I’ve been on a bit of a Tribe quick this last week, culminating Saturday at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, where Q-Tip was the headliner. It was a bravura set by a born performer: Tip’s clear delivery, whether rapping, singing (weakly, but charmingly) or beatboxing, coupled with a tighly-knit band animating the Tribe compositions with live instruments, made for a great show.
The icing on the cake was an all-star line-up of guests that included Monie Love (reluctantly performing “Monie in the Middle” before quickly absconding), an on point Sean Penn (not the mopey-faced actor), Black Thought from The Roots (spitting “Love of My Life and “The Next Movement”, tight as always, then backing up Tip on a crazy rendition of “Bonita Applebum”), Busta Rhymes (the crowd went wild when he appeared for “Scenario”, but it quickly turned into call-response; the real fyah was his insane verse from Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now”) and Kanye West (rapping “Dark Fantasy” down among the crowd, dropping a couple of his pop joints, then acting plug 2 for Tip on “Award Tour”).
For me the most enjoyable parts were elsewhere though. It was great seeing Tip just perform his stuff: he delivered “We Fight/Love” beautifully, with DJ J. Period providing an exquisite turntable chorus, and his rendition of “Sucka Nigga” was inspired — by weaving his flow between the declamatory and the exclamatory he restated compellingly the enduring resonance of that song (the ambiguity of the n-word has rarely been stated better).
Which brings me to the other reason I’ve been time traveling lately: Michael Rapaport’s new documentary on A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. Its premiere at Sundance was surrounded by a certain amount of uneasy shuffling amongst the concerned parties, and since its release it’s been subject to somewhat mixed criticism.
It is easy to see why. It is an incoherent film that shifts radically in tone about midway through. While initially an attempt to chart the story of how A Tribe Called Quest became one of hip hop’s defining acts, it is backloaded with the story that unfolded within the group as Rapaport shot the film in 2008-10: estranged friends and musical partners uneasily reuniting off and on again for tours a decade after the fact, reigniting the conflicts that split them in the first place.
The film never quite manages to explicate what made A Tribe Called Quest so seminal. The fans know, but what about the larger audience one would hope for? It is clearly a fanboy movie, made by a first-time director with little sense of stringency or coherence, assuming a fair amount of prior knowledge on the part of its viewers and misrepresenting historical details. Worse, it is too busy ever to let the music play and act as exhibit A, choosing consistently to cut to the next interview. Yet it is a pretty great film. How is that possible?
It just so happens that the fanboy who directed the movie managed to shoot some great material and had the good sense to let it dictate the film he ended up making, instead of downplaying it in favor of the surely more bland film that would have resulted, had he gone the traditional VH1 route. The interviews with the four members of the group, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Q-Tip, and Jarobi (“A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y”) are excellent. Each of them speaks with honesty, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, not shying away from the difficult issues at the heart of their friend- and fellowship.
And then there’s the harrowing footage from the fateful 2008 tour, backstage and -front, as well as from Phife’s private life as he goes through a particularly difficult and threatening phase of his struggle with type 1 diabetes. And passages of the interaction between Tip and Phife preparing soberly and amicably for a show in Japan in 2010, peppered through the film, capture perfectly the interplay of their personalities that one senses generated their chemistry as well as their conflict (Q-Tip mock-interviewing Phife about the Lakers and the Knicks is both hilarious and revealing of how one’s assurance plays off the other’s earnestness).
Add to this a number of other great moments: Ali loosing his train of thought mind-interview as a kid scoots by, Tip giddily telling the story of how he discovered the break for “Can I Kick It”, Black Thought characterizing the rather dubious Tribe wardrobe as it looked back in 1990, former manager Chris Lighty addressing Tip’s perfectionism and refusal to part with a final mix using a champagne bucket, Phife describing how to properly dose his insulin (“you go above that, you might bottom out and play yourself”), and so on.
It is not the definitive Tribe documentary by any means, and it does too little to address the group’s contribution or legacy, and the continued resonance of the music they made together. However, it does touch upon the post-Tribe difficulties experienced by most of the group as recording artists, showing Q-Tip to be the most driven and musically talented — and relentless — of the group.
To be sure, he has experienced his own problems, creative as well as business-oriented, in years since Tribe broke up, first baring his pecs with the schizoid cash grab Amplified (1999), then seeing an ambitious if never fully realized album, Kamaal the Abstract, shackled by record company paralysis and dispersed through internet leakage, but it all seemed to come together for him again with 2008’s The Renaissance, which gets as close to what one would hope for mature, evolved hip hop to sound like. And as he continues to demonstrate with shows such as the one on Saturday, he may just have the right stuff eventually to achieve that most difficult of feats in hip hop: artistic longevity.
More clips from the Brooklyn show brought to you by the group mind of the interwebs.