- Rap group A Tribe Called Quest, the subject of Michael Rapaport's documentary. Submitted photo.
There's a recent TV commercial for a fast food chain that features two firemen playing rock-paper-scissors in an attempt to win a bite of a third fireman's sandwich. The hook of the commercial is that the filmmakers dub in the voices of three little boys for the burly firefighters. When I watched Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, it reminded me of the commercial. Never mind the fame, the money, and the hip-hop trappings, this is a story about some boys, school friends who try to remain pals as the years go by.
A Tribe Called Quest became big in the '90s. Their raps extended past boasting and they raided their parents' record collections and built songs around mellower tunes than most of their contemporaries. First-time filmmaker Michael Rapaport offers plenty of info on the rise of the group and their huge influence on the music scene, but the relationships between the members is what makes the film memorable.
Q-Tip is the leader - or at least the fellow who talks most like the leader. Phife Dawg is his diabetic partner - the two were childhood pals who grew up in Queens. I could bury you in the colorful names of the other band members, those who influenced them and those who admire them, but the core of the film is the trouble between Q-Tip and Phife. The group breaks up, then reunites for concert tours, in part to cover Phife's medical expenses. Forget the anger and posturing, just listen to Phife as he discusses a text sent to him by Q-Tip following his kidney transplant surgery. You'll hear the voice of a boy who misses his friend.