Michael Rapaport’s rocky quest


PARK CITY, Utah — A movie star and television actor with a body of work stretching back nearly two decades, Michael Rapaport decided to direct a feature documentary to celebrate his love of A Tribe Called Quest, the late ’80s/early ’90s New York
rap quartet that helped shape the sound of modern hip-hop, and to find
out if Tribe — which broke up in 1998 but has reunited several times to
tour and perform — would ever record new music.

Rapaport’s “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of
A Tribe Called Quest” premiered to a standing ovation at the Sundance
Film Festival last Saturday. And from its opening sequence, it seemed
the director found his answer.

“Is this your last show?” Rapaport asks Q-Tip,
Tribe’s lead rapper and driving musical force, in the documentary.
“That’s it, man,” Q-Tip replies. “I’ve been doing this 20 years, man.
It’s a wrap, brother.”

The film traces the career arc of the group — composed of bandmates Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad — from its humble Queens, N.Y.,
origins to the pinnacle of rap stardom. But set to the group’s vintage
tracks, “Beats” also tackles more provocative subject matter. It
vividly illustrates the internal power struggles, egocentrism and
battles of will that ultimately resulted in Tribe’s demise.

And, that warts-and-all treatment has compelled Q-Tip (government name: Jonathan Davis)
to disavow “Beats, Rhymes & Life” on Twitter even while Rapaport
maintains that Q-Tip strong-armed him into re-cutting the movie and had
himself installed as a producer on the project. “I am not in support of
the a tribe called quest documentary,” the rapper, 40, tweeted last
month. (Q-Tip declined to comment for this story.)

Rapaport, meanwhile, is proud of the end result and gratified to debut it at Sundance. But seated in Park City before the movie’s first screening, the actor-director appeared clearly anguished by Q-Tip’s lack of support.

“The process of making this film has been such a
whirlwind,” Rapaport said. “This trumps the level of difficulty of
anything I’ve done professionally.”

“Beats” arrives as a first of its kind — a biopic
focused around a rap group. As well, the film serves as a rollicking
primer on the so-called golden era of hip-hop, placing Tribe within a
continuum of positive MC-ing and Afro-centric identity politics.

Exhaustive interviews with a constellation of rap stars — Pete Rock, the Beastie Boys, DJ Red Alert and Monie Love among them — cement the idea of A Tribe Called Quest as musical pioneers whose influence dominates today’s hip-hop scene. “Me, Kanye (West), we wouldn’t be here if not for Tribe albums,” hit-maker Pharrell Williams says in the film.

A longtime admirer of ATCQ, Rapaport was inspired to
take on the project after seeing the band regroup to perform in 2006.
The director persuaded the group members to let him film them as they
headlined the successful traveling hip-hop festival Rock the Bells in
2008 — despite some initial misgivings.

Rapaport financed the project himself, shooting and
conducting interviews with the band and traveling with them to
performances as far away as Australia and Japan whenever he wasn’t working his day job: appearing on the TV series “Prison Break.”

Rapaport never interviewed all four members at the
same time. So when they first saw the director’s initial cut of
“Beats,” the band members’ often stinging appraisals of one another —
their various appropriations and claims of creative credit — didn’t go
down easily.

“They realized how open and revealing it is and
that’s where we hit our bump in the road,” Rapaport said. The filmmaker
insists the cut included “nothing that would hurt their reputation in
hip-hop” but said Q-Tip forced him to make changes to the film lest the
rapper block him from releasing it.

“This isn’t the director’s cut,” Rapaport said. “I want to release the director’s cut the same day he releases his next album.”

After the movie’s premiere screening, the filmmaker
introduced Dawg to the Sundance audience. And in an emotional moment
that seemed to take everyone by surprise, the MC grew tearful about his
bandmates’ decision not to attend. “I wish the rest of them were here,”
he said. “Q-Tip has no idea how many people love him.”


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