Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In 1985 A Tribe Called Quest were just high school kids crazy about hip hop. Five years later they were on top of the world. Their story runs parallel to the story of the genre itself, and also represents a reinvention of it, a celebration of diverse influences and possibilities. This documentary tells it with verve, and is infused throughout with the music they love.

Few music documentaries manage to pull together this many top contributors. Over a dozen hip hop greats are here, from Mos Def to Common to Adam Horovitz, but it's not just a parade of talking heads; their comments are layered over archive footage. We watch band members rehearsing, performing, fighting, laughing together; we see them at home, at work, visiting their old school. Although they take pride in their roots in Queens, there's no heavy-handed rags to riches storyline, more a celebration of the rich culture they grew up with. Alongside early encounters with DJs and a love of the radio, they talk about jazz and about the way hip hop has extended its improvisational approach.

That approach is also noticeable when we hear from the band members themselves. Old habits die hard and the rhythym of words still sounds like music. They have plenty of stories to tell, often quite emotionally, but everything feels very grounded; there's a sense here that they have a much sharper understanding of their own experience than the average band. That intelligence makes them interesting speakers in their own right and helps to bear up the film through slower stretches.

There are none of the standard tales of drink and drugs here. Instead we have the story of Phife's battle with diabetes, his inability to resist sugar and the dangerous health problems he suffered as a result. It's something which continues to resonate strongly with band members and it gives the documentary a lot of additional emotional weight. But the real focus of the film is the gradually disintegrating relationship between Phife and Q Tip, whose conflicting creative approaches trouble a natural friendship. The idea that they can't work together saddens them both. The influence of fans in this situation, and the desire they both have to give those fans what they want, provides context that will be directly relevant to many viewers.

Well structured if not always well paced, this is an interesting guide for newcomers that still has fresh revelations for afficionados.

Reviewed on: 28 Jan 2012
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The story of the legendary hop hop act, from high school to superstardom and beyond.
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Director: Michael Rapaport

Starring: Q Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, Mary J. Blige, Common, Mos Def, Adam Horowitz, Ludacris, Red Alert

Year: 2011

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: United States

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