The track record for artist-specific rap documentaries is not stellar. Often they look cheap, are poorly shot and barely tell any kind of story. Actor and film director, Michael Rapaport, changed that with Beats, Rhymes and Life, his lovingly crafted new documentary about A Tribe Called Quest. Rapaport spoke about the tumultuous making of the movie, his admiration for the group, and how he’s dealing with Tribe’s very public frustration with the scenes of fighting and bickering that populate the second half of the film.
I first started talking about the idea of somebody making a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest at their last show in New York in 1998. You felt like something important was coming to an end. Years went by and it went away, then in 2006, I saw them perform at The Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. They hadn’t performed together in a long time, and it was a great show. That night I said “Somebody’s gotta do a documentary about you guys,” and Chris Lighty, the manager of the group, was just playing around, like, “You should do it.” Then in 2008, they went back on tour for Rock the Bells. At the time, I was doing a very lucrative but unfulfilling acting job and I was so happy to invest my time and energy and also money into something I became obsessed about. It was a quick process.
I’d been shooting for about three weeks by the time we got to the end of the tour. At that point we started to hear them talk, “This is it. We’re never gonna do another show together.” My whole reason for doing the movie was: Will A Tribe Called Quest make more music? They were obviously having problems within the group. You could feel it. When that stuff started to reveal itself, I related to it on a human level. It became more interpersonal and I focused on that because I relate to fractured relationships. I know how hard they are to swallow. Seeing it within the group with guys that are my same age—we all come from New York, I felt like I knew them and they remind me of my friends.
There’s been this bullshit thrown around. I didn’t expect it to get this crazy and volatile. I have to take responsibility. I’ve acknowledged it privately to them, and I’m acknowledging it publicly to you. It’s been disappointing, it’s been frustrating, it’s been frightening. The thing that keeps me going is that the reaction from people who have seen the movie has been so positive. I’ve been making movies for 20 years, making a movie is a motherfucking hard thing to do. I knew this was going to be challenging, I just didn’t know exactly how the challenges were going to play themselves out.
Nothing will change my perception of A Tribe Called Quest’s music. I’m always gonna love the music. On a business level, I admit that I look at them differently. I don’t think I’m going to be in any rush to make A Tribe Called Quest Documentary Part Two any time soon. But, when all is said and done, I don’t have any real problems with them. They’re all good guys, they’re all nice guys. They’re sweet. I like spending time with them. For me, A Tribe Called Quest is like the Rolling Stones. I wanted to treat the documentary as if I were shooting the Rolling Stones in 1969 or 1971. If you grew up in hip-hop, they are the Rolling Stones.
— Michael Rapaport