Michael Rapaport Talks A Tribe Called Quest and His New Documentary on the Group
The film, which debuted earlier this year at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival where its release rights were acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, focuses on the lives of A Tribe Called Quest's members some 25 years after they first thrillingly appeared on the New York City underground rap radar, wowing audiences with their combination of inventive sampling, conscious lyricism and Afrocentric aesthetics.
Promoted as the first-ever documentary to focus on a hip-hop group, the film is very much an insider's look at Tribe's surprisingly tense behind-the-scenes, in-group dynamics. It's an intense watch as members Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammed and Jarobi White openly discuss the sentiments of jealousy and burden that have fueled the band's on-again-off-again status since the late '90s.
But it's not just the group's perspective that is shared: Throughout the documentary, Rapaport intersperses his footage of Tribe's performances, rehearsals and arguments with commentary from other influential hip-hop icons such as Questlove, The Beastie Boys, MC Lyte, Pharrell Williams and others, all of whom explain, defend and sometimes outright drool about Tribe's place atop the hip-hop world. It's not all glittery, though; one particularly enlightening scene finds Tribe's contemporaries in De La Soul openly hoping for the group's demise so that they won't be forced to watch their in-fighting any longer. Indeed: Beats, Rhymes & Life is an honest, insightful look into the history, present and possible future of one of hip-hop's greatest group of provocateurs.
After a recent Dallas screening of the film, we had the chance to sit down with Rapaport to discuss his inspiration for the film, his own affection for the group and the difficulties he faced in putting the film together. Check out our Q&A with the noted Rock N Jock hero after the jump.
Obviously, Tribe is a real big passion of yours. But what I didn't really get from the film was your own personal discovery of Tribe. I assume it was when their first album came out. What do you remember about that time?
The first time I heard them was on the radio in New York City. They used to play "The Hip-Hop League" at night on Fridays and Saturdays. It was on DJ Red Alert's show, too. I heard Q-Tip, and I was onto his voice and his flow, and he said his name, and he said something about A Tribe Called Quest, and I was like, "What is this?" And then, you know, soon after, their album came out, and I was like, "This is really good!"
What about it spoke to you?
Probably at the time, it was just the flow, the samples that I was familiar with, that I had heard growing up -- Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Sly Stone. I remember noticing right away Phife's voice. He sounds like a little kid. And obviously Q-Tip's voice is very distinct. There was nothing like that. As I listened closer to the things they were talking about, it was conscious, it was fun, talking about safe sex but in a funny way. "Bonita Appleburn," talking about a girl, but in a nice way. It was very adolescent, but sophisticated.
Like thoughtful adolescence?
Yeah, thoughtful adolescence. When you listen to that first album, it's kind of like you're walking around school and you're hearing all these different conversations from all these different kinds of kids. So that's what I remember.
Why do a documentary on these guys now?
I think, now, you get some perspective on it. You can kind of look back. I think that documentaries either have to happen while it's happening or you look back. For me, obviously we didn't do it while it was happening, but that time in hip-hop was very very exciting -- it informs, and sort of dictates what goes on in pop culture today, very much so. You turn on the radio and you turn on the TV and you see T-Mobile girl with the white kid rapping next to her, and that TV commercial where they use the "Black Sheep" song. It's part of our everyday vernacular. Michelle Obama is doing hip-hop dances, and it's not like, "What is that?" It's part of the culture. It's popular culture.
I noticed that there wasn't a lot of comparison in the film between that era in hip-hop versus what's happening now.
There's no reason to compare. I didn't want to talk about hip-hop now, I wanted to talk about when I think it was at its best, when I think it was at its most diversified, which is one of the reasons why it was so good. Obviously, I wanted to do that, but I wanted to also stay focused on A Tribe Called Quest, and subtly show their influences without being over the top with it. I wanted the film to be more than just about the musical influences. I wanted it to be an exploration. Once I started shooting, I realized it was going down this road of an exploration of who they are as people and their relationships.
It seems like a lot of it happened on that road, especially the backstage stuff that you got with Phife and Q-Tip pretty much at each other's throats.
I didn't have any idea that it was going to happen. I had a lot of the early stuff in my head, because those were things I knew. Musically, there were things I wanted to touch on about what Tribe did because those were things that were exciting to me and I thought would be
exciting to the fans. But all the sort of "their take" stuff, and the conflict, there's no way to predict any of that.
How aware were you of the inner conflict of the band...
I was totally unaware. I had no clue.
What was it like when that went down backstage at Rock the Bells? Them talking about how it might be their last show ever -- that ended up being a major narrative point in the film, the whole idea of whether or not they're going to continue as a group.
I had no idea that it was at that point, and I had no idea that I was going to be exposed to it. But once it was sort of put in front of me, I knew it was very important to stay on it, and to document it, and to try and articulate it, because my whole sort of reason for the movie was, will A Tribe Called Quest make more music? And I think that, in answering that question, one of the reasons that they stopped making music was, I think, that they don't get along as well as they used to. And there's no crime in that. There's no judgment in that. It happens to groups all the time. Everybody from 'NSYNC to the Beatles have broken up, and there's no punching or judgment in that.
I remember that I saw a trailer at one point a while back that said the film was being called Beats, Rhymes & Fights. Why'd that change back to Beats, Rhymes & Life?
That was my first title I liked, but the movie didn't really unfold at that point, and I think the group didn't like that title, and I think that, ultimately, it was smart to change it, so we changed it. Beats, Rhymes & Fights was obviously a play on their album Beats, Rhymes & Life, and we were like, well, let's just go with Beats, Rhymes & Life.
One thing that's interesting, in that it plays into what you just said, is the involvement of the subjects in the documentary itself. The group has attached their names to your film as producers. I know you're a big basketball fan. I don't know if you saw the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, The Fab Five, that was produced by those guys in the film. So it was kind of from their perspective. How much did you have back and forth with the guys in Tribe versus just wanting to tell your own story about them?
They came on to produce at the very end. They asked for that. They didn't really produce the film, they didn't have anything to do with financing the film, and I wasn't hired by them to make the film.
What was their role as far as producers on the film?
Nothing. At the 27th hour, they asked for producer credit, and, y'know, whatever, we gave them producer credit. But that's about as much producing as they did -- they got a producer credit; they didn't have anything to do with producing the film.
Had you met these guys before you started filming?
I've known Q-Tip a little bit, and I didn't really know the rest of the guys, but I wouldn't have made the movie had I known them. I think that if I was a friend of theirs, I wouldn't have made the movie because I wouldn't have been able to tell the story with objectivity and sort of an open canvas. Everything they were telling me, I was hearing for the first time.
I think, in many ways, the heart of the documentary is Phife, because of his struggles both with the group's dynamics and with diabetes. Were you surprised about that? Was that something you knew you wanted? To tell his side of the story? Obviously, Q-Tip is the biggest name when people think of the group.
He just has a very big personality, and he's unfiltered. He's very funny, and I think that I tried to make the balance. And, obviously, what he's going through with his health, you know, it's compelling. And, you know, he's very honest. When he's talking about it, it's very compelling to listen to, because that's who he is. There is no air of performance with him. You get what you get -- there is no in-between with him. Which I like. And obviously, as an emcee, the things that made Q-Tip and Phife so great and so different, that work with A Tribe Called Quest, are the same things that make them so great and interesting to observe in a documentary. Phife is who he is, and he's not a filterer, and Q-Tip's a little more abstract, but they're both very charismatic people, and they're both very charismatic musicians. But, essentially, their personalities come out the same way.
How tough was it to separate yourself, the fan, from yourself, the filmmaker?
That wasn't that hard. Especially in the end. I knew that the stuff that A Tribe Called Quest did as musicians was already done, and it was just a matter of picking that stuff. I had to just be clear about what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to do was not tell a fluff piece. I didn't want to do a "making of" story, and I didn't want to do a Behind the Music. Those are great, they're excellent, but I ultimately wanted the film to come out in theaters, and I knew that the only way to separate this from something that's overproduced is to make it a more raw depiction of their story. I knew that, and fortunately, we were able to pull that together.
You've got some phenomenal access in this documentary, too. Did you know that heading in to this would be the case?
No. But I didn't have to force anyone. I think they were willing because they trusted me, and I think they were willing because they have an understanding of their legacy, and I think that they too wanted their story to be told, despite the fact that it's a little messy. At the end of the day, they knew it should be told. And I think that, historically, for hip-hop music, these stories should be told. Groups like Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Public Enemy, Eric Sermon, Big Daddy Kane -- who wouldn't want to see a documentary on Grand Master Flash and the Fabulous Five? Wouldn't you want to see a documentary on them? This was the first one about a group, it turns out. I didn't realize that going into it, but I realize it now. It's just the way it worked out. That's the beauty of documentary filmmaking, it's just the way it worked out. You can't predict it, or contrive it.
Would you say this is a tragic story? What do you think the story is?
I don't think it's tragic. I mean, so many groups have broken up. I think the movie's a celebration of what they accomplished as a group, I think it's a celebration of the golden era of hip-hop, I think it's an examination of four guys' relationships as friends and brothers. They're a family. I think that it's honest. I think it's an honest depiction of where the group is at now and where they came from.
Was it ever a little awkward? My favorite part in the film is where you got the De La Soul guys on camera, so fed up with the Tribe drama that they say they hope that Rock The Bells would be Tribe's last show.
There were times when it was awkward because it's so honest. There was times when I was shooting things, and I was like, "Aw, man!" You could just feel the truth being articulated. At times, that's uncomfortable, but it's exciting as a filmmaker.
I know, personally, it can be tough for me to write about something I love, mostly because you start looking at it a different way. Was that something you experienced at all with this?
I love A Tribe Called Quest and I still love the music. I think that it was a challenge dealing with a group that doesn't make moves as a group much anymore. I essentially was dealing with four individuals under the auspices of A Tribe Called Quest. That was a challenge, and it was frustrating, but it was par for the course. The give-and-take of that was fine at the end of the day, because the reward -- now that I'm out of it, it's fine. In the middle of it, at times, I was just like, "What the fuck, man?"
It made you look at them differently?
It made me look at them as humans. Which is a little weird sometimes. It's weird, but I knew not to judge them, because I knew that if someone was making a documentary about me, I'd be a motherfucker to deal with sometimes too, you know? [Laughs.] It takes balls to let those things be aired out.
This was something you were working on, I assume, as a labor of love up until Sony Classics picked it up at Sundance. Was it something that you've been pitching and getting financial support for before that?
I funded the movie in the beginning. A lot of money. Along the way, I picked up some investors, thank God! [Laughs.]
It sounds like it was that journey that made it worthwhile for you, this being your first documentary and all.
Completely. It's all icing on the cake now. I've worked on these kinds of movies, and I've been around independent movies. My first movie was an independent movie at Sundance in 1991 or 1992 -- that was the same year that Quentin Tarantino broke, and Robert Rodriguez broke, and I listened to their stories, and I was inspired by their stories. John Cassavetes is a big inspiration to me, and I know that making independent movies is not easy. You need to spend your own money. You need to be prepared for a fucking war. That's how making independent movies has been, and that's how it's always going to be. That's what this was, but the beauty of it is, we came out on the other side. There still isn't a big pile of gold sitting there, but the reviews and responses to the movie, and the fans loving the movie, is...I mean it's why I did that movie.
You've got a bit on the end about how they've got one record left on their record contract. How much of that was the fan in you putting it out there as a wish?
It was absolutely the fan. Just reminding the group and reminding the fans, and everybody, that Tribe Called Quest is alive and kicking, and maybe one day they'll do it. I think that if they did it, it would be great for hip-hop.
Do you think it'll happen?
I don't know if it will happen.
Have you ever asked the guys?
I ask all the time. That was usually the first question I asked, each day. I'd interview them and, then three months later, "So...is this documentary helping?" I don't know right now if they're going to make music. I still don't know. I think that if they did, people would be excited. It wouldn't be a dud. I think it would be fucking cool. For the fans of, like, Led Zeppelin or The Who -- this would be just as exciting for hip-hop. Hip-hop is no longer this subculture, so it would be a big deal. Artists like Kanye and Drake and Common and OutKast and Nicki Minaj, these people wouldn't be able to do what they do as individual, distinct artists if it wasn't for groups like A Tribe Called Quest. They really make people feel comfortable being themselves. If you listen to their music now, it doesn't sound like it's 20 years old. It's fucking great!
Are you still a hip-hop guy? What are you listening to these days?
Honestly, I don't listen to much of the new stuff. I listen to some of it, I'm aware of Drake and people like that -- everybody is. I'm aware of it, but I'm not as excited about it as much as the older stuff. I have these great mixes from each year, from 1979 to 2009, and I listen to '86 to '95, and the diversification in the music is incredible.
Is this something you'd like to do again?
I would love to do another documentary.
Would you stay in music?
Who knows? Whatever I did a documentary on was something that I was uncontrollably compelled to know. The next thing I want to direct is a narrative. And I'm always going to be an actor -- I always want to act. I want to get to a point in the next three years where I can act and direct, act and direct, because I love both of them. Directing is very exciting to me because it's a new frontier, and it's such an open sort of book of ideas and I just love the collage element of filmmaking. To me, it's always a collage, and documentary film-making, particularly this kind, is really like a collage. It's just like, all right, here's your cameras, there are all these things to work with. It's really just a hodgepodge of all these different things. Obviously, when you shoot a narrative film, you have a clear road map -- a clearer road map -- whereas with documentaries, you really don't. As much as you think you do, and as much as you dictate certain things, you don't. When you pull something together, it's like, "Oh, shit!"
It's clear that when you saw that backstage fight, a lightbulb went off -- like, boom, I've got my narrative.
That's right. And fights help stuff -- like, "I've got my narrative!" It was great. In the hip-hop community, the cat got out of the bag very quickly that I was making this movie, and I didn't want it to be like, "Fuck, what happened to that A Tribe Called Quest documentary? Oh, you know, we're still working on it." I didn't want that to happen. The word got out that we were making a movie quickly, and I just didn't want to disappoint people.
Did that help when getting people on board for interviews, or did that hurt it?
No, that helped it. It was good. Getting people doing interviews was easy.
You got tons of people, too. A lot of people didn't really get a shot in the film until the credits. Was there anybody you really wanted to get but you couldn't?
I really wanted to get Drake. We didn't get Queen Latifah -- that was a big person, important person, that we couldn't get. It was just timing. I wanted to get Drake, and the reason why I wanted to get Drake was 'cause he's so popular right now, and he loves A Tribe Called Quest, and he's so clearly an offspring of that time. I wanted someone young who was super, super, super relevant, to be like, "Yo, I'm Drake, I'm twenty fucking three years old, and I love Tribe." Like, his first song, "Best I Ever Had," was clearly inspired by "Bonita Applebaum." It's a little dirtier, but it's flirty and all that. I talked to him about that. Just not on camera. These people move around a lot. They don't fuck around. They're always traveling, and touring, so it's hard. But we got enough, so it was Latifah and Drake that I wanted to get, but I just couldn't get.
A rewarding experience overall?
Most exhilarating, rewarding artistic experience I've had in my career.