Wednesday, October 3, 2012


For the last few years the most prominent films on the subject of hip-hop culture have focused mainly on Tupac (Resurrection, The Death Row Records documentary, Tupac & Biggie) and/or Notorious B.I.G. (Notorious). And by "Prominent" I mean films that didn't just go straight to DVD but rather got some kind of a run in theaters. What's even worse is that these films focus more on the violence surrounding Biggie & Tupac's deaths rather than their music. Tupac and Biggie are both icons in Hip-Hop (and you have to admit that whether you're a fan or not) but after four films in a few short years all essentially focusing on the same thing...I think it's time to move on. I recognize there are exceptions like The Hip-Hop Project, Scratch (which played at Sundance), Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme (which gained a lot of popularity through word of mouth and on DVD) but these days, generally speaking, if it isn't a tupac/biggie-related film it doesn’t get much play. Just off of that alone this Tribe Called Quest documentary was necessary. Now, Beats Rhymes & Life wasn’t without its own controversy (the documentary was in a mini-post production hell mostly due to Q-Tip and Michael Rapaport not seeing eye to eye on the final cut), but after the smoke settled we were left with a solid documentary (which was eventually co-signed by three out of the four members) that was long overdue. Furthermore, this documentary serves as an unofficial guide, especially for young African American males and young diabetics, on the subject of health. Beyond the group's history and behind the scenes turmoil, a major part of this documentary focused on Phife Dawg's battle with his diabetes-induced kidney disease and struggle to find a kidney donor. This is something I relate too pretty much 110% as I'm a type-2 diabetic who needed a kidney (and got one courtesy of my Uncle Dennis) because I was careless, stubborn and lived my life as if I didn’t have diabetes. Phife, who at times came off a little whiny in the film, is the epitome of that stubborn relative or friend we all know with diabetes who acts as if they don’t have it because you don’t usually see the effects of diabetes right away like you would other diseases. Diabetes is known as a "slow killer". But slow or not, diabetes can still KILL. Quite a few diabetics put too much emphasis on the “slow” part of that phrase and less on the “killer” part – “I can eat this candy bar or drink this soda. It’s not gonna kill me right away, so whatever.” But the problem is many diabetics (specifically type-2 diabetics like Phife Dawg) think like that too much and too often and end up going overboard. Next thing it’s the loss of your vision, a limb...or a kidney transplant. Just look at everyone from Heavy D (another hip-hop legend like Tribe) to Patrice O’Neal in recent years (both overweight black males). The subplot involving Phife's kidney transplant alone (he eventually got a kidney from his wife) would have made a great film. Let my story, as well as Phife's, be a lesson to you all - Diabetes is nothing to play with. However…had I not gotten kidney disease you all wouldn’t have this great "Kidneys On Film" series so it’s kind of a blessing in disguise, right?

It goes without saying that A Tribe Called Quest deserves to have their story told on the big screen. From Q-Tip's voice, to their iconic red, black & green album covers, to the their conscious lyrics (a term that's gotten a little played out over the years, but whatever...), to their innovation in jazz sampled-based production to their influence on so many artists or being part of one of the biggest/greatest (yet at times distant) hip-hop collectives; "Native Tongues" (de la soul, jungle brothers, black sheep, queen latifah, etc etc) - they're legends. In the last decade or so there have been a few hip-hop-based films like Q-Bert's Wave Twisters or Scratch to play at big festivals like Sundance, New York & Toronto, but those films, which are do serve a purpose, only represent subcultures within a subculture, whereas ATCQ is fairly universal and speaks to a lot more people than strictly DJing & turntablism. Naturally a lot of people initially expected someone like Spike Lee or even John Singleton (Q-Tip has worked with both directors in the past) to direct this documentary but I think Michael Rapaport (in his directorial debut) did a great job. From 'Zebrahead' (a movie that was originally meant for MC Search and also gave Nas a big push early on in his career with the song "Halftime") to working with people like Talib Kweli & Madlib (who did the soundtrack for Beats, Rhymes & Life), Rapaport has always been cool in my book. And on a side note, his performance in Bamboozled is one of the most criminally underrated supporting roles of the last decade. Beats, Rhymes & Life gives you the typical introduction & history of ATCQ intercut with their 2008 reunion for Rock The Bells which was filled with quite a bit of animosity and old feelings between Phife and Q-Tip (the main reason Tribe reunited in 2008 was so Phife could get money from the tour to pay for his kidney transplant and medical bills). For the most part, the right people were interviewed (De La Soul, Questlove, etc) and I was especially happy to see The Jungle Brothers interviewed because as I mentioned earlier, Natives Tongues, although legendary, are quite possibly one of the most distant & disassociated collectives in hip-hop history (this would make for another interesting documentary). I get the feeling that this documentary also shed a lot of light on Q-Tip's role as producer in the group. Up until this documentary many people have expressed to me in conversation (I won’t name names) that they always thought Ali Shaheed Mohammad handled most of the production when in fact it was Q-Tip.
Even if you aren’t the biggest fan of hip-hop this is still a film that can be enjoyed by most film lovers.
In the documentary Rapaport goes over Tribe's discography (with more of an emphasis on The Low End Theory & Midnight Marauders) and kinda grazes over their fourth album (Beats, Rhymes & Life). Besides the fact that’s the name of the documentary, it’s also the groups "cult album". In the summer of '96 when this album was released, it was initially met with mixed reviews and quite a few fans felt the album was just "ok" or disappointing. But over time people warmed up and it was eventually considered a classic like their first three albums. The documentary didn’t really get in to that or the fact that the Beats, Rhymes & Life album pretty much introduced Jaydee/J-Dilla (one of the most influential producers in hip-hop) to the world. But rarely has there ever been a film that’s so personal to me on more multiple levels, so it kinda gets a pass. Putting the diabetes/kidney subplot aside, not only was I born in St. Albans (Tribe's stomping ground) and lived there the first 7 years of my life (right around the corner from the famous St. Albans mural that’s featured heavily in the documentary) but The Low End Theory was literally the first rap album I ever bought as a kid.
Hopefully this documentary will pave the way for other long overdue (respectable) hip-hop documentaries on groups ranging from Wu-Tang to De La Soul.


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