Beats, Rhymes & the Importance of Telling Our Own Stories
So I’ve been following the dust-up around the much-anticipated “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest”, which is set to premiere nationwide this weekend. For those who don’t know, the film, directed by actor turned filmmaker Michael Rapaport, documents A Tribe Called Quest and their legendary reunion for the 2008 Rock the Bells Tour. The group, which is probably most known for The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauder albums, split in 1998 on the eve of their fifth and final album, “The Love Movement”.
Having forged a nearly two decade long run as one of the most innovative and influential hip hop bands of our era, who wouldn’t want to see the Queens NY collective Check The Rhyme just one more time?
Despite the enthusiasm around the film, the path to getting the doc to the big screen has not been smooth. In fact, it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year to both applause and controversy as, prior to the screening, Q-Tip took to Twitter to express his opposition. “I am not in support of the A Tribe Called Quest documentary,” he wrote. “The filmmaker should respect the band to the point of honoring the few requests that was made [about] the piece.”
Q-Tip later clarified his remarks – sort of – by saying that he, and fellow band members Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jabori White, were done wrong. In particular, he took issue with being denied production credits (including executive producer credits), final edits to the trailer (which had been released on YouTube before the group could see it) and the film itself (scenes of which members claim were deleted before the Sundance debut). Q-Tip also accused Rapaport of engaging in shadiness and in a wildly-circulated interview with MTV News, revealed an e-mail that had been accidentally sent to him by the producers, which among other things stated: “First off let’s close the Billing Block and put it on the poster so they can’t get on that. Then we’ll f— them on everything else.”
Well it certainly looks like someone forgot industry rule number 4080…
Q-Tip ended the MTV News interview with this message of caution for other hip-hop emcees looking to have their story told: “Be in charge of your own stories, you hear me? Tell your own stories. We’re griots, look that up. We’re griots, man. We’ve gotta pass our own stories on. This is a part of our tradition, as African Americans predominantly. Let’s tell our own stories. We can let everybody come in and participate with us in this but don’t fall for the Hollywood.”
To some extent Q-Tip does have a point. What few folks understand is how people gain and lose power through the way particular stories are told. Every aspect of black life has been distorted by the mainstream because we have failed – by sheer ignorance or by circumstance – to keep an accurate archive of our perspective of the black experience. Not saying that Rapaport couldn’t have captured the true essence of the group — or even that he doesn’t have a right to — but he is still an outsider whose narrative and final cuts are based on his own familiarity with group members. And you do have to wonder how this doc would have been different if told through the perspective of the band members. Would they have emphasized the tumultuous relationship between lifelong friends Q-Tip and Phife, whose personal blow-up is captured? Or would we see a more private account of what got the group together — their rise and ultimately their split?
Prior to the film’s limited screen release (in New York and LA), Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad interviewed with New York radio station Hot 97 and said that they have officially squashed their beef with Rapaport. They urged fans to go see the flick. Which got me wondering about the “controversy” itself. I mean, I did get the issues of attribution, but what I didn’t get was that if Q-Tip believes he’s getting screwed out of credit, then why is he still telling people to go see the film? While I agree with him on the whole, “we got to tell our own story” bit, he really needs to make up his mind about whether or not he is down. Because right now it’s sounding like fake controversy just to make sure this film opens in the top five. And to that, I say, relax yourself, please settle down: it’s a film about A Tribe Called Quest. Why wouldn’t we go see it?
Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.