Making the new documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest was an up-and-down experience for actor-turned-director Michael Rapaport. “The music has such an inclusive spirit,” he told Rolling Stone the week before the documentary – his directorial debut – premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27th. “It’s like a really good home-cooked meal of whatever appeals to you: chicken, pasta, fish . . .” Or beef? “I didn’t say beef!” he said, laughing. “I want to steer clear of beef!”
And no wonder. “I knew I had to be ready to fight,” he said. “I expected to fight the finances, the studios – even the subjects a bit. But I didn’t know how bloody it would get.”
Or how public. The troubles started last December when A Tribe Called Quest leader Q-Tip tweeted, “I am not in support of the a tribe called quest documentary,” in response to a leaked trailer for the film that didn’t meet his approval. (Nor did it meet Rapaport’s – it wasn’t the official cut.) Then as Sundance approached, Q-Tip went into angry detail. Calling himself a producer on the film, he said he wanted changes. So although Tribe member Phife Dawg attended the Sundance screening, his onetime partners Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad,and Jarobi sat it out – while at the same issuing a statement in support of the film. In March, just after Sony Pictures Classics announced its acquisition of the picture, Q-Tip, Ali and Jarobi went on MTV to air further grievances: They didn’t get creative control, they were being deprived of producing credits, they weren’t offered enough money to travel to Sundance.
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Rapaport said that the original agreement he struck with A Tribe Called Quest was twofold. On the business side, Tribe get 50 percent of the net profits, and on the creative, they get to have “reasonable consultation.” “Let me say this,” the director said. “They don’t have final cut. I don’t think in a documentary as intimate as this – as emotional, as personal as it is – that the people it’s about should have a say. It’s hard for them to have perspective.”
The issues that led to Tribe’s bitter breakup in 1998 rise again to the surface during the 2008 reunion tour that’s documented in the movie. In one telling moment, Phife, weakened from weekend dialysis treatments for his diabetes, leans on Jarobi on stage, while Tip attempts to rouse the crowd: “Look alive! Look at Phife!” Phife is not amused, and refuses to speak to Q-Tip backstage. Tip professes not to understand why, and a bit of a shoving match erupts.
Nonetheless, while the fights are definitely a feature (the film’s original working title was Beats, Rhymes & Fights, to which Q-Tip objected), they aren’t really the focus. The doc concentrates heavily on the band’s legacy, with testimonials from Pharrell, the Beastie Boys, Common, De La Soul, ?uestlove, and more. “The things they had notes on,” Rapaport said, “weren’t what they said in the film, but what other people said.” (Rapaport did, however, cede control of the film’s soundtrack – which might give Tribe the one last album it needs to complete its still-in-effect contract with Jive.)
Rapaport said that as he was finishing the film, Q-Tip asked for more than creative control – he wanted Tribe be named as producers, too, or else he would block the movie’s release. Unfortunately, this prompted an email exchange with another producer, who wanted to quickly put the film’s poster into production without those credits. “Then,” that producer said, “we’ll fuck them on everything else.” Even more unfortunately, this email was accidentally sent to Q-Tip, too. Rapaport did end up giving them producer credits, but doesn’t like how it went down. “I don’t think the subject of a documentary film should be producers on it,” he said. “It’s not as simple as that, but I had to say, ‘Fuck it.’ I was forced to.”
In any event, he says, “Q-Tip, Ali, and Jarobi have yet to see the final cut, or to see the film with an audience. It’s only been on a computer screen, and that’s no way to watch a movie. I’m sure once they see it in its entirety, they’ll realize it’s a positive depiction of the group. It’s my love letter to them. And I hope we get past all this.”