There was a time in American history (see: late-80s and 90s) when radio stations played more than one subgenre of hip-hop. Aggressive rap artists such as N.W.A. and Ice-T were sharing the airwaves with a gentler breed of artists such as De La Soul and Queen Latifah. And while labeling all hip-hop artists as either “gangsta” or “conscious” is nothing short of problematic, the truth is, mainstream hip-hop used to be much more diverse.
Hailing out of Queens, New York, A Tribe Called Quest (made up of emcees Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Jarobi, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad) were an integral force for the “conscious” side of 90’s rap. Their lyrics were positive, their production incorporated jazz samples in an innovative way, and as corny as it sounds, they, as performers, weren’t afraid to be themselves.
Releasing five albums (two Gold, three Platinum) before the end of the century, ATCQ cemented their spot in the annals of hip-hop history. But what Beats, Rhymes, and Life provides is a behind-the-scenes, inside glimpse at what it took to construct, not only those albums, but also, the group itself. Director Michael Rappaport (known mostly for his acting roles), got behind the camera for his first feature-length documentary and followed the group for a number of years, through breakups, reunions, and even a major surgery.
Some might be curious as to the amount of screen time that director Michael Rappaport gives himself. Fortunately, this is not “Michael Rappaport’s Journey with A Tribe Called Quest,” but instead, the recognizable actor opts to stay almost completely behind the camera. Instead, he allows the musical pioneers (and a number of performers whose own music was influenced by ATCQ) to tell their own story. Although, Rappaport’s distinctive New York inflection is unmistakable as he asks Tribe questions about every stage of their career. And simply put, the film begins at the beginning and ends at the end, relating childhood friendships and capturing present-day relations.
Beats, Rhymes, and Life, which takes its name from the fourth ATCQ album, somehow manages to condense four careers (each spanning over two decades) into an 95 minute narrative. The film was edited with a keen eye and intertwines personal interviews with old concert footage, music videos, animations, and still imagery in a way that may not be groundbreaking for hip-hop documentaries but certainly in a way that will educate its viewers without calling attention to the fact that school’s definitely in session.