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TSR Exclusive: 'Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest' interview with director Michael Rapaport and Phife Dawg

Trailblazing the way for more rap documentaries just as A Tribe Called Quest did for its genre's musical potential, Beats Rhymes & Life is a passion project by first-time director Michael Rapaport that goes deep into how important the quartet was during the '90s. As heard in both underground and mainstream rap acts today, the influence of the group (who included members Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White) is still prominent. I sat down with first-time director Rapaport and ATCQ member Phife Dawg to discuss the group's influence on modern culture, the small existence of rap documentaries, the excitement of rap music in the '80s, and more.

Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest opens in Chicago on July 15.

There's a lot of talk in this documentary about respect and influence. Is that an important component to musical history? Are financial numbers equal, or does that not matter?

Phife Dawg: I think it's good to have a balance. You put in a lot of hard work, and anyone who says they don't want the record sales is straight up lying. At the same time, you have to get that respect, and then everything will come after that. That's how I always saw it. Some may agree, some may not agree, but that's how Phife sees it.

Michael Rapaport: I think in hip hop, y'know, in the beginning it was all about respect. Record sales weren't something you thought about, it was such a small thing, especially the early 80's. It was a subculture. You'd hear about hip hop culture and this movement and all that stuff, and yeah, I agree - it's "show business," but it should kinda be "business show," everybody wants to make money and wants to be successful, but you're not gonna have long term success without having solid respect.

When you were making this movie did you see any parallels between the journey of your own acting career?

MR: No, the thing I related to the most when filming was the relationships between them. I have relationships with my close friends who I grew up with. We've gone through our ups and downs, and seeing them miscommunicate at times was something I related to. And sometimes I would tell them, "Did you tell him that?" or "Did you tell him about that?" or "Why don't you guys just talk?" and I would be in the editing room struggling with my own "Why don't I just do that." Because I related to that. Because everybody has that with relationships, whether it's with your mother or father or girlfriend, I related to that part of it. The music and what they accomplished was easy. I didn't relate to that, it was just something I wanted to articulate. I was a big fan of the time.

What kind of connection does A Tribe Called Quest have in meaningful rap today? Do you see that connection standing out a lot, or has it gone underground?

MR: I'll answer first. For me, you can see A Tribe Called Quest influencing people like Drake, Nicki Minaj, Common obviously, Outkast is a derivative of Tribe, Black Eyed Peas. The thing that A Tribe Called Quest brought is an inclusiveness, and making people feel comfortable being themselves. Especially when they first came out, the way they looked was just like Amir from the Roots, Questlove, said, "I was an outcast on my block. I had an afro and braids in my hair. But soon after Tribe and De La Soul came out, everyone started having afros. It became cool." Now you see an eclectic mix of young black men, but at the time, it was just one way. You didn't see dudes be a little bit different or nerdy or weirdos. Tribe helped people think, "I don't have to be just one way."

Do you want to say anything about that?

PD: He covered it all.

MR: He always get quiet about what they did. I just noticed from the interview its hard for him to talk about what they did.

PD: I just think our fans, and our comrades, should elaborate on [this] more than us.

As a documentary subject, is there a certain rap artist you'd like to see a documentary about?

PD: Absolutely. We could be here all day. RUN DMC.

MR: EPMD would have a nutsy story.

PD: That'd be crazy. EPMD, Run DMC, I'd probably just see one on Slick Rick, that'd be crazy as well. KRS-One, that'd be dope.

MR: Erik B. Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, those guys are icons. All the great classic rock and roll guys have been documented. And the next great form of American music was hiphop. And I'm happy to be bringing their story to the foreground, I hope other directors and storytellers want to tell other rap artists stories. Because they're real fascinating.

So it's only a matter of time before we see more rap documentaries?

MR: I'm sure. I hope that people do it and dedicate their time to it, because the stories are important and are a part of American culture today, those guys made such an impact on what goes on today in sports, popular culture, television, and its all from the guys who were the forefathers of it.

There's been a lot of rap movies, but they've been narratives. There haven't been a lot of documentaries. I was wondering if that was a transitional thing, or maybe we just had to wait a certain amount of time for rap history to happen, so that we could talk about them afterward. Are there certain rap movies that stand out as truthful. Even CB4, there's that scene in that hip-hop retirement home. I wonder if there's anything really to that. Or when you were in the editing room, what movies you thought of to keep that image, or the meaning.

MR: I loved Dave Chappelle's Block Party, that was great. And obviously Style Wars, that's a classic. Wildstyle really got some special stuff. I loved the Tupac documentary Tupac Resurrection. There have been a handful, and they've all been really good. The documentary Rock the Bells which was about the tour that brought together Wu Tang Clan ... (to Phife) have you seen that?

PD: That was dope.

MR: That's a really good one. It's excellent. He's trying to get Wu Tang back together, before Ol' Dirty Bastard died, and the promoter of the show, you just see him trying to do it and it has a good story and it is done well. I think there's been a bunch that have been done that are good, and I hope to see more. I'm sure there will be more. Y'know, making a documentary is something you have to be compelled to do. It can't be something like "Oh, I'll just get it done." It has to be something like "I have to do it."

Do you have anything you want to add about rap movies being authentic? Like "Hustle and Flow"?

MR: That was good.

PD: We've had our share of good movies, just like good sports movies. We've also had movies that weren't as real. I think the more rap movies that come out, the better. I think that the directors and everybody would have to do their homework. The more they do their homework. The more they do their homework, you see it in the film. Mike did his homework. Before he stepped to us, I could tell he did his homework. Or every time he had a few clips, he went back and did his homework. By the time he came out, it was like "Okay, you on your game." Not that I doubted him or anything, but I figured, being that he was already an actor, this was his jump-off into the directorial game, he didn't want to come fly. I thought he did a good job.

MR: And for me, Tribe means so much to fans. They are so valuable to the fans. It's such an emotional connection you have to the group, the pressure was all myself. I didn't want to disappoint their legacy, their music is so important. Even the artwork, I just think this is such a beautiful poster, because Tribe's artwork on their album is iconic. You'd talk about it. I had pressure on myself because they were A Tribe Called Quest, and they were valuable to the fans. We adore them, we love them. You have an emotional connection to them. Like, "That's my sh*t, I love them."

When did your own emotional connections to the music start? Was it the first time you heard it?

MR: The first time I heard Q-Tip on the radio with the Jungle Brothers, and I was thinking about it because he was like, "This is Q-Tip, Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest." And I always remembering thinking that "A tribe called 'Quest,' the name is "Quest" but the name is a "A Tribe Called Quest." I always got a kick out of that. I saw the video for "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" first and I was like, "Come on, what is this sh*t." It was either "Can I Kick It" or "Bonita," "Can I Kick It" because of the Lou Reed sample, it was the way they were flowing, and Phife's voice, which I know he doesn't like. But they sounded like you knew them. Kids in New York that you knew, being like "Mr. Dinkins would you please by my mayor" and that Lou Reed sample just got me. And then when "Bonita Applebum" came out, I don't know if it was '87 or '88, but I was a teenager, and that song got me. That's such an iconic song, and that reference to "Bonita Applebum" and safe sex, that first album was kind of like walking around your high school, and listening to different conversations. You walk around here, talking about a girl with a fat ass. You walk over here, you talk about date rape. It was really this journey. It's true, it was such an adolescent record. The musicality, and the samples, they felt familiar - Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone ... it just felt like a comfort listening to the music. And the artwork is like this colorful world. You were looking into this world. And then in the second album, they just busted through. And the third album was like, "You're getting three albums in a row, literally every song on every album is perfect." It's like the f**king Beatles. Every song and the essence they were about. It's such a fun time in music, and Tribe was so perennial in that time.


MR: It's amazing that I can still talk about this sh*t.

Yeah, I was gonna say, you have a lot of passion.

PD: I remember being in high school, and it was the same way. But with the Beastie Boys and Slick Rick. We were just supposed to be in the lunch room, but somebody would have a boombox and all you heard was [singing] "Hip hop body rockin' doing the do."

MR: And you loved it.

PD: That was the best part of school.

MR: Being exposed to that via the radio. I mean, "Red Alert" with Chuck Chillout and Mr. Magic, that was the internet. There was no, "Yo, let me download it." That was it. It came on Friday's and Saturday's, so if you taped it, you had that tape. That was the only way to get that sh*t. But when you got it, you'd report it. But there was no instant thing, so you really remembered the moments when you got the tapes, and remembered the moments when you got the songs. You know, I'm sure it's like being a kid, but at that time in hip hop music it was such an exciting time, and it was such a fantastical kind of thing. These radio stations were like Never Neverland. You'd sit down and hear "1, 2, 3 in the place to be" and you'd be like "Oh f*ck!" It's a live version of RUN DMC, and I remember when I heard that I was so excited I'd press play and record, and I'd be like "Yo, did you get that thing?" to my friend Randy. It was like, "What is this sh*t? Am I going to hear it again?" I didn't know these were records, I was a kid. I didn't know there were record stores. I was twelve.

Have you gotten more passionate about this music as you've gotten older? You're so enthusiastic.

MR: I think it's this movie and talking about it, it's kind of conjured up memories of thoughts about it. And recently I've been listening to these mix CD's that I got, they've got the best from each year from '79 to 2009 and you got hear these sh*ts Phife - they're so well done - and every sh*t from 1985, but mixed. Hearing some of that is like you remember. With hip-hop music, there's like this underlying racial stuff, and it was sort of pushed away, like there were black kids in the ghetto who were doing this weird sh*t. And now you turn on TV and it's so much a part of what's cross-culturally accepted, and it's amazing. Tribe was so much a part of that. Michelle Obama is doing the Dougie, and that's because A Tribe Called Quest made that sh*t acceptable. Tribe is important because there's such an inclusiveness - this is something that interviewing fans and interviewing the artists, that was the word that came up, "inclusive - but it wasn't like "inclusive" by making it like Vanilla Ice corny. I don't know why it was, but it was for everybody. There was something in Tip and Phife, and there was something in the music. Everybody came to it. It's like an intangible ingredient. You can't predict that, it's just something that happens.

They did it so seamlessly. So why wouldn't you make a documentary about them? All of these rock groups, like Wilco, and not saying that they're not worthy - but they all get documented. All the time. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead. F*ck, I don't give a sh*t about Radiohead. I could give a sh*t about Radiohead. I care about Big Daddy Kane, I care about LL Cool J. And a lot of other people feel that way. It's just sort of, "Yeah, Tribe said you could make a documentary about them. Why wouldn't you do it?"

Quick Questions

What did you have for breakfast this morning? MR: A Jewish man's favorite deli sandwich of bagel, cream cheese and lox. I had a feeling the Ritz Carlton would have good lox, and they did. PD: A chai latte from Starbucks so far. MR: We're just getting warmed up.

Favorite Summer Movie? MR: Jaws. I was a kid, I saw it at the drive-in. PD: I'm not sure which season it came out in, I'm not really a movie buff, but Jerry Maguire is one of my favorites. Coming to America is definitely the ultimate. MR: Higher Learning. PD: Definitely, that was great. Boomerang ... oh, and Anchorman. I was just watching that last night.

Favorite Fruit? MR: Strawberries. PD: I'd have to say watermelon.

If you could be someone for 24 hours? MR: I'd be Dirk Nowitski, but the season's over so that wouldn't be as fun. But I'll take Dirk. PD: The Black Mamba, Kobe Bryant.

Age of first kiss? MR: 9 or 10? I was trying to do my Saturday Night Fever impression. PD: 12.

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