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Tribeca Film Festival: 'Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest'

The WNYC Culture team asked five New York filmmakers showing their work at this year's Tribeca Film Festival five questions about their life and work.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

WNYC

These days, everybody's asking actor and first-time film director Michael Rapaport, who is from Manhattan's Upper East Side, a lot of questions about his new music documentary, "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest." The documentary, shot all over Queens and Brooklyn, is the story of A Tribe Called Quest's reunion for a 2008 tour.

The seminal hip-hop group was formed in 1985 in Queens by Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White. The group broke up in 1998 after producing unforgettable classics like "Can I Kick It?", "Bonita Applebum" and "Electric Relaxation." All four original Tribe members are featured in "Beats, Rhymes & Life," as is commentary from Pharrell, Common, members of The Roots, De La Soul and the Beastie Boys, among others.

Ever since he finished his documentary, which will be released in theaters July 8, Rapaport has been fielding questions including: Will Q-Tip be at the film's Tribeca screening on Wednesday night? (Rapaport hopes so, even though in December, Q-Tip tweeted he was not in support of the film and he did not show up for the film's Sundance premier. Phife Dawg was the group's sole representative at the film's Sundance premier.) Did you take the band's creative edits into account? Were the band members supposed to be producers in the film? (Rapaport says although he worked with the group extensively, he's the film's director and the band didn't weigh in or ask to be producers until the film was finished. In an MTV interview, Q-Tip claims Rapaport did not take the band's edits into account or their requests to be producers seriously.)

Regardless of the drama that's playing out among bloggers and on Twitter, Rapaport says he would make the movie all over again because he is a die-hard Tribe fan and because no such documentary exists about the jazz-infused rhymes, eclectic sampling, and witty rapping that has made A Tribe Called Quest part of the hip-hop lexicon. WNYC's Abbie Fentress Swanson spoke with Rapaport about why he wanted to make the film and who inspired him.

Abbie Fentress Swanson: Why did you want to make a movie about A Tribe Called Quest?

Michael Rapaport: It started with me being a fan. I've been a fan of rap music and hip-hop since I've been a kid. A Tribe Called Quest has always been my favorite group. When they broke up in 1998, at their last show I remember saying, 'Someone should make a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest.' Then, of course, when I would see Q-Tip and guys from the group around town I'd ask them, 'When are you going to make more music? You should make more music.' When they went back on tour in 2008, I approached them about doing the film and they said O.K. Getting it started was the simplest part. I had wanted to direct something for a few years. I always had a feeling there would be a story...It was just an instinctive thing. I think Tribe means a lot of things to a lot of people. I think the time when Tribe was at their peak was the golden years of hip-hop. Their music really went to the hearts of people who listened to it, and that's why I think people were so open with me. As far as the group, they were open to me and they gave me great access. They are very smart, passionate guys and I think the things that make Q-Tip and Phife a fit good together as musicians is the same thing that makes them fascinating as documentary subjects. They are both charismatic in different ways. At the end of the day, A Tribe Called Quest and their relationship is spawned out of love for each other. They are like brothers. I always wanted to do a rock 'n' roll documentary about Queens—of just what it was like for a few guys who made it big—and that is who they are. They're regular, simple guys from Queens. They aren't thugs or stereotypical things that get pinned to rappers these days. That was just what I was interested in exploring.

Phife Dawg, Q-Tip and Jarobi White in a still from "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest."

AFS: What was the most challenging part of making this documentary?

MR: Clearing the music should be a film within itself. Clearing rap music is so hard because the samples are so heavy. So, when you clear [a song], you have to clear it with everyone they sampled. I literally wanted to stick my head in quicksand. It was so frightening like, 'What do you mean we can't get that song? I cut the whole scene around it. We have to get that song.' It was a lot of pleading and begging but we eventually got all the music. They sampled everyone, so that was a big challenge.

AFS: What person living or dead do you what to see your film?

MR: You know who is a big inspiration to me as a filmmaker? The person who I think about all the time is John Cassavetes. What he did for independent films was something that was on my mind making this movie. It was in my mind in the fighting I had to do for this movie. I was thinking 'What would Cassavettes do?' In order to make a movie, you have to be fiercely independent. You have to be tough, not in a boxer sense, but in belief in yourself because it's not easy making a movie. If someone was really inspiring me in my sleepless nights, it would definitely be John Cassavetes.

AFS: How did you come to filmmaking?

MR: I'm an actor. I've been passionate about films and curious about directing for as long as I've been an actor. I have such a respect for the art form. Making a movie is not something that you'd do on your own. It's a team effort. I love that aspect. The team I had with this film...I can't take credit on doing it on my own. I love that aspect—of a group of people hunkering down and working on something they're passionate about. I love movies. It's beyond a dream come true to have my movie screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. To have my movie seen by New Yorkers—by my mom and dad who are native New Yorkers—is really special to me. When we screen the movie that is something I'll never forget.

AFS: What do you want New Yorkers to take away from your film?

MR: I hope everyone who sees the film walks away knowing a bit more about a special time in music and they walk away bobbing their heads because the film definitely has a party vibe to it. At the end of the day, I didn't have an agenda, but everyone who has seen the movie has said they've been listening to Tribe since they saw the movie. For me, that's great. To me, this music is classic American music. A Tribe Called Quest is as important as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Doors.

"Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" will be screened on Wednesday, April 27 at 6 P.M. at the BMCC Tribeca PAC. The film will also be shown on April 28.

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