(South Florida Times Writer) – It could seem surprising that a white man would want to devote time to produce a documentary on A Tribe Called Quest. But spend five minutes with Michael Rapaport and issues regarding his making a film about one of hip-hops most revered groups are put to rest.
A genuine love and respect for the group and an intention to have it regarded with the same historical significance as the Beetles and The Rolling Stones led the man who is better known for his work in front of the camera to step behind it to create a permanent ode to ATCQ.
The newbie director said the filming process was both inspirational and instructional and that his 15-year friendship with Q-Tip led him to satisfy his and millions of other fans’ curiosity about who the group members are, individually and collectively, why they broke up and the likelihood of a reunion.
Beats, Rhymes & Life: Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is in limited release, showing on one screen in South Florida. When it opened on Aug. 5, the South Beach Regal Theater was packed with die-hard ATCQ fans. Rapaport is hopeful that at least a few of them were ATCQ virgins.
“If you’ve never heard of A Tribe Called Quest and you like music of any kind, one thing I can guarantee that you’ll take away is that the music of A Tribe Called Quest is for everybody,” he said in an interview, adding that the film also challenges stereotypes about rappers and their music.
“These guys aren’t thugs, they don’t try to be thugs, don’t have thug crazy history. They’re just musicians from Queens who came up in nice families. They’re vulnerable, passionate and flawed guys just like everybody else. That kind of honesty and humanity is what made their music so good and is what makes them so fascinating as documentary subjects.”
The film, which chronicles the group’s 2008 Rock the Bells tour and is named after its fourth CD, 1996’s Beats, Rhymes & Life, began has been generating positive buzz since it was released earlier this year.
Besides ATCQ members Q-Tip (Kamaal Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor), Jarobi White and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Rapaport interviewed DJ Red Alert, Chris Lighty (the group’s former manager), Pharrell Williams, the Beastie Boyz, Ludacris, Monie Love, DJ Angie Martinez, De La Soul, The Roots and Black Sheep, Common, Afrika Baby Bam, and Mos Def.
“When the finished product was screened at Sundance, only Phife was there. It was so emotional and people just loved the movie. It was so special and flattering and such a relief to be done and to let the fans tell me what they think,” Rapaport said. The other members released a statement supporting the film prior to its Sundance screening.
Rapaport said getting the project started was the easiest part: “It just came out of wanting to do it and them saying ‘OK.’”
But once the cameras started rolling, he said, it was occasionally overwhelming and intimidating.
“I know how much they mean to the fans, I know how much they mean to me. I knew I had to finish doing it and I knew I had to finish doing it at the highest level,” said Rapaport, who is known to many from his movie roles and as teacher Danny Hanson on the television show Boston Public.
His friendship with Q-Tip and his status as a fan of ATQC notwithstanding, Rapaport said he still learned something new about the guys while making the movie.
“I didn’t know the nature of their relationship, that they’ve known each other for so long. They were like brothers. They grew up together, their families know each other. They started doing this thing because they liked doing it and then they got a record deal and success,” he said.
He said he was surprised to learn about the distance now between the guys but understands it: “People grow apart and I didn’t realize how far apart they had grown as people.”
What he learned about himself was this: “I had the ability to answer the call… I was able to trust my vision and my thoughts.”
Whether a fan of the group or not, Rapaport said, everyone will enjoy the film, in part because of how hip hop has permeated nearly every aspect of society.
“They were that important and influential. What they did musically and image-wise informed and shaped and changed popular culture,” he said. “You see Michelle Obama doing the ‘Dougie.’ That’s a hip-hop dance.”
Photo: Michael Rapaport