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Michael Rapaport on Hip-Hop, Sampling and His New Tribe Called Quest Doc

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Even before Michael Rapaport's documentary "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" was officially released, the film had kicked up controversy in the hip-hop world. Q-Tip refused to attend the Sundance, Tribeca and Los Angeles film festival screenings of the movie, claiming Rapaport had not gotten sign-off from him and the other band members.

Now Tip and the rest of the band are urging fans to see the film. And that's not surprising: Rapaport's film is as close to a Tribe Called Quest love letter as you can get. "Beats, Rhymes & Life" captures the essence of the seminal group formed in 1985 in Queens by Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White and is a moving, fun portrait of what the band looks like today.

WNYC's Abbie Fentress Swanson spoke to the Upper East Side actor-turned filmmaker about hip-hop, sampling and the drama around the movie, which opens in theaters on Friday.

Abbie Fentress Swanson: First, what’s your favorite Tribe song?

Michael Rapaport: It’s hard to pick one Tribe song that is my favorite. I'd say “ Lyrics to Go.” I love that song -- I love the Minnie Riperton sample.

AFS: When I saw your film at Tribeca, a lot of people were dancing in their seats. But how do you think your film will be received by people who aren't fans of A Tribe Called Quest?

MR: Well, the music is easy. Tribe did all the hard work ... So I’m just sort of putting that out there. I think for the non-Tribe fans, aside from the music, I think that the emotional core of the film, and the humor, which was a big surprise to me, of the film, would be something that can appeal to film fans. The humor was the biggest surprise for me ... There are scenes that are like funny scenes.

AFS: Which ones?

MR: Well, Phife is funny a lot ... Q-Tip is really funny, too. I mean, you know, like he does these impressions of his mother, he does this impression of Redd Foxx [of] "Sanford and Son." I mean Phife — this guy gets so many big laughs. I think that the fans that I interviewed, who are the celebrities, like Pharrell, the Roots, they are so excited at times and it gets laughs ... when Phife talks about the Knicks and them having to play defense ... The film, although it is heavy at times, it’s so lighthearted for the most part . And the laughs from all of them [the band], all of them are funny, and they’re all interesting guys.

AFS: I love the scene where Q-Tip is showing you how to sample …

MR: You know, Q-Tip is a true artist. If there was no more music business, he would be making music. He makes music every day I bet. It’s something that he lives and breathes. You don’t have that many people in hip-hop anymore that are genuinely just musicians or artists. There's a lot of people that are good at it, there's a lot of people that are great performers, but he is inherently an artist. Whether it's hip-hop or photography or film, I respect people that do things out of purity, and he’s purely an artist. I love that about him and I've always admired that about him before this film. And that was one of things that I wanted to articulate going in to it. The moment that he recreates “Can I Kick It” — I didn’t ask him to do that, he just started doing it ... And it was, like, magical.

But specifically about him, he can go on and on and on about that stuff, and he’s so eloquent and articulate and passionate about art and music, film, and I admire that about him. He’s somebody I like to talk to about music. He just knows about it, he’s opinionated. That’s why I think he makes a good documentary subject. He’s like a Jimmy Hendrix or somebody. Like if you had Jimmy Hendrix sitting there, talking about this blues riff, it’s the same type of shit. It’s coming from the same place for me. I look at him the same similar way, you know.

AFS: Yeah, me too. I think a lot of people think that hip-hop doesn’t require much effort. You know, you just spit out some words, and that’s it. But the film shows that this is really a process and that Q-Tip's tortured by the music in a way. I think that's something to take away for people who don’t know that much about hip-hop.

MR: Yeah, I agree. I mean the great producers, the Pete Rocks, the Premiers, and the Prince Pauls, and there are endless, endless hip-hop producers that are great, Dr. Dre, when you get a chance to learn about it, specifically we’ll talk about Tribe, they took a little drum beat, like a “boom,” or like a “bloom,” like a cymbal, sample that, and take the baseline from a Minnie Riperton song, put that, and then take something from something else and four different things and make this whole new thing ...

You know, Q-Tip, when you listen to those albums, and you kinda, like, investigate them, you are, like, yeah, well, this is Richard Pryor, onstage. He’ll just take a little Richard Pryor thing and slow it down and then a Sly Stone beat and some other shit, and you're like, “That’s what that is?” It’s genius. Hip-hop, when it’s done well, it’s some other shit. It’s great. And the sampling, when it’s done well, it’s an art form all to itself. Forget the lyrics, if you ... think that Rakim or Guru or Eminem are, those are just words, you like need to go away. That’s like saying like, Charles Mingus -- it's just noise. That’s crazy, you know.

Phife Dawg (left) and Michael Rapaport (right), director of "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest"AFS: I also liked the interviews in the film that you did with Phife (pictured at right with Rapaport). To me, it came across that he is really the more working class member of the group. Did you make a conscious choice to portray him that way?

MR: No, I think that Phife ... within A Tribe Called Quest, he is like the every man. There was no holds barred. There was what you see is what you get. You know, Q-Tip’s name is Q-Tip the Abstract Poet. Phife is like I’m Phife Dawg. That dichotomy is what makes them work. Phife’s voice is really energetic. Q-Tip’s voice is kinda slow and more of this other unique thing. So, there wasn't a conscious thing, that's just who he is.

You can’t do a documentary or portrayal of Phife and ... it’s always going to be no holds barred. He’s uncensored, he’s straightforward. He’s like what you see and what you get.

Q-Tip, is not that ... He is Q-Tip the Abstract. He’s an abstract dude and I say that with all due respect. But that’s a great moniker for him because he is abstract, for better or for worse.

You know, I always use the analogy of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Because I look at Phife as the Keith Richards. He’s like the every man. You want to go out drinking with him. You want to watch a game with him. And Mick Jagger is like this charismatic, sort of flamboyant, you know one-of-a-kind. Mick Jagger, he’s the frontman. And the thing that makes the two of those guys different, and special and work is the same thing that makes Tribe and Tip and Phife work together.

AFS: Which you've gotten caught in the middle of ...

MR: I've been caught in the middle of them, of some of the it, yeah.

AFS: And I’m wondering what your personal journey has been like from starting the movie until now.

MR: My personal journey from starting the film has been a lot. It’s been challenging. It’s been fulfilling. It’s been exhilarating. It’s been frightening creatively. It’s been frightening, just the task at hand. I always wanted to do justice to the group.

The group is important to a lot of people. Hip-hop music -- there hasn’t been a proper documentary, an independently-made documentary about a group yet, and I realized that after I started. And at times, I have felt like some sort of a mediator or a therapist, because I've never been with all four of them all together. I've dealt with them individually and they all have individual opinions that have not been the same at times. And tryin' to get them all to move as a group ...

You know, I mean the group broke up in 1998 — and the group broke up for a reason in 1998. So, for me to try to move things along with the group and get this film done about a group, and them having them sign off as a group, that’s not easy. They haven’t made an album in over, what it is, it’s like 15 years. There’s a reason why. It’s not because the fans don’t want it. And I love the Anvil! [The Story of Anvil] documentary. This is not like the Anvil! where the Anvil! documentary is the biggest thing of their career. Tribe Called Quest does not need this documentary. So getting them to do things is hard. It’s been hard when they were at their apex.

Their manager talked about it. There's a great scene that I cut out about the song, “Hot Sex on a Platter,” which was on the Boomerang soundtrack, which was a huge song. And Q-Tip did a video in a leather mask. And at the time, you know, doing soundtrack songs was kinda looked at like selling out, because it was a new thing, but it was a big thing. Their manager was like, “Yo, you’re gonna do this song, we’re going to get paid a certain amount of money.” And he was like, “I don’t wanna do this song.” The manager said “You are going to do the fuckin' song.” He said “Fine, if I do the fuckin' song, I’m do the video with a mask on.”

We cut this out. I should have put it in the movie ... This is how he moves and this is how the group moves. They do what they do, as do a lot of talented people. Look at Marlon Brando, this guy coulda' done so much more if he chose to ... But as a fan, you just wanna see it all work out. Just give us what we want, just give us another hit, just give us another “Bonita Applebum.”

AFS: How much of the film was shot in Queens, Brooklyn …

MR: The majority of the film, I'd say 60 something per cent of the film and the finished product is in New York — maybe more. We shot in Manhattan, we shot in Queens, we shot in Jamaica, Queens, we shot in Bed Stuy, we shot in Fort Greene. We shot all over Manhattan, we shot all over the city. We shot in Corona, Queens. A lot of stuff in Queens, all over Queens. We drove all over Queens to shoot. This is a New York movie, about a New York group, by a New York filmmaker.

AFS: And would you do all this again if you had the chance?

MR: I would do it again. There were be a couple of technical things I’d change, or a couple of legal things I’d change. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. I wanted to direct a film for ten years. What better way to do it about something that I’m so passionate about and that I’m so proud of. So, yeah, would I try to make things a little smoother, obviously. But this has been as far as artistically, a life-changing experience for me and just pushed me to the next level of what I want to do with my career.

What's your favorite Tribe song? Or if you've seen the film, please let us know by leaving a comment below.

Luna Lin contributed to this report

A Tribe Called Quest