A New Yorker born and bred, Michael Rapaport grew up on hip-hop, discovering the genre as it was finally coming into it's own. Among the bands that grabbed his attention was A Tribe Called Quest, a foursome out of Queens (Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad) who in the span of four years delivered three of rap music's defining albums.
A few years ago Rappaport, a veteran actor of dozens of dozens of feature films, decided to step behind the camera to make a documentary about the band, "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest," which last week won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the LA Film Festival.
PB: Why Tribe? Why now?
MR: A Tribe Called Quest has been one of my favorite groups and I always was curious as to why they stopped recording and if they were gonna record again. And why now? Because there’s some perspective on them and the timing was right. They went back on tour they were headlining with other more relevant artists of today. And as far as I’m concerned, Tribe Called Quest is as important to me as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and The Ramones, Led Zeppelin—that’s what they mean to me. My mother went to go see The Beatles at Shea Stadium when they first came to New York; well I saw Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie when I was 15.
PB: How did you convince the band to let you follow them around?
MR: Getting started was the easiest part of the whole process. There was no convincing—I ask them and I told them what I wanted to do, I asked Q-Tip first, he said yes, he said you just gotta talk to the other guys. I went to each one of them. Really, getting started was one of the easiest things.
PB: What's at the heart of the problems between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg?
MR: The heart of their discord is that they’re brothers. They’ve known each other since they were 3 years old, 4 years old. They’re ultimately married to this thing that’s bigger than them called A Tribe Called Quest. And no matter how they do things on their own, people always want A Tribe Called Quest. I think that can be a burden on them sometimes. And I think that at the end of the day, the fact that your brother is someone who a lot of times is a person who can piss you off the most and your brother’s the person who you love the most—they are like that…
It’s a similar dynamic in my opinion to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, with Q-Tip being the charismatic frontman and Phife being the more laidback guy on the corner, the guy that you feel like you know him instantly, the sideman like Keith Richards, I always looked at it that way. Keith Richards just released a book saying, “I want to f***ing beat the shit of Mick sometimes,” he said something like or, “I punched him in the face”—that happens. I have things that I regret that have happened between me and my brother, that’s why we keep our distance a lot of times…And bands have broken up, from The Beatles to N*SNYNC to Destiny’s Child to Guns and Roses—it happens.
PB: You caught some seriously heavy moments on film. Which side of your brain takes over in those moments? The filmmaker excited by the drama or the fan thinking, "Oh no!"?
MR: Both of those things are at work at the same time. Watching two people miss each other and not get along is hard to be around. As a filmmaker, yeah, I’m not gonna lie, I was like, “Oh shit—this is it!” and the story had more depth than I had imagined. That was the beauty of documentary filmmaking. So it was two things working at once. Especially cuz I’m such a fan of the group, to see this stuff…those guys are like guys that I grew up with, and I have my own share of fractured relationships with guys that I’ve grown up with, so I can relate to that. I can’t relate to being a rapper and groundbreaking musician, I can appreciate that—but I relate to the discord in their relationships.
PB: How does the band feel about the film?
MR: Jarobi went out of his way to say after the first cut that he saw, “Do not change anything.” Ali had some thoughts and questions, some of which were helpful, and some insights. But ultimately, we didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything, either. But I didn’t make the movie for the four of them. My agenda wasn’t, “I’m making this movie for you guys and here’s your gift.” I made this movie for myself and ultimately for the fans, about them. And that’s an important thing. Sometimes they were like, “It's our movie,” and I was like, “No, it ain’t your movie. It’s my f***ing movie that I paid for—about you guys that you agreed to have me do." I’ve been inspired and been around independent filmmakers for the last 20 years and I knew at the end of the day, I had to look inside myself… you cannot deny what you think is right. It got to be an emotional thing for me, like, “F*** that, I’m not backing down from this s***.” And that’s just the way it played itself out. It really was an intense experience.
PB: Do you have any other documentary subjects in mind that you'd like to tackle?
MR: Musically, I think De La Soul would be fun, even The Roots would be really cool, they have an interesting story that I’m curious about, and musically, just what I know about them, I think there’s something vibrant there… But the only way for me to do another documentary, no matter what it is, I have to be internally compelled, because making a documentary—making an independent film is hard—but making a documentary, independently, f***ing...it’s war. And you need to be prepared for your blood spilled and…it’s a blood bath and that’s just the way it is. And you need to know that going in and be prepared to do that. It’s really tough. At least it is for me... But that’s how you get the best results—I’m sure it’ll be a little easier next time, I’m sure there’s things I could do to make it easier on my self—maybe just one dysfunctional artist would be better than a group of them.
"Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest" opens Friday, July 8