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Conversation: Michael Rapaport, Director of ‘Beats, Rhymes & Life’

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Q-Tip, left, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Photo by Ernie Paniccioli, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

For his directorial debut, actor Michael Rapaport (“Bamboozled,” “Boston Public”), trained his lens on one of his first loves: hip-hop.

“For me, a Tribe Called Quest meant the same thing as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, so my goal was to treat them the same way those groups had been documented over the years,” writes Rapaport in his director’s statement.

“Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” is a documentary film about one of the most creative, influential and innovative musical groups in hip-hop history. During the summer of 2008, Rapaport followed the group during a special reunion tour, almost a decade after the release of their its album, while it performed at sold-out concerts across the country. Traveling with group members — Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaded Muhammad and Jarobi White — the film captures the complexities of life-long friendship and how unresolved conflicts threaten their creative cohesion.

“As far as I was concerned, there hadn’t been a proper documentary about any rap group, so I was determined to create a film that didn’t feel contrived or supplementary. I wanted to achieve the same raw and rare truth ATCQ captured in their music,” Rapaport explained.

The film faced some public criticism by its subjects when it became time to be released. “Q-Tip initially spoke out on Twitter to say he didn’t support the film, but eventually he and the rest of the group chose to endorse it.

Rapaport says this “labor of love” was created for one simple reason: “A Tribe Called Quest is my favorite group and I love their spirit and music. Always have and always will.”

I talked to Rapaport by phone in New York.


When did you fall in love with hip-hop?

I fell in love with hip-hop in 1979 when I first heard “Rappers Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang. I was 9 years old.

Why did you decide to direct a documentary on a Tribe Called Quest? What about their music really embraced you?

The reason why I wanted to explore Tribe Called Quest’s story is because I’ve always obviously always been a big fan. When they broke up in 1998, after a 10-year run, I was always curious why and if they would ever record again, and that curiosity spawned the idea. And musically I’ve always the loved the production, the musicality, the samples they used, the way they used them. They definitely introduced me to jazz music. There was an inclusiveness in their music. It was conscious, but it wasn’t like in your face the way some of the other music from them was. There was a sense of humor and the Q-Tip and Phife [Dawg] factor, you know, was a big deal. There were two very, very strong emcees in the group and they were both really different from each other and they really just lent a lot to each other by how different they were.

Can you describe the process of making this film and, as a first time director, what you found to be your biggest obstacle?

When we started, there wasn’t much of a plan. Getting started was one of the easier parts of the whole process and we just started shooting. We shot everything. And we shot the concerts, we shot interviews, we shot b-roll. We shot all sorts of stuff. And then we would stop and then we would edit and then we would shoot some more. We started getting archival footage and piecing together scenes, slowly but surely. The biggest obstacle was, for me, personally, the editing process was very challenging, very overwhelming at times. And as overwhelming and stressed out as I would get in the editing room, when things would come together, it was some of the most gratifying moments of my professional career. Just seeing the scenes come together and seeing the movie take shape. And the material that we got was so good, the footage that we got was so good and so honest, that seeing it come together was really exciting.

Were you aware of the strife between the group members before you started the film How did that energy enhance or detract from the overall documentary?

I wasn’t aware of the strife within the group. That energy, I think, enhanced the documentary. It makes it a more honest, more emotionally charged, more relatable story, because it’s not just about the music. And I’m glad it’s not just about the music, because even I would feel a little bit bored about that at a certain point. The stuff that went on with the group– I was learning about it as it was being shot. And the further along we got, the more that I gravitated towards that. Yhe historical stuff and the musicality was easy because they did all the work. It was just piecing together the best stuff. But the interpersonal stuff was something that adds a whole thick layer to it.

I read that Tribe wasn’t very supportive of the film, but now their opinions have changed. What do you think changed their minds?

Well, it’s hard for me to speak for them, but, you know, at the end of the day they realized that the movie is good. They realized that it’s not a 12-hour Ken Burns piece. Not every single detail or innuendo could be in there and I think that they know the movie is honest and I think that they know that my whole process and my whole reason for doing this has been out of respect and love for the group, so I would never want to disrespect the group or make them look bad. I understand that there are things in there that are uncomfortable. I truly understand that. But I truly feel like everything is above the belt. I don’t feel like there is anything below the belt.

Do you have plans to direct more films or documentaries? Are there any other hip-hop groups that might be of interest to you?

Well, I would love to do another film. I’m going to direct more films. I’m going to direct a narrative film for sure. I would love to do another documentary. I don’t know if it would be on hip-hop on or not. You know, there are definitely groups that are exciting and curious to me. Making a documentary and making any kind of film as a director is a challenge and you have to do something that you’re really invested wholeheartedly in. Right now I’m going to take a little break from hip-hop documentary, for sure. I’m always going to continue acting. That’s always going to be part of my life, as long as I’m having fun and as long as they’ll still have me. I’m just happy to have pulled this off. This took everything out of me, but I put everything into it.

Below: Images of a Tribe Called Quest from Rock the Bells 2010. Click a photo to enlarge.

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