A Tribe Called Quest came along in the early 1990s, when hip-hop music was dominated by murderously petty feuds and aggressive braggadocio. In this environment, Tribe’s socially conscious brand of rap stood out: It emphasized inclusiveness and unity through diversity, without forgetting to provide the party crowd with hooks about the charms of a woman named Bonita Applebaum or the adventures resulting from leaving a wallet in El Segundo. Nonthreatening without being sanitized, their music was exactly what many fans were ready to hear. Yet the same generous spirit that animated their rap was the reason hip-hop fans were so keenly hurt when they heard of the band’s breakup amid infighting and exhaustion. The scintillating documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest finds the band on a brief reunion tour in 2008 and draws a compelling portrait of the rap group in winter.
The main players are Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed and Malik “Phife Dawg” Allen, two guys from Queens who’ve known each other since they were toddlers. Ali Shaheed Muhammad is the group’s longtime third member, who’s frequently caught in the middle of their disputes. Much of rap is about telling stories through music, so it’s no surprise that the interview subjects here are terrific storytellers. Q-Tip re-creates the disbelieving smile frozen on his face the first time he heard his music on the radio, while Phife, the self-described “funky diabetic” in one of his songs, grows serious discussing his struggles with juvenile diabetes. A whole cluster of music stars (including Common, Questlove, and Pharrell Williams) weighs in on the historical impact of A Tribe Called Quest, and even the band’s manager, Chris Lighty, uses an ice bucket to demonstrate his struggle to keep the perfectionistic Q-Tip from endlessly tinkering with the group’s great album The Low End Theory.
As the movie points out, A Tribe Called Quest drew its creative juices from the contrast between the high-voiced, intense, street-tough Phife and the lower-voiced, laid-back, intellectual Q-Tip. Yet that same tension drove the two men apart and led to the band’s dissolution in 1998, Q-Tip becoming more controlling and Phife wrecking his health without keeping the band informed. The old issues surface during the reunion tour, and the camera catches a bust-up before a show in San Francisco that almost leads to Q-Tip and Phife trading punches. Neither man comes off looking good in the aftermath, and while Q-Tip unloads years’ worth of grievances onto De La Soul’s DJ Maseo (who’s pleading for sanity), Ali Shaheed Muhammad just sits in a corner with the weary, resigned look of a man who’s heard this hundreds of times before.