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Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (Review)

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By Michelle London Bell

There are few films to date that have examined the world of hip hop from a fresh and raw perspective. Beats, Rhymes & Life is the untold story behind the rise and fall of 1990s group A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) and accomplishes that task very well.

Director Michael Rapaport certainly captures the essence of the groundbreaking crew and how the group was born “back in the day on the boulevard of Linden…” and how their magic made an indelible imprint on the music scene.

“[We] fancied ourselves as fresh and innovative,” explained Q-Tip, aka Kamaal Fareed.  The film takes you on an intimate journey from the formation of the group in Queens through creating infamous samples born of their jazz and bee-bop musical influences which lead to wildly successful gold and platinum albums and sold-out tours.

Reminiscent of Brown Sugar’s infamous line, “When did you fall in love with hip hop?” – the film manages to capture the mystique and nostalgia of ATCQ.  Do you remember where you were when you first heard Bonita Applebum, Check The Rhime, Buggin’ Out or Award Tour?  The film conveys the spirit of the group in an authentic and endearing way — lacking the hyper-sensationalized feel found in most accounts of the hip-hop world.

Beyond that, the film also has an impressive slate of cameos. I expected to see De La Soul, Black Thought and Questlove of The Roots, Common and Jungle Brothers.  But I was pleasantly surprised by scenes with Pharrell Williams, Mary J Blige and Beastie Boys who proclaim ATCQ’s influence on their style and production in music. “Q-Tip picks the best loop [and] illest beat patterns.  [He] influenced all the great producers –[myself], J Dillah, and Kanye,” beams Pharrell Williams of the mega-producer duo, The Neptunes.

The most disheartening thing about the film was the back story of how dissension and conflict between emcees Phife Dawg, aka Malik Taylor and Q-Tip caused the group to implode from the inside.  Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the group’s resident DJ and founding member Jarobi White were swept in the whirlwind of chaos as the two emcees went at it.

A typical story of battles for control, as members grew up they grew apart. They lost their signature chemistry and eventually split.  Phife’s battle with illness also adds another intriguing layer of complexity – which he speaks candidly about in the film.  For those of us who always wondered “what ever happened to A Tribe Called Quest?” – those questions are answered through Rapaport’s lens.

At the end of the film,  I yearned for an update following A Tribe Called Quest’s last and final tour together in 2008.  Hmmm – could there be a part II of this film on the horizon?

All-in-all, I enjoyed spending time in the Tribe’s world of alternative hip hop, recalling a time when musical artestry reigned king over the pomp and circumstance of today’s artists.  As the newbies struggle to maintain relevancy or leave a lasting impression, we are blessed with the legacy of ATCQ for years to come.  If you are a true hip-hop head, this documentary is a must-see indeed!

Beats, Rhymes and Life opens in Dallas on Friday, July 29, 2011 at the Angelika Film Center Dallas. Please visit their website for showtimes.

Michelle London-Bell started writing at Dallas South News in 2010 and has experience as a freelance writer and also contributes to She has a passion for fashion, the arts, and community and cultural affairs. She also covers music and entertainment. She can be reached at

  • aisha

    Good story, but perhaps the author missed the end when they showed them 18 months (2010) prepping to perform in Japan and then it’s well known that Tribe was on the 2010 Rock The Bells Tour lineup where they SMASHED at every tour date. Now, what we need is a 2011 tour schedule, along with the other Native Tongue members so all the backpackers can be happy.

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