A Tribe Called Quest: Rhyme Scene

Michael Rapaport Honors the Groundbreaking Hip-Hop Group in His New Documentary

When seminal New York hip-hop outfit A Tribe Called Quest reunited after a decade-long hiatus for 2008’s Rock the Bells tour, actor and director Michael Rapaport seized the opportunity to trail his musical heroes. His new documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life charts the Tribe's rise to fame with personal recollections, including those of rapper and producer Q-Tip, who shares his memory of the group's radio debut in the audio excerpt above. The film also sheds light on the members’ struggles for creative control, and features cameos from the Beastie Boys and Mos Def. Formed in 1989, ATCQ tore up the hip-hop rulebook by blending socially conscious lyrics with Afro-centric style in iconic tunes such as “Can I Kick It?” and their pioneering approach to sampling re-contextualized everyone from the Velvet Underground to Minnie Riperton. “You’ll never get me saying that we’re like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin or the Beatles of hip-hop,” says MC Phife Dawg (aka the Five-Foot Assassin). “I just like the fact that we’re A Tribe Called Quest. We’re human at the end of the day.” We quizzed Rapaport about working with his idols.

It’s more than 20 years since A Tribe Called Quest formed. What was your first exposure to them?
The first time I heard them was Q-Tip’s voice on the radio in NYC with DJ Red Alert. His voice stuck out, and his flow. I was just like, “What is this?!” I loved his name, Q-Tip. This was at a time when rapper’s names were like Big Daddy Kane, Ice-T and Biz Markie. It just felt the complete opposite of what was going on in hip-hop at the time. But the music itself was right on point.

What makes the group such a pivotal act?
Their importance is down to their musicality. They were groundbreaking for the way they presented themselves and what they talked about. The song “Bonita Applebum” is equivalent to the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann,” Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and the Rolling Stones’ “Angie.” It wasn’t the way rappers would usually talk about women. It wasn’t derogatory. It was humble.

What was the high point of making this film?
Being on stage with them while they were performing, and getting access to Pharrell Williams and Questlove, who talked about A Tribe Called Quest with the same passion that made me want to make the movie in the first place.

What was your favorite track growing up? 
I like all the stuff off the first album, but when I was 18 it was “Footprints.”

What would you say is at the heart of the film?
The relationships: struggling to keep your friendships intact and coming out the other side. The guy across the street from me, who’s the straightest, whitest guy you could ever meet, heard I was doing this movie. You wouldn’t think this guy would know A Tribe Called Quest from a hole in the wall, but he was like, “I can’t wait to see your movie, dude! I’ve loved their music since college!” The appeal of this movie is because of them, nothing to do with me. Well, a little bit to do with me, but mostly them.

From second left to right: Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jarobi White and Q-Tip
Photo by Janette Beckman
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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