The controversy-riddled documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest, directed by the outgoing Michael Rapaport, was celebrated at a release party on July 7, held in conjunction with the inaugural night of bi-monthly Los Angeles party Paper Ships. The line outside snaked endlessly around the block with Tribe fans, and inside the ornate, marble-staircased venue, A Tribe Called Quest member Phife Dawg was joined in the lineup with VJ sets from hip-hop acts Madlib, Peanut Butter Wolf, and Prince Paul in the booming, smoke-machine-fogged main stage room.
Since the film's lauded debut at Sundance in January, there hasn't been a unanimous consensus within the Tribe ranks about it. At first, Phife was the film's only advocate, being the only member to show up at Sundance while the others sat it out. Slowly, Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad came around to support the film, appearing at the Los Angeles premiere in June. The only stickler throughout has been frontman Q-Tip, using the media and his Twitter account to voice his opposition to the documentary. The film particularly highlights the beef between Phife and Q-Tip, which apparently did not sit well with Q. But despite his not attending any of the film's screenings or events, Q-Tip just this week caved, and encouraged his Twitter followers to see Beats, which was released in Los Angeles and New York this week.
As much as director Michael Rapaport radiates love for A Tribe Called Quest, at the July 7 L.A. party it was clear he wants to be in the spotlight just as much as the group. The enthusiastic indie actor, Beats being his directorial debut, went up onstage every chance he got: He introduced each act, chatted with the hip-hop stars on the stage, talked at length about the film, and thanked his surprised film crew whom he brought onstage. When you visit the film's site, the first thing you see is a video of Rapaport introducing himself before Tribe's name is even uttered. While the bravado of a new director who appears to have no connection with ATCQ or the hip-hop world (other than fandom) seems out of place, Rapaport's work speaks for itself, even if his own voice sometimes drowns it out.
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Putting all of their own original material aside, the party's musical guests' DJ/VJ sets all night were tributes to A Tribe Called Quest and the golden age of hip-hop from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s. Stones Throw Records founder Chris Manak, aka Peanut Butter Wolf, delved into the video vaults, showing rare clips from early Tribe performances and videos; one such clip was of a dance show featuring the gravity-defying moves of a certain infamous early white rapper, Vanilla Ice. De La Soul producer Prince Paul, who closed out the show, entertained the crowd with an encyclopedic VJ set of classic hip-hop, showing Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, N.W.A., a very young Jay-Z, and of course, De La Soul.
My cohorts and I were gestured through security door, running up a dark staircase behind Rapaport being trailed by a gaggle of ladies. Exploring the backstage area, an Indiana Jones temple-esque hallway revealed a wall of autographs from the likes of Big Boi of Outkast, grafitti artist Shepard Fairey, Macy Gray, and Snoop Dogg. Even actor Ethan Hawke and "Project Runway" host Heidi Klum had made their marks. But before I could reach the coveted green room, security shooed us into a secret elevator that took us right behind the stage just as Phife Dawg came on.
The humble visionary was gracious in his support of the documentary, engaging in an extended chat with Rapaport. As on-point as in the Tribe heyday, the crowd hung onto every lyric and beat. Phife then introduced onstage childhood friend Brother J, of Brooklyn hip-hop contemporaries X-Clan. Busting out with ATCQ songs like "Check The Rhime" and "Buggin' Out," Phife had to stop in the middle of rapping to say, "This is why we need all four here"--a simple thought that had so much leading up to it.
Even though Phife was the only member representing that night, images of all four were profusely projected onstage, which made me wonder how Q-Tip would feel. Despite the internal fighting, the controversial film, and the subsequent media frenzy, ultimately A Tribe Called Quest can never be broken apart--one cannot exist without the others. Their place in hip-hop and music history is set in stone and steel, and their influence continues to reach further generations. And anyhow, what is hip-hop without a little side of "beef"?