47. Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest

Beats, Rhymes and Life tells the legend of the iconic hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest and tracks their career from present day back to the beginnings from an early childhood relationship where Q-Tip and Phife meet as toddlers in Queens, NY.  After they begin rhyming with eachother at the age of 9, they don’t take rapping too seriously until they attend different high schools where Q-Tip befriends Ali Shaheed Mohammed and Phife meets his new best friend Jarobi White.  After a few connections are made (specifically with DJ Red Alert’s nephew), Tribe’s early recordings are met positively by V.I.P.’s and find instant praise in the New York hip hop community.

By the time Tribe released The Low End Theory in 1991, Jarobi had flown the coup and Phife Dawg had come into his  own as an emcee as he and Q-Tip shared the spotlight with wise rhymes, forward thinking ideals and name dropping their buddies and obscure pro athletes.  After another brilliant record with 1992’s Midnight Marauders it becomes apparent that the group couldn’t keep their chemistry in check for long and slowly declined into absolute dysfunction by 1998’s swan song LP, The Love Movement – which Phife proclaims should have been called “The Last Movement”.

While the film illustrates Tribe’s intriguing rise and fall from glory, hip hop pillars like De La Soul, Prince Paul, the Beastie Boys, and Pharell Williams discuss Tribe’s impact on rap and just how fucking awesome their records are.  It is quite amazing to look back at the era when Tribe began with groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy ruling rap, yet Tribe never came close to promoting violence or “fighting the power”.  Throughout the Rodney King riots and even in the East Coast/West Coast conflict in the mid 90’s the Tribe stayed true to their ideals and built their career on rock solid records with style and relative laid back ease. With no huge hits or catchy anthems, every album they released stands on its own two feet with nothing but songs that are inviting, familiar, and constantly progressing.

Q-Tip and Phife’s complicated relationship takes center stage by the last half hour of the film, as Ali Shaheed and Jarobi sidestep the drama.  Q-Tip comes off at times as a perfectionist ego-maniacal control freak while Phife seems jealous and motivated for purely financial reasons.  With Phife physically struggling to perform during their 2008 reunion tour, the group almost implodes when Phife and Q-Tip nearly come to blows backstage in San Francisco.  With Q-Tip admitting that he did the reunion because he was motivated to help out Phife, one must wonder what the root of all the animosity is.

All drama aside, Tribe’s impact on hip hop in the 90’s and even today can’t be overstated or undersold.  With original music from Madlib and a constant thump of Tribe’s catalog soundtracking the film, its hard not to throw your hands in the air and sing along while watching the film.  Beats, Rhymes, and Life is absolutely necessary viewing for any half serious fan of hip hop, not to mention the best hip hop documentary I’ve ever seen.  Whether or not A Tribe Called Quest continues touring or even makes another record, their legacy will live forever and this film is an incredible testament to that.

The survey says 5 stars out of 5, and if it plays in your town don’t wait for the dvd!


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Categories: 100 Films, Music

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