A Tribe Called Quest brought a refreshing positivity to the hip hop party in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and made a significant impact on the generation that followed. Michael Rapaport, who was just breaking on the big screen as an actor in Tribe’s first heyday (via 1992’s Zebrahead), gives the group a kind of respect he felt was long overdue by documenting the band’s importance in Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. Known as an actor (Poetic Justice, Mighty Aphrodite, Bamboozled), Rapaport shows directorial chops with this film, an aural and visual feast for the hip hop head and a perfect primer for those who've been mis-educated on the genre.
A few Bay Area references can be found within—it begins with an infamous verbal sparring backstage between MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in 2008, plus UCSF makes an appearance due to one member’s health issues—and the Rapaport found inspiration here in 1992 when he was in town for screenings of Zebrahead at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It was at both SFIFF and Sundance where he met and talked with directors financing their own films to realize their unique visions, a path Rapaport had to take with this work. To flesh out what an epic project this was for Rapaport, I spoke with him at the Prescott Hotel so that, in Q-Tip-ian terms, ‘I receive the message and [he] will play the sender.’ The documentary opens at a variety of Bay Area theaters today.
SF360: How did your relationship begin with A Tribe Called Quest? Obviously, you're an actor (and now director), in the movies you did, you obviously had some connections, but how did your connection with Tribe begin?
Michael Rapaport: I was a big fan of theirs for awhile. And then I met Q-Tip in ’93, happenstance, on the street. And then we became ‘friendly.’ You know, not like best friends that talk all the time. I'd see him, we'd have a meal or whatever.
I was at their last show in 1998, in New York. And then, in 2006, they performed [. . .] in Los Angeles. I went to that show, and it was a great show, and it was really exciting to see them again. And all the fans were really happy. And that night I said ‘I want to do a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest.’ Because I was working, I was doing something, it just didn't work out. And when they started touring again in 2008, I called Q-Tip on a Monday and asked him ‘Y'all, I want to do a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest?’ He said, ‘Cool, you just gotta check with the rest of the group.’ And then on that next Saturday I was down shooting the show in Los Angeles. It was that quick. I got in contact with all the guys and started shooting it.
My initial idea was to make a documentary about them, about their place in hip hop and what they did. You know, explore the music. And ultimately the film also became about the interpersonal relationships within the group. My whole question that I would always ask about A Tribe Called Quest since they broke up in 1998 was ‘Will A Tribe Called Quest make more music?’ I'd see Q-Tip, ‘Yo, you guys gonna make another album?'’ [. . . ], And in exploring that question and that sort of idea, the only way to answer that properly is to explore the interpersonal stuff that I did during the making of the movie. Which I honestly had no idea that it would be revealed to me. I didn't think that stuff, that I would be exposed to that. I know that they are very private.
SF360: Ali really shines in the movie as a calming presence.
SF360: There's a wonderful moment in the movie when you introduce Ali where you show his prayer beads, a nice marker of how Ali's going to be in the documentary.
Rapaport: Yep, Yep.
SF360: And Jarobi, I love how he doesn't end up as this VH1 story. He's somebody who didn't ‘fail’ [by leaving the group]. He just had another interest, pursued that, and is successful at that. But then the big person who shines in this movie is Phife's wife. Were you aware of that at all?
Rapaport: I wasn't aware of it at all. I didn't know Phife. I met Phife once at a party. I mean ‘met,’ like, ‘Yo, wassup?! I'm a fan.’ That's what I mean by ‘met.’ Literally, it was that quick. I didn't know Phife at all. But out of the people I didn't know at all, I expected him to give me the least. And he wound up being the most unfiltered. Just sort of, ‘This is who I am, this is what I've been dealing with.’ He set that tone the first time I put a camera on him. He was very open about his health, very open, and very vulnerable, very, very vulnerable about what he was going through emotionally with his health, and very, very honest with his feelings of where the group is at and the struggles that he's felt within the group. He really set the tone for that.
SF360: Did you find that Tribe Called Quest got you to re-listen to jazz?
Rapaport: Absolutely. Tribe Called Quest didn't just get me to re-listen to jazz; Tribe Called Quest was a big influence on me discovering jazz. Hearing on The Low End Theory Ron Carter on the bass, you're like, ‘Who the fuck is that?’ You find out. You look at the liner notes, they sampled this, they sampled that. ‘Oh, who's this? I'm going to go learn about Jack McDuff.’ Common says it in the movie, he goes ‘I started listening to jazz because of A Tribe Called Quest.’ That's a big deal! Q-Tip's records that he sampled from, and the way he sampled them, . . . he didn't steal from them. As a producer, you ask other hip hop producers, Q-Tip, he's the one who brought that jazz shit into hip hop. Other people did it. Stetsasonic had, you know, ‘[Talkin'] All That Jazz,’ other people did it, but he was really in that jazz shit. And then talking about it and hearing about it, you know, ‘We got the jazz, we got the jazz.’ As a kid, [I was] like, ‘I love Tribe Called Quest; I want to know what they love.’ And that was a big deal for not just me but a lot of people. And Common really says it, ‘I started listening to jazz because of them.’ It's a big deal. It's a cool thing, you know.
SF360: You mentioned [in the press notes] that cinema verité really turned you on to, ‘Ok, I want to keep directing.’ . . . Was this [documentary] what was on your mind when you were like, 'I want to be a director' or were there other things percolating for a little bit? And after this, since you are so into cinéma vérité, are you going to stay in documentaries?
Rapaport: [Long pause.] The last 12 years I've wanted to direct something. There were a couple subjects in my life, I was like, ‘I want to do a documentary about them, do a documentary about this person.’ I'd meet these different people, but [long pause] I didn't think that the first movie I'd make would be a documentary. I thought the first movie I would make would be a narrative film. But I've always loved documentaries. Obviously I've never been on a documentary set. The only way to be on a documentary set is to make one. And when I say a ‘set,’ it's not like it's a ‘set,’ you know. You're just making the movie.
[. . .], But I didn't think that the first movie I would make would be a documentary. It just worked out that way because I've known that I wanted to make a movie but I also knew from being an actor and from being very understanding of the business of movie-making that the only way to make a movie is to make the movie. The only way to make a movie is to say you're making a movie. I was deeply affected by being at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992 and shortly after coming to the San Francisco [International] Film Festival in 1992 and hearing directors like Nick Gomez and Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez and Allison Anders talk about, ‘Yeah, I spent my own money to make this movie!’ That moved me as a kid. I always thought the only way to truly make an independent movie is to make it yourself. So when I was really zeroing in on doing this movie on Tribe Called Quest, it was like, ‘Yeah, here's the credit card.’ And I was working on a shitty television show at the time, making a lot of money. And I was unsatisfied with what I was doing. Making that money on that show and knowing that I was putting it into my art was a good feeling.
And as far as going forward, I would love to make another documentary. But I definitely wanna, the next thing I want to do is a narrative. And I'm always going to be an actor. But the thing that is so fun about documentaries is the endless exploration, it's such a rolling of the dice. Cuz' you don't know what the fuck you're going to get. When you get things . . ., the first time I interviewed Phife and he was so open and so honest in that blue room interview that goes throughout the film, I had that same exhilarating feeling that I get between action and cut as an actor. I knew something was alive and there was an honesty that was being translated. I knew this was the right thing to do, make this movie.
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