This article was originally published in February after the film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. It's premiering in theaters across the country July 2011.
Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is actor-director Michael Rapaport's directorial debut, and it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 22 amid some controversy. Much of the public pettifoggery began when Tribe group member Q-Tip took to his Twitter timeline to express his opposition to the film. "I am not in support of the A Tribe Called Quest documentary," he wrote. "The filmmaker should respect the band to the point of honoring the few requests that was made [about] the piece."
Q-Tip later appeared on Elliot Wilson's Sirius XM morning show on Shade 45 and clarified his earlier statement, saying, "Our goal is to let this [film] come out. 'Cause it's landmark and it's great. But we're not going to let it come out just any old way."
Despite Q-Tip's protests, group member Phife Dawg attended the premiere and participated in a Q&A session after the Sundance screening. In an interview, Rapaport told The Root that he never wanted "to make [Q-Tip] feel uncomfortable or [any of A Tribe Called Quest] uncomfortable," but that he wanted to "tell the story in the most honest way and try to articulate what [he] was trying to articulate as the director."
Rapaport, who noted that he was still in contact with Q-Tip despite their disagreement, also chatted with The Root about his love of hip-hop, how the film came about and what he hopes the band's involvement with the film will be moving forward.
The Root: How does being from New York City affect the way you engage with hip-hop culture?
Michael Rapaport: My father was a program manager of a radio station in New York called WKTU Disco 92. That was in the '70s. He started getting promotional copies of rap albums, so he brought them home to me, and that's when I first started hearing hip-hop. So I was exposed to it just by these records my father would bring home to me: the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. And it's been kind of the sound track to my whole life — not as much anymore, but definitely from [the age of] 10, all the way through being a young man.
TR: At what point during your acting career did you decide that directing was something you wanted to pursue?
MR: I'd say about 10 years ago, when I was, like, 30. I'd done a lot of work with a lot of great directors: Woody Allen, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Nick Gomez. I just started learning more about the medium, started asking more questions about filmmaking. And I started thinking [about] wanting to do more than just act.
To tie it into the Tribe film, I've known Q-Tip for a little bit. We'd see each other in New York, he knew I was an actor and I just loved him. He was a star. He was the Prince of New York. The first time I met Q-Tip was on the streets in New York in, like, '93. I was on Sixth Avenue near Houston [Street], and I saw him. He was with some chick, some bad chick. 'Cause Tip was always with some bad chick. Always.
When [Tribe] broke up in '98, I said, "Someone needs to do a documentary on A Tribe Called Quest." So when they did a show in 2006, they hadn't performed in a while, and it was just a great show. I was backstage, and there are all these actors backstage. Everybody's waiting for them to come out, and I said it at that moment: "I want to do a documentary on A Tribe Called Quest." I said it to Leonardo DiCaprio, and he was like, "You should do it."
TR: What were some of the major challenges you came up against when you were making your documentary?
MR: The editing was the biggest artistic challenge, the scariest part. We shot so much footage, and when you accumulate it all, it's like, "All right, now you're a director, big shot." That was frightening because there's so many different ways to tell the story, and what I was imagining would be the story, some of that was in there and wound up in the final cut.
But all this other interpersonal stuff that I think separates the movie from being just a "behind the scenes" or "how they did it" kind of doc, for me, was gold. But then I was like, how do you interweave everything? How do you tell the whole story? For the hard-core fans, who you can have shorthand with, but then also my mom, who just knows "Can I Kick It?" I had to try to integrate all that stuff, because the one thing about Tribe music, the word that was used a lot by different people I interviewed, was "inclusiveness."
TR: Do you think any of Q-Tip's concerns about the finished documentary come from the limited portion on J Dilla (famed producer and friend of Q-Tip who died in 2006) in the final cut?
MR: It wasn't the Dilla stuff. I don't think anybody, including myself, thought the movie was going to be as revealing and as emotional as it was. And I think [Q-Tip's] hesitation was based on that. I know he loves the movie. And this Sundance bump in the road was disappointing, but I love [the group].
Going forward, I think we're all going to be on the same page. The only thing that was disappointing was they weren't all here [at Sundance]. But there's going to be the next film festival and the next premiere, and I can pretty much guarantee they'll be here, be at the next one.
You know, [Q-Tip is] a perfectionist … so imagine what I'm dealing with. It was kind of like, "Yo! This is the f—-in' movie. I'm directing the movie about you guys, but I'm directing it." And that's really what it got down to. Nobody is going to be totally comfortable with a documentary about themselves.
TR: It's like The Black Book, with Jay-Z and Dream Hampton. She worked for years on his autobiography, only for him to see it and decide not to release it.
MR: Exactly! But it's the same f—-in' thing, you know? The Rolling Stones pulled out of [a backstage documentary] that the photographer Robert Frank did. If someone was making a documentary about me, I'd feel the same way Q-Tip felt and the way all the guys felt. He's the one that's gotten the [press], but they were all kind of freaked out and concerned and protective. I think they were like, "People are going to think this. Or people are going to see that."
At the end of the day — and this is something I'm proud of about the movie — you walk away saying, "I want to go get The Low End Theory and listen to that sh—."
Jef Tate, a contributor to The Root, is editor-in-chief of Words. Beats. Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture.