The actor-turned-director of the new hip-hop documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest explains why he feels the group is just as important to music as the Beatles and discusses his disagreement over the film with Tribe frontman Q-Tip.
Actor-director Michael Rapaport
Tavis: Michael Rapaport is a talented actor who’s gone behind the camera this time for a unique documentary about Grammy-nominated hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. The film is called “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, ” opening this Friday in New York and L.A. Here now a scene from “Beats, Rhymes and Life.”
Tavis: Michael, good to see you again.
Michael Rapaport: Good to see you, sir.
Tavis: We’ll talk in a moment about A Tribe Called Quest specifically, but generally speaking, and more broadly, what is it about music documentaries that make them work?
Rapaport: I think music documentaries, obviously the music is always the star of the show. But I think if it’s really well done it can be something more revealing, more interpersonal about a subject or the group that you’re actually doing a documentary about.
I’ve been inspired by many music documentaries before I even thought about this – ones like “The Last Waltz,” by Martin Scorsese or “Gimme Shelter,” about the Rolling Stones and their Altamont concert that went terribly wrong and really has nothing to do with the concert.
So I think when they’re done well, it can go – it’s just it becomes a great movie.
Tavis: “When they’re done well.” Is this one done well?
Rapaport: Well, you’ve got to be the judge of that. (Laughter) I feel good about it. I feel good about it. I’m really proud of it. Making this movie took everything out of me, but I put everything into it.
Tavis: Why put everything into this documentary now, and asking specifically, as I promised, about A Tribe Called Quest. There are any number of music groups or individuals you could have done a documentary on. Why A Tribe Called Quest?
Rapaport: I’ve been asked that question a lot, and I say why not. I grew up in New York City, where I call the first generation of hip-hop. I was exposed to it really young, and as far as I’m concerned A Tribe Called Quest is just as important and significant as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
My mom talks about going to see the Beatles as a 16-year-old at Shea Stadium. Well, I went to a club and saw Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane was his backup guy, I remember that. Groups like that and performers like that and Tribe, they mean that much to me, the same way the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and all those dudes from the ’60s mean to my mom and older folks. Like yourself.
Tavis: Those are – yeah, yeah. Ha, ha, ha.
Rapaport: No, I’m just – I’m just playing, Tavis.
Tavis: You’re about to get kicked off of here.
Rapaport: I’m sorry, I’m just playing.
Tavis: I’m only three minutes into the show. (Laughter) Glad to have you.
Rapaport: (Laughs) I’m sorry.
Tavis: When you say the Beatles and other groups that you mention a moment ago, they have impacted your mom and others because of the way they influenced a culture.
Tavis: So when you put A Tribe Called Quest up there with the Beatles, there are a whole lot of folk laughing at you right now, number one, on PBS, watching this.
Tavis: They’re laughing because no one sees – not no one, a lot of folk watching right now, no doubt, don’t see the same cultural impact that the Beatles had anywhere near what you’re suggesting A Tribe Called Quest has had. Now obviously they impacted you that way, but how do you make that argument?
Rapaport: That’s a good question. Tribe Called Quest music and everything that came before it, all the hip-hop from the golden era of hip-hop, you see the T-Mobile commercial with the girl sitting there and the white kid rapping next to her, you see Michelle Obama doing the Dougie. That’s because of that. That’s cultural impact.
A Tribe Called Quest music was so inclusive, so conscious, it brought such a community together, and in hip-hop, in the inception of it, Afrika Bambaataa used to go, “Peace, love and unity,” and you would, like, think, what is this guy talking about?
But it all came, and for me, hip-hop has done more for racial divide and racial sort of bringing together than anything in the last 30 years. Seeing people like Eminem sounding like somebody like Jay-Z and just the racial aspects of it all. But musically, just artistically, it’s the last great form of American music that’s been created here since jazz.
So to compare the Beatles, obviously the Beatles are the Beatles, but in hip-hop terms, Tribe is the Beatles. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are the Beatles. Big Daddy Kane is Jimi Hendrix. It means that much to people that grew up with it.
I understand why people would be like, “What are you talking about, what are you talking about,” but if you were – I think it’s really an age thing. If you’re, like, I’d say 45 and under, you say “Tribe,” they perk up. The thing about Tribe is it came from hardcore hip-hop but it was for everybody, and it wasn’t soft or corny.
There was just an it factor that they had, it just – it was an emotional quality to the music.
Tavis: In the clip we played at the top of the conversation there are a number of artists, obviously, who are commenting about the impact that Tribe had on them and the artists that came behind Tribe.
Tavis: To your mind, though, what’s the documentary trying to get us to understand about their influence specifically on hip-hop?
Rapaport: I think the biggest influence that they had was they made people feel like they were comfortable being themselves. Artists like Pharrell that I talk to and Questlove and Santigold and the Beastie Boys, Amir from The Roots, Questlove, talked about how when he was younger he was looked at as kind of a weirdo. He walked around with braids and he had, like, jean jackets on.
After Tribe came out that became the look, and it made people feel comfortable being themselves. Hip-hop in ’87, ’88, it was kind of like gold chains, very machismo, and Tribe was just like, you don’t have to be like that. They were kind of like the nerdy off-the-beaten-track kind of guys.
I think that, and just musically what they did, you know, the way they sampled and how they used the samples, they took it to another level and I just think musically they just broke the mold.
Tavis: So Q-Tip has been on this TV show before, on my radio show a number of years. I notice that you’re here today and not Q-Tip.
Tavis: I have further noticed that I ain’t seen Q-Tip nowhere talking about the documentary.
Rapaport: Right, right.
Tavis: Why is that?
Rapaport: Well, you have to ask him. The good thing is he’s actually sort of come around to support the film. For me, this is what it is – the film became a lot more interpersonal than any of us suspected it would be when we started, and I think seeing that was hard to swallow and we had our little differences on what the film should be and the business aspects of it.
They started getting aired out on Twitter and Facebook and all that stuff, but honestly we’ve spoken recently and we’ve agreed to disagree on certain things. The one thing that we’re both in agreement is that he really likes the film and I love the film, and hopefully soon before the movie comes out, or opening date, which is tomorrow in Los Angeles and New York, I have an open-ended offer to buy them all the popcorn and soda and they could watch it with an unbiased audience.
Tavis: You mentioned at the top of this conversation, Michael, that the music in any music documentary is always the star, the music itself. But New York is if not the star, it is certainly the costar in this. How much does the setting, New York, the time, the era, influence the success of A Tribe Called Quest?
Rapaport: That’s a good question, too. New York was the epicenter of hip-hop. New York is where I grew up. New York is in me. New York is where it started, and it inspired all of us, hip-hop, and I think that representing your neighborhood and sort of putting your neighborhood on the map was a thing that was going on. Tribe did it to the fullest.
Tavis: It’s called “Beats, Rhymes and Life,” a music documentary about A Tribe Called Quest directed by Michael Rapaport. Michael, all the best on the project.
Rapaport: I appreciate it, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to have you here.
“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.