Most hip-hop documentaries are garbage. As fans, we ravenously consume them because we love the artform and love the culture. But we know there's a reason they go straight to DVD: They suck — no cinematic values, no real story arcs or character development, shoddy camerawork, uneven sound. Hell, most music docs in general are slop, overestimating an artist's importance while harping on the most depressing parts of their life. (We'll blame Nick Broomfield and the producers of the Beef series for that awful path.) To put it bluntly, much as we love music, most music documentaries are a slog.
But Beats Rhymes & Life, the directorial debut of actor Michael Rapaport, is not your typical music doc. Nor is its subject, A Tribe Called Quest, your typical hip-hop group. More than almost any act to come out of hip-hop's early-1990s golden age, Tribe redefined the way rap was made, the way rap was heard and the way rap made you feel.
A lot of music docs sling hyperbole to exaggerate their subjects' impact. But it's hard to overestimate the way Tribe influenced hip-hop, from jazz-sample collages that showed new ways of layering (and trolling for) samples to their abstract lyrics, which struck off for parts unknown away from gangsta shit or militant protest rap. Their first three records shaped the aesthetics of rap as surely as Sgt. Pepper's did rock — and more importantly, they sound as fresh today as the day they dropped.
The story behind Tribe and their ascendancy is the sort of music-industry fairy tale that keeps the dream factory knee-deep in applicants. Boyhood friends Q-Tip and Phife Dawg meet Jarobi and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad in high school in Queens. They make demos and meet some people — some really important people — and make a record, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, that shifts the whole hip-hop paradigm. The four high-school friends go on to create two additional albums of unrivaled quality (and two more that are still better than most) before illness, egotism and artistic difference end the group with a whimper.
That makes Beats Rhymes & Life more than just a music documentary. In Rapaport's graceful, objective handling, it becomes the portrait of a family fraying apart — a marriage-by-fate collapsing under extraordinary internal and external pressure. Their story needed an outsider's perspective, as Tribe's, uh, tribe of fans — about as diverse a crowd as one's likely to find — remains loyal in ways that few rap groups inspire. Rapaport shows great empathy for his subjects, but he doesn't give the group a pass just cuz they released three of the greatest albums ever made. Tribe MC Q-Tip's behavior in the third act is pretty much Portrait of the Artist as a Young Prick — a grimace-inducing display of self-obsession and ego.
But Tip isn't vilified and history isn't rewritten for dramatic effect. Thanks to Rapaport, the conflict is laid out the way it played out, with enough context to give every side its due. That care makes Beats Rhymes & Life as bright, beautiful and complex as the music it's celebrating. Rapaport weaves talking heads, animation and archival footage throughout the film the way Tribe used the surface-noise sample on its classic "Oh My God" — as a major element, an important part of the overall texture and feel of the work, yet without hiding the hook.
Which brings us back to the thing that turns Beats Rhymes, & Life into an instant classic: the personal drama at its center. As great and game-changing as the music is, by film's end it's of almost secondary concern to watching these childhood friends repair their fractured relationship en route to their unexpected 2008 reunion. For longtime Tribe fans and followers of the genre, rest assured that in Beats Rhymes & Life you're going to see one of the best music docs in ages and possibly the best hip-hop documentary of all time. For admirers of true stories told with depth, beauty and humanity, you're going to see something maybe even better — a real movie.
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