Black culture in music and cinema holds such a prominent position in today’s world, that it is hard to imagine the sheer scale of the revolutionary impact hip hop had when it first burst onto the scene.
The genre’s formative, golden years were the 1980s, when groups like De La Soul and Public Enemy opened the world’s ears to upbeat forms of street poetry set against a mix of innovative beats and samples.
Amidst the waves of groups that were formed after this bright dawn, A Tribe Called Quest, in particular, emerged as the fathers of a new brand of hip-hop that would bring their consciousness and culture into the mainstream.
Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest stands out from the customary music documentary due to its directorial approach. The film serves as a useful tool for the layman and ardent fan alike; bringing the former up to speed on the history and present-day activities of the band, while feeding the latter with nuggets of information not previously disclosed. Director Rappaport, appeals to the human nature of the audience through an appreciation of the men behind the public personas, with the organic narrative unfolding through the intimately-recounted stories of the group’s four founding members.
The true beauty lies in the band’s early years where their un-nurtured, raw creativity and chemistry led to them being the stand out hip-hop group in a rather flooded early-90s market. A stand-out scene from the documentary shows Q-Tip re-enacting the ways in which he discovered loops through his mixing of old jazz vinyl. His cool star persona breaks momentarily and his inner child is presented to the audience; his excitement at his DIY approach to beat mixing almost 20 years previous is palpable.
The combination of old footage, photographs and present-day interviews with the group, as well as their many famous admirers, solidifies just how important and influential they were.
Reflective of their music, there is a lot of love and positivity to be found in the film, but darker tones are never far from the surface. At the heart of the story is the unpredictable love-hate dynamic between life long friends Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Their strenuous relationship (which, amongst other factors, contributed heavily to the band’s eventual break-up in 1998) is given a lot of screen time. The viewer is on the edge of their seat as the tension grows, waiting to see if the pair are able to sweep aside a series of petty incidents and grudges, to allow us to witness the reformation of the muse of modern hip-hop.
Beats, Rhymes and Life… is informative, funny and sentimental, an honest film that leaves the viewer with the nagging feeling that perhaps there was much more musical potential left in A Tribe Called Quest; and that the world is a worse place for never having seen it fulfilled. Ally McKenzie, GiggingNI.com