The 1980s are upon us, and four young black men are coming of age in a school near Linden Ave. in Queens, New York. Having fostered some of our nation’s greatest musicians – from Billie Holiday to John Coltrane to James Brown – the Queens hotbed is now being fueled by the embers of the Hip Hop genre. Of the several crews that form here, A Tribe Called Quest – that is, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Muhammad, and Jarobi White – stands out in delivering a youthful, jazzy, and soulful brand of the same. Through several decades of albums and creative differences, tours and egos, whatever freshness has dissolved from these turntable titans since their first album in 1990, their story has not since lost in relevance.
One must wonder how much of Beats, Rhymes, & Life was just an aging fan’s desperate attempt to intervene in the inevitable dissolution of greatness. For us to entertain the notion of group therapy, though, we must see these men as mere mortals. “State your name and then your crew,” is the rapper’s Modus Operandi, and so the film takes its own structural cues. Rapaport’s lens roots them so trenchantly in place, so contextually in time, that their celebrity sloughs right off. Stylistically, it’s reminiscent, but not evocative, of youth. This is a quiet disappointment, but we’ll take what we can get as long as the music is sick, and it is. Although unlikely to single-handedly secure their spot in the halls of American musical legend, Beats, Rhymes, & Life succeeds at telling a human story to the beat of an ill sample on a fly track.
- Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (Rapaport 2011) @ Variety Club Preview Room