe songs that make him tear up.

And I think that’s why the fans hold them so dear. There’s an emotional quality to their music that isn’t something you can contrive. Going back to the strife between me and the group, I think they were concerned about presenting something—just how bad the tension gets—that was shocking to even their most devoted fans. And it’s not that they’re trying to put up a front or fake it. They just try to honor the fans’ memories of A Tribe Called Quest. My thing was, “Yo, we’re making a documentary. We’ve got to go further than that.” Ultimately, I think we’re all happy where the process took us.

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