07.07.11

The Hip-Hop Doc War

Michael Rapaport’s new documentary about A Tribe Called Quest infuriated the group. Chris Lee on the indie-movie controversy that has Hollywood and the rap world talking.

Hip-hop is a combat sport. If its most chest-thumping disputes over the years—50 Cent vs. Ja Rule, Nas vs. Jay-Z, Lil’ Kim vs. Nicki Minaj, et al.–tell us anything, it’s that tough talk reigns supreme and “beef” remains a staple item on the menu for any MC with the temerity to rock a mike. 

But while most rappers confine their wars of four-letter words to one another, the Sundance Film Festival premiere of the hip-hop documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest earlier this year marked a turning point for the genre. There, acrimony between rap superstars and an indie filmmaker boiled over into the public realm as never before.

On prima facie inspection, the issues seemed clear. Members of A Tribe Called Quest—the groundbreaking Queens, New York, rap quartet responsible for so much Afrocentric boom-bap that helped define the “golden age” of hip-hop—seemed to repudiate the movie about them directed by Michael Rapaport, an indie-movie and TV acting stalwart (Zebrahead, Small Time Crooks, Fox’s Boston Public) who marks his directorial debut with Beats. Rapaport’s perceived crime: daring to expose heretofore unknown truths about the group’s fractious interpersonal rivalries. The barnacles-and-all biopic follows Tribe’s ascent to the early-'90s zenith of rap stardom and its subsequent implosion amid a flurry of infighting.

Frontman Q-Tip (non-rap name: Kamaal Ibn John Fareed) slammed Rapaport on Twitter— “I am not in support of the a tribe called quest documentary.” “The filmmaker shld [sic] respect the band enough to honor our request regarding the film”—and blew off the movie’s January premiere at America’s preeminent independent-movie fest (fellow Tribe members the DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and hype man Jarobi White sat out the event, too). MC Phife Dawg, meanwhile, tearfully championed the doc to a rousing standing ovation at that debut Sundance screening. And Rapaport groused to any interviewer within earshot about how Tribe had demanded an eleventh-hour producer credit and wrested final cut of the film away from him.

“It’s been fucking crazy,” a still-exasperated Rapaport said at his home in the Hancock Park district of Los Angeles earlier this week. “I should start a support group for other documentary filmmakers. The subject of the film feels like it’s a betrayal. The subject feels like it’s bullshit. The subject turns on you. The subject doesn’t trust you anymore. But the film is what it is.”

With the director and group members still trading barbs as recently as a few days ago, Beats, Rhymes & Life reaches theaters in New York and Los Angeles today after having collected an audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, getting two thumbs up from Ebert Presents: At the Movies, and earning an impressive 92 percent “freshness” rating on RottenTomatoes.com—even while certain misconceptions about the film persist.

Most industry observers assume that all the backbiting has been Q-Tip’s fault—that a thin-skinned hip-hop star was simply doing what thin-skinned hip-hop stars do best: ego tripping and fronting with the usual verbal daggers and b-boy posturing to protect his reputation. But the truth is not so simple. “I don’t want people to think I’m sitting around stomping my feet because my martini is room temperature,” Q-Tip said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, “and I’m being some egotistical brat. That’s not what this is.”

Clarification No. 1: Each member of ATCQ is in full support of the film, and no lingering disputes with the director remain. “The movie is done, and we’re good with it,” Ali Shaheed Muhammad said. “I don’t think the movie does our legacy a disservice. It celebrates it. Rapaport goes into it and brings you back in a good way. It’s a good look for hip-hop.”

Added Phife: “It’s a documentary. The way I see that word is ‘keep it real at all costs.’”

To begin at the beginning, New York City native Rapaport—a lifelong hip-hop aficionado who earned his bones as an actor with a two-decade run in movies such as True Romance and The 6th Day—caught a Tribe show in L.A. in 2006, mused out loud about making a documentary about them, and found an unlikely ally backstage in Leonardo DiCaprio, who urged him to go for it.

The director insists his heart was in the right place. “I love A Tribe Called Quest!”

Rapaport, 41, says he set out to document the group, which broke up at the pinnacle of its success in 1998 but has reunited to perform several times since, in a bid to find out once and for all if ATCQ would ever record music together again. He never answers that question. But the movie’s surprises are twofold.

Beats stands as the most thorough documentation of late-‘80s/early-‘90s rap ever committed to film, a rollicking and frequently hilarious primer on that era’s jazzy sample craft, promotion of self-affirmative values, and “positive” (read: opposite of gangsta rap) ethos. Tracing Tribe’s birth on Queens’ “boulevard of Linden,” it shows how the group (and Native Tongues, the larger collective it fit into) broke down racial barriers and helped hip-hop finally cross over from urban radio to college dorm rooms. Featuring exhaustive interviews with luminaries from both yesteryear rap—Ghostface Killah, De La Soul, Kool DJ Red Alert—and a host of present-day hip-hop hotshots including Common, Mos Def, and Ahmir “Questlove” Thomas of the Roots, the film persuasively makes the case for Tribe’s influence as trailblazers. “Me, Kanye [West], we wouldn’t be here if not for the Tribe albums,” superproducer Pharrell Williams says in the film.

But more crucially, Beats’ second half details the bandmates’ failures to communicate, throwing into stark relief how their lifelong friendships led to rivalries feeding into overlapping claims of creative credit. Particularly, frank commentary by Phife Dawg (government name: Malik Isaac Taylor) about his simmering resentment of Q-Tip’s presumed leadership role detonated with the force of a bomb the first time the group screened a cut of the movie. “Mike just asked me a question, and I answered that shit,” Phife said.

Feeling that Beats was unfairly skewed toward “a reality-TV sentiment,” Q-Tip and Muhammad lobbied Rapaport to recut it, threatening to back out of the project unless more musical footage was included. Not that the final result is exactly what they want either.

“It could have been balanced better,” Muhammad said. “What was going on socially in that time to bring about certain lyrics, the time period we were sampling from—that wasn’t in there. You’ve got to look at the movement of our community to explain where we come from. I do wish there was more music than bickering. But Rapaport used to say, ‘Guys, I’ve only got 90 minutes.’”

The director insists his heart was in the right place. “I love A Tribe Called Quest! I respect them so much I made a movie about them. I would never want to make these guys look bad,” Rapaport said at a volume near shouting.

Rapaport balked, however, when ATCQ insisted on receiving producer credit on the film. “Mike was reluctant to give us that,” Q-Tip said. “He was like, ‘No subject of a documentary has ever produced one about themselves.’ Madonna’s done it. Robbie Robertson did it on The Last Waltz. And besides, we did things producers do. Mike would ask me to call in favors. Trips to Australia and Japan, we paid for trips for crew members. When we had to look for extra footage, I would call around. Interviews needed to be set up, I’d set them up.”

Muhammad added: “Our involvement went way beyond sitting there with a mike on our lapel and speaking to a camera.”

Until now, the three dissenting Tribe members have remained schtum about the choice to forgo Sundance—an appearance they say they would have loved to have made. But Q-Tip and Muhammad now admit that residual anger over how Rapaport and certain Beats producers behaved behind the scenes compelled them to stay away.

“The day they announced the film was going to Sundance, a four-minute trailer goes online for a film called Beats, Rhymes & Fights—not 'Life,' 'Fights,' ” Q-Tip recalled. “That’s when I went on to Twitter and said, ‘I am not in support of the documentary.’ ” (A representative for the film said that trailer was not “authorized” and had it taken down.)

The second straw: “Mike’s producing partner, a guy I won’t name, inadvertently hit 'reply all' when he only wanted to send an email to Mike and his team. The email said, ‘Let’s block them [ATCQ] off the billing post first so they [won’t be able to earn money] there, then we’ll fuck them on everything else,” the rapper continued. “My thing was, if this dude sent this email and he felt comfortable enough to have this kind of banter, God knows what else you’ve been saying. I don’t trust none of y’all. And I’m not going to Sundance to stand beside somebody who wants to ‘fuck’ us.”

With all the squabbling quickly receding in pop culture’s rearview mirror and the movie reaching platform release across the country in the coming weeks, Phife and Muhammad, Q-Tip and Rapaport all swear up and down that there is no more “beef” between any of them. And each expresses a shared goal that the story of A Tribe Called Quest find its audience.

“Mike ultimately did a fine job,” Q-Tip said. “It may be hard to hear this, but I am truly humbled and accepting of it. Taking myself out of it, he really has a skill set as a director. It may be even stronger than his acting skills. And that’s a big compliment, because he’s a fine actor.”

Said Rapaport: “I made this movie because I’m a fan of the group. Tribe is synonymous with greatness, so you don’t want to make a piece of shit.”