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BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST (2011) (***)

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Actor Michael Rapaport directs an equal part historical and personal look at the influential rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Given backstage access to their 2008 reunion tour, he captures the volatile relationship between founding members, Kamaal Ibn John Fareed, aka Q-Tip, and Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg. The duo has been friends since they could remember and the film reveals the same petty grievances and jealousies that have taken down so many musical groups.

Along with De La Soul, they were instrumental in the Native Tongues Posse, which brought a soulful, culturally conscious style to rap. The group stood out among the gangster rappers of the '90s, dressed in Africa-inspired clothing. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg grew up in Queens in the hot bed of the rap explosion, wanting to become the next Run DMC. Once they met DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and rapper Jarobi White, the Tribe was born. Part of what made them stick out was what they were sampling. It is said they were digging deeper into their parents' record collection and finding gems that others wouldn't even have thought of. This extended to jazz not just R&B.

To talk about the influence of the band and their problems, Rapaport brings together a who's who list of rap artists, such as the Beastie Boys, Pharrell, Mos Def, Santigold, Monie Love, Pete Rock, Large Professor, De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers and Common. De La Soul's Trugoy candidly says he wishes the Tribe would never get back together if they can't come together peacefully. He believes it's not fair to the fans to have them go out and not be 100% dedicated to the performance. The central problem seems to be ego. Q-Tip, the perfectionist, is accused of believing he is the group. Phife Dog, the slacker, is accused of being too sensitive and not dedicated enough, distracted by is love of sports. The truth, as it always is, seems to fall somewhere in the middle.

While they fight, they are all still friends… even when they hate each other. Phife Dog is a serious diabetic and his illness pays largely into the history of the group. During their most contentious time as a band, Phife Dawg was hospitalized after losing a great deal of weight due to his uncontrolled blood sugar. He admits that he is addicted to sweets. Jarobi, who left the band after their first album and went on to form his own restaurant, moved to Atlanta to cook for Phife Dawg. Despite their differences, Q-Tip agreed to their first reunion primarily because Phife Dawg needed the money. If you'd ever want a bunch of guys to be your friends, these guys seem like the ones who will truly have your back forever.

Named to numerous lists as one of the greatest rap groups ever, A Tribe Called Quest found a perfect balance between the slowed-down rhymes of Q-Tip and faster, harder edged lyrical playfulness of Phife Dawg. They are the yin and yang and the group wouldn't be the same without it. Even if they never make another album, the ones they did make are classics that will stand the test of time. And as the hopeful mega-fan Rapaport points on at the end of the film, they still have one more album left on their original contract. So you never know.

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Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
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