In the documentary Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, no one interviewed has any doubts about the musical importance of the titular hip-hop ensemble, famous for songs like "Can I Kick It." The same isn't quite true regarding the sartorial impact of the group, whose members now speak with wry ambivalence of the brightly colored, dashiki-inspired costumes they wore for a time in their 1990s heyday.
It's one of the only ambivalent notes struck about the group's legacy in this entertaining film, which was directed by the actor Michael Rapaport. It looks not only at a group known for its intelligence and adventurousness, but also at the lively milieu of 1980s hip-hop, which spawned A Tribe Called Quest. Hip-hop is an omnipresent cultural force today, so there is fascination in watching the film trace the movement's progress from its origins.
In a genre known for solo artists, A Tribe Called Quest was a group, and the story of its most prominent members, rappers Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, painfully calls to mind other famous musical collaborators. I'm thinking of duos like Lennon and McCartney, or James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, whose story is told in the dazzling documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Like those others, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg met when they were kids, and by the time they were successful entertainers, they'd never known working life without each other. Strife inevitably set in, and the group stopped releasing new CDs after 1998. A third longtime member, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, seems to have played the kid-brother role, and in interviews years later, he's still carefully not taking sides.
There are wonderful archival clips and recent testimonies from admirers like Ludacris and the Beastie Boys. The film also presents scenes from a 2008 reunion tour, including tense moments backstage. Near the end, in a sequence that goes on too long, Rapaport crosscuts interview footage of Q-Tip and Phife sniping at each other. Hailed as an innovator throughout the film, Q-Tip disappoints me when he dismisses Phife's actions with what is, apparently, the most devastating insult he can muster: faggoty. I'm a faggot, so by definition everything about me is faggoty. I guess Q-Tip would have a problem with that.