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Interview with Michael Rapaport, Director of Beats, Rhymes & Life Documentary

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By Michelle London-Bell

Michelle London-Bell with Michael Rapaport and Niraj Bhatia

Actor/Director Michael Rapaport has been interviewed all over by several different media outlets from to E! Entertainment Television for his directorial debut of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.  With so many media covering the obvious with Rapaport – “How did you get involved with this project; or why a documentary on A Tribe Called Quest?” – I wanted to present a new and fresh perspective related to the heart of this film: the music.

Rapaport, as many would guess, is a huge fan of hip hop and grew up in the heart of the genre with New York City roots.  Who would be more appropriate to chronicle this prolific group who defined the golden era of hip hop than Michael Rapaport?

Prior to his red carpet appearance at Angelika Dallas, I was fortunate enough to catch Rapaport’s ear for a few moments to talk hip hop, nostalgia and more.  *Some of the answers presented below were covered in the Q&A session following the 8 p.m. showing of the film.

Michelle London-Bell: I was going to ask you to voice your feelings about how the genre of hip hop has permeated all different aspects of society – from business, to politics, fashion…but after watching your interviews on the red carpet and exclusives with Chris Barrett and Ben Lyons – it’s clear that your point of view has been well documented.  Anything new to add?

Michael Rapaport: “Yeah.  Hip hop is timeless music; it has evolved and continues to evolve.  I am just proud to be exposed to it so early.  It’s about the preservation of the music and the culture.  [We] don’t want what happened to jazz to happen to hip hop…where it becomes a subculture that you have to seek out.”

MLB: Speaking of subculture – do you personally believe that hip hop is dead?  At the Sundance Film Festival, Phife Dawg mentioned on the red carpet that “Life is a cycle – it [hip hop] hit a dead end for a while, but it’s going to come back around, [I am] hopeful of that.”  What are your thoughts on what’s out there now?

MR: Nah , it’s not dead.  There are a lot of relevant artists out there… [it’s] exciting to see the baton has been passed.  Guys like Jay-Z and Nas are still around – so it’s not dead.  We all have to get off ‘it’s not the same/going to be the same.’  Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Badu (even though she is not really hip hop) are all artists who are still relevant today.”

MLB: I hear you.  So, what do you think A Tribe Called Quest’s greatest legacy will be?

MR: “Musically, their legacy will be jazz, soul…the use of samples, definitely.  Q-Tip and Phife, [it’s] their blend of styles.  They are the best blend of duos to do it!  What it meant spiritually and culturally [to us] – it brought a sense of consciousness, honesty, love and respect of women to hip hop.  That’s hit or miss in hip hop today.  They brought a sense of humor!

MLB: Yes, especially the respect for women piece.  You mentioned Jay-Z earlier – he has definitely evolved on that tip because in his earlier works, he used to straight disrespect women.  Now he’s all in love with Beyonce’ so things are different.

MR: “Yes, there was an evolution. You’re right.”

MLB: I just have to ask – with Pharcyde and De La Soul and all those other groups – why specifically A Tribe Called Quest?

MR: “A Tribe Called Quest spoke to me the loudest.  There was an emotional connection to Tribe.  Musically, there was an intangible quality [that] they had.  The first three albums – monstrous!  You would be hard pressed to find another group that has done that today.”

MLB: Anything else you would like to add?

MR: “I am very proud of the film and the response to the film.  Sony Pictures Classics is opening it in all the cities – you know…Atlanta, Houston, Austin, Chicago, Detroit, Philly…What I am most proud of — is showing a non-stereotypical way of looking at hip hop.”

MLB: Like Little Jon on Celebrity Apprentice?

MR: “Right!”

MLB: Thank you so much for your time.

MR: “No, thank you for coming out.”

Excerpts from post screening Q & A Session

Question:  Why did you do the film on A Tribe Called Quest (What was the reason for the film)?

MR: “I wanted to document A Tribe Called Quest just like all the other great rock groups like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Doors have been documented.   Honestly, when they broke up, it felt like a divorce.  I wanted their story to be told.”

Question:  How much footage do you have – I know we all saw the footage of Q-Tip laying down the beat for Can I Kick it?  Like an old blue note song– How much of that footage do you have?

MR:  “We have a lot of that. The thing about the Can I Kick It scene that was so great was that [it] was the first interview we did with Q-Tip and I didn’t ask him to remake that song.  He just got up, went through his record collection – and was making the song.  It was one of those moments we knew would make the movie.  At that point – it felt like the first time he was comfortable with this entire process.

We have a lot of stuff with Q-Tip talking about the songs – not with him actually doing it.  It’s like with music – he is so familiar and educated about it but he doesn’t talk down to you.  We included it because that was so genuine – you know you can only go to the well so many times.  I didn’t want to be like – ok, Can I Kick It? Now do Electric Relaxation…to me it was like- that’s it, so let’s leave it alone.”

Question:  I am big fan of Tribe and I congratulate you on a movie done so well.  One part I did not get that was sort of murky to me – was the whole label part that related to the group breaking up.  Can you touch on that a bit?

MR:  “Yeah, no – I hear you.  This is something that you know – in the editing room, it’s really challenging, to put every detail into this.  You know, listen – when they broke up…they had signed a contract they signed for their first album, when they were 17, 18.  You know – and it wasn’t like they got jerked…they had good lawyers but they became stars!  They had a six album contract; five of which they did.  The music changed when they started making Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement.

The business of hip hop changed.  Like I brought up the thing with the samples.  You couldn’t just sample anything you wanted anymore; you had to pay — a lot!  And that affected them.  The fact that they became stars and wanted to revamp their contract – that affected them.  But, when I talked to all the guys and I talked to the label – I didn’t want…listen – every artist , every actor, every employee – we all have bosses and at some point we say “F- you!”  You know you have all these artists that say: “F—the label, F—the label!!” – I didn’t want that to be the bailout of why the group broke up.

Did the group breakup just because their strife?  No.  Yeah, that was one of the things I wanted to examine more.  Going into the label thing just felt like a cliché to me.  At the end of the day – when I talked to the guys, like why did you breakup – it wasn’t because of the label, it was because of the group.”

     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

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