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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beats Sparks Controversy on Rap Giants

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The hip-hop genre is notoriously fickle. Despite this, the seminal alternative rap group, A Tribe Called Quest, has sustained popularity for over two decades. Making such longevity particularly surprising is the ongoing tensions, internal strife, and intermittent breakups they have experienced.

Rapper/producer Q-Tip and rapper Phife Dawg have known one another since early childhood. The pair's creative collaboration in conjunction with their love-hate relationship seems to drive A Tribe Called Quest. Their efforts are augmented by DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and rapper Jarobi White. The latter left the group after their first album, but subsequently rejoined in 2006.

The controversial new documentary, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, provides a fascinating perspective on the group, particularly their contentious interpersonal dynamics. The film was shot in 2010, when A Tribe Called Quest reunited for the Rock the Bells tour. During it, the quartet co-headlined with such other hip-hop stars as Snoop Dog and Wu-Tang Clan. Beats Rhymes & Life is helmed by Michael Rapaport in his debut as a feature film director. Heretofore, Rapaport has been best known as the tall, redheaded actor in such vehicles as Zebrahead, The Sixth Day and Big Fan.

Rapaport discussed his original vision: "My imagination of the film was the first 45 minutes would be the who, what, when, where, why, the influence of growing up in New York, how much that inspired them and all the logistical making of stuff-more of a concert-based film," he said. "I'm glad that's not the movie I made, because we wouldn't be sitting here doing a press junket for a movie that's coming out from Sony Pictures Classic."  He continued, "I could have probably skated by on the strength of A Tribe Called Quest for a prestigious, straight to DVD release." Rapaport bemoaned the market place perils of making documentaries, "Scorsese put out Shine the Light. You know how much business it did—nothing." He shook his head with incredulity, "This is the Rolling Stones and America's best director!"

Regarding the revamped version of Beats Rhymes & Life, Rapaport contended, "This film will appeal to a larger audience than the people who bought the albums. It's only right that the movie is emotionally charged. The reason why the group and the music are so timeless is because there is an emotional quality to the music. Just like anything special, it ignited an emotional reaction."

Rapaport reflected on the experience of interacting with his childhood heroes: "Meeting, hanging out with, and documenting them as musicians was exciting. I would be a little bit tongue-tied in regards to the musicality of who they are. They're like larger than life."

Despite his adoration of the group, Rapaport's own relationship with them ultimately generated sparks. Beats Rhymes & Life had been scheduled to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. However, members of A Tribe Called Quest and their camp threatened to obtain a cease and desist court order and enjoin it from being shown. Rapaport remained defiant, retorting, "You can cease and desist the film, you can try to get us taken out Sundance, but I am going to Sundance with a DVD and I am showing this movie."

I asked Rapaport how he felt the ordeal of bringing the film to fruition had changed him, "As an artist, as a filmmaker, I was forced by the nature of making this movie to go inside myself and find the trust and belief to actually execute all of my ideas. It gave me the confidence to believe in myself as an artist and as a filmmaker." He mused, "Creatively, I feel that this was the emergence of me as an adult. The acting that I've done in my twenties, I was a child. I'm forty-one now, this has helped me become a man artist."