September 11, 2011

Can You Dig It? Yes You Can

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Back in the days when I was a teenager, before I had classes and before I had a major, you could find me listening to A Tribe Called Quest. When the group formed in 1985, I’m sure they did not expect to have a cult-like following across the world and a documentary about their lives 26 years later. Walk around campus today and I can almost guarantee you will see at least one Tribe shirt. Hip-hop has often been referred to as universal, and the genre has a lot to owe to A Tribe Called Quest. This is the main focus of Michael Rappaport’s new documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.

We took our seats at Cornell Cinema for a brief introduction from the Cornell Hip Hop Collection. The documentary begins with the end of A Tribe Called Quest, during their last show in Seattle on the 2008 Rock the Bells Tour. Q-Tip walks out of the door after a fight with Phife Dawg, saying “I can’t do this anymore. It’s over.” From this low point on Tribe’s reunion tour, the movie takes a trip back in time to the childhood beginnings of A Tribe Called Quest in Queens.

Here Rappaport shows off impressive historical work to piece together the rise to stardom of the group that pioneered alternative hip hop. From elementary school photos of lifelong friends Q-Tip and Phife to restored footage from some of the Tribe’s first concert appearances during high school, even diehard fans will be impressed with the amount they learn about the very early history of the group. Through early interests in rhyming and the hip-hop scene, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jairobi White come together to form A Tribe Called Quest and release their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.

Chronicling the hype surrounding their first release, the documentary continues through each of the group’s albums in chronological order, interspersing interviews with more popular footage of the group’s performances on venues like Yo! MTV Raps. Jairobi leaves the group to pursue his dreams of being a chef, and the rest of the group agrees with Q-Tip to step up their efforts. The Low End Theory marks a turning point for the group as they really begin to find their own defining style.

The first half of this documentary can only be described as magic. Almost every music documentary struggles to transport the viewer to the time when the music was new and fresh, but this one actually succeeds in doing that. At a certain point, it’s not really about A Tribe Called Quest. It’s about real hip-hop. For a few minutes, I felt like I was right there with the Native Tongues (The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest), at a time when hip-hop was advancing every year. That alone was worth the price of admission.

Even more impressive are the interviews with hip-hop legends like DJ Red Alert, Mos Def, Pharrell, Pete Rock, Common and more. No need to guess about the influence of A Tribe Called Quest on these artists; they’ll tell you firsthand. Not only do these guests bring more hip-hop history to the scene, but also provide humor and a sense of legitimacy to this documentary. Rappaport’s interviews, and especially the manner in which they are shot, eloquently capture the character of each individual and the spirit of hip-hop.

With the groundbreaking success of Midnight Marauders, the viewer gets the sense that the attitudes of the group members on the fate and the future of the group begin to split. Q-Tip’s perfectionism begins to wear on Phife, who is struggling with diabetes. Caught in the middle are Ali and Jairobi, who seemingly care more about the music than about the conflict.

After twenty minutes of virulent verbal crossfire between Q-Tip and Phife, I became frustrated with this movie. Like Ali and Jairobi, I simply wanted the focus to be back on the music, not on a conflict that could have been easily resolved through dialogue. Rappaport clearly intended for the conflict to provide a climax to the movie, but at a certain point it becomes tiresome.

Nevertheless, this is one of the best hip-hop documentaries ever made. I challenge you not to laugh at Phife dressed with a Cookie Monster t-shirt and matching blue hat or at every other thing Pharrell says. It’s a celebration of alternative hip-hop culture and the music that came from the minds of a few kids playing with their parent’s record collections.

Original Author: Patrick Cambre