NO COMPROMISE Michael Rapaport and his A Tribe Called Quest Documentary

“It’s a wonder the film came out at all”:
but it did. In selected theaters now. Don’t miss.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Q-Tip, Phife Dawg
and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were and still are (for all practical purposes, despite
having broken up in 1998 and again in 2008) A Tribe Called Quest, the legendary
Queens hip hop collective on the Native Tongues tip. Their sound was jazzy,
literate, and holy.

 

Michael Rapaport
is a New York City
native who has famously acted in Zebrahead, Higher Learning, Woody
Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite and the Fox series Accidentally on Purpose. His sound is rapier fast and heavily accented. Recently, though, it is not his
voice or his acting skills that is being celebrated. It is his sometimes contentiously
incendiary and always glorious directorial debut – a documentary, Beats,
Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
.

Though the film has received accolades along the fest circuit (Sundance in
particular, the Audience Award at the very recent L.A. Film Festival) it is the
innovative hip hop act who have been weirdest regarding the true raw nature of
the film, with Q in particular at odds with the tense portrayal of the band’s
bad brotherly interaction. They fight in the movie. They split apart. They’re
like any other act that grew up together. Phife likes the film. Ali goes
every-which-way. But Q and his crew have written Rapaport angry tweets and
emails and threatened to sue to bar the film’s release.
Sounds like a movie.

 

We caught up with
Rapaport during a round table chat in Philadelphia. 

 

***

 

BLURT: You and I were talking
about the Sound of Philly and Gamble & Huff before the interview started.
What’s your connection?

MICHAEL RAPAPORT:
I pitched that idea – about doing a documentary – on the Sound of Philly and
Gamble & Huff around, to [producer] Tracy Edmonds in particular. It was
probably smart to have not indulged that idea because at that time, I probably
wasn’t ready to do it, what like 11, 12 years ago. You mentioned that there is
no Scorsese worthy documentary on those guys. Now, I’m no Scorsese but their
story is one I could tell. I was curious about them in the same way that I was
about Tribe.  

 

 Because they are both underdogs in a way.

 Yes. Plus access. You have some access and
that’s a start. The curiosity to know more is what made me want to go further.
 

 

 We’re in Philly. I live in Philly. What is
your New Yorker’s impression of Philly hip hop?

 The first impression I had was, maybe summer
of ‘85 or ‘86, listening to a rare live show on either Mr. Magic or DJ Red
Alert’s radio show from a Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince gig. I don’t know –
should I call him Fresh Prince or Will Smith? Anyway, it wasn’t the way that he
rapped, it was the way that he spoke – he sounded like a white dude. One guy’s
beat boxing and the Prince is rhyming really fast.  You couldn’t see him,
you just heard it. It was crazy shit from Union Square. And Jazzy Jeff? That’s when
the DJ was so important to rap, crucial to the group. Now it’s nonexistent.
That was my first impression.

 

 What was the biggest surprise about doing the
Tribe film?

 There were lots of them. The biggest one was
the depth of Phife’s health problems. I didn’t know. I’m a fan who had the
inside scoop because I knew Q but I didn’t know Phife or that the deterioration
of his health was so extreme. The happenstance was that he was willing to do
this movie before he was given his kidney transplant. If you met him… you’d
know that Phife is way more open now than he was in the past.

        I think doing the movie has helped him
be more candid about it. He’s a low key guy. I didn’t expect him to tell me
about all that he is suffering with. The first time he’s discussed the diabetes
he’s had for the last 8 to ten years was on camera. We knew it was a problem,
just not as much as it was in reality. It was sad. We had to take it down a
lot, the scars, the catheters. He was fucked up. When you’re shooting a
documentary and you do not know what to expect… wow.

        I have a lot of respect for Phife, his
disposition, his personality. His voice is boisterous, high pitched with a
childlike quality. He’s little. But he’s strong, you know. Its breathtaking…
the whole diabetes section is daunting. We had to walk through that part really
carefully. The interpersonal nature of the film – in this moment they were so
open.

 

 Were you daunted by the prospect of filming
your heroes?

 Knowing that I was going to document
them as musicians was something. I was tongue tied thinking about it, talking
about this or that song. I never expected them to be superheroes outside of
Tribe. As performers – yes. They are like Fresh Prince, Big Daddy Kane,
Grandmaster Flash, Eric B and Rakim. Q Tip The Abstract. Phife Dawg the Five
Foot Assassin. I had an adoration of them, but I was surprised how much. I
mean, I have been around celebrity. You know the difference. But when they’re
talking about music it’s a whole other level. When Qt breaks down the whole
“Can I Kick It” beat – which wasn’t planned and or contrived – that was pure.

        Then there were the more emotionally
moments like when Phife talks diabetes. As a filmmaker and a fan those things
are like, holy shit. Q Tip talks
about music in such a passionate, easy-going way. He is like Phife talking about
sports. Knowing, you know? The dichotomy between their passions and how they do
what they do… their personalities their voices.

        This
is what made Tribe so different. I didn’t touch them as people. I am in no
position to judge. I have had my share of dysfunctional relationships, include
mine with the group. There was magic there – the history of the records. The
film moves differently at first. Then the animation cuts off as the magic was
depleting as the relationships went south. That’s when I went to a more cinema
verite style.

        The idea behind the film was, will
Tribe ever make music again and why did they break up in the first place. Now,
I have a better idea as to why they broke up in the first place. Q and Phife
knew each other since ages two and three. Now it’s no crime to want to do a
solo album. It’s no crime to NOT want do the thing you’ve been doing for a
decade anymore. It’s no crime for LeBron James to leave Cleveland. It’s just the way that it
happened. Tribe just outgrew each other. Q Tip is an artist who is continuing
to grow, an instinct to push forward and not look backwards. And I think that
the relationships that they had as friends changed drastically during their
biggest success. And that had nothing to do with the group’s music. That was
symmetry. Perfection. But in ‘94 or ‘95 minutes you can’t go into every detail.
You can just give impressions, show the vibe. 

 

 

 You
just happened to start filming them when Phife got sick and they went back on
tour for Rock the Bells.

 That’s the straw that broke the camel’s back
for the second time That’s how it is. They have a tense relationship. They have
that brotherly relationship and a sibling rivalry.

 

 There’s that scene where the guys from De La
Soul say that they hoped that tour (2008) was the last time that Tribe got
together. That was shocking.

 Yup, yup. That scene was in every cut. I
wanted this film to be everybody. For the Tribe-centric fans, there’s some
shorthand but no too much to scare off people who don’t know. It’s like when I
watch the Metallica documentary (Some
Kind of Monster
). I love it, but in some cases I don’t know what the fuck
they’re talking about. No clue. But the fans do. I wanted SOME of that in here.
You can’t spell everything out. We established that De La came up with Tribe,
that they’re close. So that when the guys from De La say that they hope this is
the last time that Tribe tours, it’s big. Shut it down.  If you can’t
figure a way to do it – don’t do it.

 

 Was
it hard being on that tour with them with all the tension?

 It was incredible being on tour on stage,
shooting it. I held the camera. I was the fan, you know. But before the show in
that back room – if you want to reference where, just check out the jersey
Phife was wearing. They weren’t seething but there was a distance. Their
friendship had changed. It’s uncomfortable to see people you admire at odds, at
that distance. It was hard to be around. We even interjected that their beefs,
they were ones that they never talked about amongst themselves: “Did you ever
talk to each other about it?” The answer was no, nine out of ten times.

        I remember one night with Q and Ali in
my apartment watching a rough cut of the film and they began having a sidebar
conversation about what was going on in the film. That was intense. Heated.
Like, “Why is he saying that?” Then I’d say, “Talk to him about it. Call him
NOW. Don’t get angry at me…” They had a breakup talking about the breakup.
Luckily they agreed to disagree. That’s what made the discourse about Q Tip not
liking the movie but Phife liking it so much a part of the bigger story – this
perceived thing that I’m the bad guy. It ain’t me.

        Watch the movie. That’s the nature of
these guys. They don’t move as a group. They move as individuals under the
auspices of A Tribe Called Quest. “Mike’s
an asshole.”
I heard that all the time.

        I financed this movie as a fan, out of
my own pocket. The end result is fantastic, but the process in the last eight
months – THAT should be a documentary. All the shit that followed it would be
better than the movie. The tension made the movie. The Native Tongues movement.
Living in the neighborhood Run DMC started at – that was the start of the
movie. The inspiration. The logistics of history. That would’ve made a
prestigious DVD release at best. I’m glad that’s not the movie we made. That
wouldn’t have made it to Sony Classics. It’s only right that this is the way it
turned out, that it is so emotionally charged. The group and music is so
timeless and emotionally charged. 

        So it ignited; like Picasso and Tupac
and Woody Allen and Allen Iverson – when you give a piece of yourself. That’s what
happens. The film was emotion and the aftermath was emotional. Man, the
tweeting has been emotional.

 

 

 It’s a wonder the film came out at all.

 The closest they came to pulling the plug was
trying to put a cease and desist order and an injunction against me gong to
Sundance. I told them that you could cease and desist the motherfucker. I’ll
take a work print. I’m showing the fucking movie. They called me crazy, but I was showing my movie at that festival.
It was an honest film.

        And I told them if you think you look
like an asshole in the movie, wait ‘til you see what you look like when no one
sees the movie because you went out of your way to stop me. That’s hysteria.
The movie speaks for itself. All this bullshit only made people more curious
about the movie.  This is dignified. There is an undignified version of
this movie that’s sitting in a vault in LA. No one will ever see that. They
didn’t see that. I just wanted them to look as dignified as possible.

        And as an artist and filmmaker I had to
look inside myself. If I let this go away and compromised, I wouldn’t be able
to look at myself.

 

Beats
Rhymes & Life is currently playing or opening this weekend, including at
these theaters
.

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