Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Some Potentially Intelligent Babbling About the Tribe Movie

[Image via]

At one time, A Tribe Called Quest was known for raising some unusually important questions:

What's an MC if he doesn't have stamina?
What is hip hop if it doesn't have violence?
What are laws if they ain't fair and equal?
What is a woman if she doesn't say maybe?
What would be my penal chord if it wasn't brown?

With his directorial debut, Michael Rapaport has raised a crucial question of his own:

Why doesn't A Tribe Called Quest make music together any more?

The Source kinda answered that one back in 1998 when they interviewed the group after Tribe formally disbanded. We were told then that the group had exhausted itself creatively and no longer wanted to carry on the years-long war it had waged with its record label. There was probably some truth to that. But was it the whole truth? Not exactly. Certainly not in the mind of Rapaport. In Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, his answer reframes the mythology of the most beloved hip hop group of all time.

[Image via Suburban Apologist]

The adoration for Tribe began not long after a guy formerly called Jonathan Davis spit into a microphone, "Now, I'm from from A Tribe Called Quest." The love morphed as the crew fully congealed and proceeded to record three of the greatest albums any combination of musicians ever managed to get released: People's Instinctive Travels & The Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. okayplayers will forever argue which album was more perfect--or if, indeed, any of the three were perfect. They would almost have to agree, however, that Tribe occupied the rarest space in the hearts and pocketbooks of bohemians, backpackers, white people who didn't crap the roll and people with generally good taste in music. After all, three platinum plaques and two gold plaques hang on somebody's wall on Linden Boulevard.

The love Tribe received always seemed guided by hip hop's better angels. Their music, for the most part, was fun. And when it wasn't strictly that, it was thought-provoking. It never emitted the contempt so much hip hop has been laced with. When they boasted, they remained playful. Never arrogant. And in their social critiques, Tribe oozed a light-hearted nobility that came to represent hip hop's highest aspirations. We loved them for all of those things. What we weren't completely aware of was the simple human tensions that were slowly dividing Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi. Revealing and exploring those tensions is the primary objective of Rapaport's film.

[Image via oystermag]

The opening moments of Rapaport's film tease out both things it is about to do for us. First, it will take us on a head-nodding, shouting-lyrics-at-the-screen trip down memory lane. Second, it will portray a classic clash of egos.

Rapaport gives Phife the first word. His raspy voiceover contemplates, "I can't put a finger on Q-Tip...I guess you could call it a love/hate relationship..." The sound byte is ironic. Phife rarely got the first word on a Tribe song. Or the last. His rhymes were frequently sandwiched between verses from the Abstract. It also prefigures Rapaport's thesis: Phife loathed Q-Tip's shadow.

The heavier you were into Tribe, the more likely you already suspected that. It was no secret that Phife had moved to Atlanta after Midnight Marauders. And it was self-evident that he and Q-Tip were moving in different directions creatively upon listening to Beats, Rhymes & Life. Speculation circa 1996 had it that Consequence, Q-Tip's cousin, would eventually replace Phife. Similarly, the otherworldly presence of J Dilla--shrouded by the simple "Produced by The Ummah" credit--extended the mystery of Tribe. Jarobi, after all, did kinda just leave the group without much explanation. And plenty of folks were still learning that Q-Tip, not Ali Shaheed Muhammad, had really been the group's driving production force. For years, we didn't ask many questions about how the magic was made. Over time, we all began to wonder. As we wondered, our thoughts drifted melodically from how to when.

When the break-up finally did happen in 1998, it made sense. The average lifespan of a hip hop group had always been pretty short. Maybe that was a function of the traditional rapper's ego trip. Emcees are not, by nature, humble dudes. They can learn humility and practice it well. But when they pick up a pen or grip a microphone to rock 20,000 people, they are committing an act that is supposed to be about affirming the self in the most aggrandizing way possible. (At least that's the way it used to be. Before watery-eyed confessionals emerged as a paradoxical prerequisite for ensuring maximum iTunes downloads.) How long can any collection of throbbing egos expect to remain in tact? We may not have fully understood the conflicts that plagued Tribe, but we understood that they'd eventually have to go their own separate ways. Over the years, we pieced together bits of data--a solo joint from Phife, an interview with Q-Tip--to fill out the story. And we were satisfied enough to divert our attention to the reunion rumors. Maybe we never needed Rapaport's film. We probably always wanted it, though.

[Image via ManifestWorldWide]

The first 40 minutes of the film is all memory lane. Pictures of Q-Tip and Phife from elementary school. The story of Phife befriending the beatboxing, basketball-playing Jarobi. Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad hanging out at their alma mater, Murry Bergtraum High School, in Manhattan. We get to see what the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Monie Love, Dres from Black Sheep, Large Professor and DJ Red Alert, among others, looked like yesterday and what they look like today. (SPOILER: Everyone "awwwws" when Red Alert comes on screen. Duke is looking a lot like the granddaddy that he surely is.) We get video excerpts of some of the classics: El Segundo. Bonita. Can I Kick It? Buggin' Out. Check the Rhyme. Scenario. Oh My God. Electric Relaxation. (SPOILER: Everyone in the theatre will sing along with each of those songs. Even if it's just you and four unconnected strangers.)

Memory lane is littered with character-framing vignettes of Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi. Jarobi is a chef. Or a restauranteur. Probably both. It's not completely clear. What is clear from the film is that he chose that path for himself. Ali Shaheed Muhammad is a musician's musician. He plays because he loves to play. Just in case you'd lost track of him since 1998, the film reminds us of the career he's built post-Tribe. As they have always been in the group hierarchy, neither Jarobi nor Ali Shaheed Muhammad play a central role in the film. Consequently, neither man's ego co-stars here. Nor does either man figure antagonistically in Rapaport's Tribe story. He allows both to cruise comfortably in their lanes while focusing his story on the clash between Phife and Q-Tip.

The Funky Diabetic has never been shy about who he is. His complexion is that of a hockey puck. His height is that of Muggsy Bogues. And his favorite form of birth control is busting off on a couch. Rapaport's representation of Phife underscores all of those traits and positions him as the classic Little Man: Pointedly insecure. Easily provoked. Eager to prove himself. Unwilling to accept less than what he believes he is due.

The Abstract Poetic represents Queens. And so much more. Rapaport's version of Q-Tip is a big music nerd who left his humble neighborhood a long time ago in favor of a journey deep into his own brilliance. Musicians who followed him--The Roots, Pharrell and Common--testify as to how near he has come to genius. Business partners--Chris Lighty and Barry Weiss--testify as to how emotionally maladjusted he may be. In sum, Rapaport presents Q-Tip as a classic Aries Artist: Highly self-satisfied. Awkward to work with. Sickeningly talented.

The conflict between the two men is a battle between good and great. Rare is the collaboration where all parties are equally talented. There's usually a pecking order. Particularly among musicians. The most talented member stands apart from the others. Like the best player on a basketball team. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest. The top talent often wills the group to meets its own elite standards. The good carries an odd responsibility that it must carry adroitly for the group to be successful. Moreover, only the most special kind of good can get along with great. It takes a good that is utterly comfortable in its goodness and lacks any yearning to be great by itself. It also takes a patient, accepting kind of good because great does not naturally bend to accommodate the good. The great tends to lack empathy on a small scale. It can feel deeply on a large scale. But when confronted by the natural limits of the good, the great scoffs. The great too easily forgets that the good shares its goals.

Early in Rapaport's film, Q-Tip recalls Phife's late embrace of his obligation to the group. Phife acknowledges that it took him at least the first album to recognize his artistic and financial potential as a rapper. When Phife recounts recording verse one of Buggin' Out, his official coming out party, he plots the point where he simultaneously turned the corner and entered into that battle of good versus great.

Throughout Rapaport's film, we follow Phife's skirmishes with diabetes. We learn his diagnosis came as an adult. That other members of his family have it. And that he really does (or did) drink a lot of soda. Especially Dr. Pepper. Diet Dr. Pepper. We learn the cost his ongoing care motivated him to push the guys to accept one of the many touring offers Tribe had on the table. Rapaport even gives us a glimpse of a major surgery that saved Phife's life. Those are the happy parts.

In the midst of the trip down memory lane, a brief clip of a Q-Tip interview reveals that he struggled to accept Phife's condition. "Phife was young. Shouldn't he be able to control his diabetes? What if we pushed him to live healthier?" The noble intentions of the young Q-Tip positioned him as an unsolicited paternal figure. The young Phife responded poorly to that. So did the old Phife.

A sequence worthy of MTV, E! or some other inelegant cable network goes like this: Phife's body wears down from dialysis while Tribe headlines Rock the Bells in 2008. He spends half of a show in LA leaning on Jarobi. Q-Tip is about to finish a verse and toss to Phife. Q-Tip says, "Look alive. Look at Phife." Or something to that effect. The sickly Phife rages against Q-Tip.

Maybe Q-Tip always resented Phife for not being as serious as he was about the music. Or for not taking better care of himself. ("Damn! Phife! You got fat!") Those suppositions aren't completely fair to Q-Tip, but they're not completely baseless either. Phife clearly resented Q-Tip for not treating him as an equal. That is as plain an argument as Rapaport's film makes. His interpretation of the two men also makes Tribe's body of work read, in hindsight, as a minor miracle. And, perhaps, as a testament to how deeply each man ultimately values the friendship. How else could such a clash of egos acquiesce to deliver such a volume of brilliant music?

[Image via Broadsheet Melbourne]

Something about the opening chords of the film makes it feel like it was tuned by someone who equates reality TV with documentary. As those two things are becoming more and more difficult to distinguish, we cannot blame Rapaport for dabbling in both. The drama he presents is cheap and sensational. It is also unusually sincere. The film is really a bridge doc. Some elements are revelatory in a way that would make the Maysles brothers proud. Other bits are so efficiently reductive as to cause even Mark Burnett to blush. If you don't bring a deep knowledge of Tribe with you to the movie theatre, you may have a hard time properly evaluating the Tribe story while the film teeters between the two disciplines.

For example, one would expect some insight as to what role Consequence played in the devolving relationship between Phife and Q-Tip. If you go back through the Tribe catalogue, you can hear Phife growing as an emcee. By the time Tribe records Midnight Marauders, Phife is nearly equal in skill to Q-Tip. His increased presence on that album implies the group is choosing to recognize his artistic ascent. Suddenly, on Beats, Rhymes & Life, Phife is splitting time with the new guy who just happens to be his partner's cousin. This storyline is acknowledged in the film by a single sentence attributed to Barry Weiss. It is possible Rapaport's research revealed that Consequence's presence was of little, er, consequence to the tensions that grew between Phife and Q-Tip. It is also possible he dismissed it conveniently to better serve the simplicity of the ego clash between the insecure diabetic and the self-centered artist.

There is a similar lack of attention paid to the role J Dilla had in shaping Tribe's final albums. Hell, the last two albums are barely mentioned in the film at all. Rapaport's version of events also ignores the awkward building of the Tribe fan base. The consumer reception for People's Instinctive Travels & The Paths of Rhythm was certainly positive, but the critical response to that record outpaced the developing love affair between hip hop fans and Tribe. It took the average listener at least an album and a half to decide these funky-looking dudes making this fun music were acceptable to ride for.

Rapaport deserves to be criticized for some of the artistic license he has employed with the Tribe story. He has not, however, missed an opportunity or botched a play. His film is a good one. No one who loves Tribe like he did (or does) could do any less than that. What is most unfortunate here is that the answer to his question does not yield the best possible query of all: When is Tribe's next album dropping?

That would just be wishful thinking. The kind you'd have entertained back when you assumed Tribe was just a simple love movement.


Anonymous said...

your a prick, how can he resemble a puck, when his skin is brown, ediot

the_capital_t said...

Couple things:

1) I think you mean "You're" not "your."

2) "Idiot" is spelled with an "i."

3) I'm sure you're already aware of this, but "...the height of Mugsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck..." is a mildly famous line Phife spit in "Steve Biko (Stir It Up)." Consequently, it's actually how Phife describes himself.

Thanks for commenting!