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Interviews: Director Michael Rapaport, Phife Dawg on ‘Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest’

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CHICAGO – Hip-hop owes part of its legacy to the Queens, New York rappers “A Tribe Called Quest.” The group’s story is explored in Director Michael Rapaport’s documentary, “Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.”

Rapaport was a longtime admirer of the group, and approached them during a recent concert tour to express interest in telling their story. He was also fascinated by the notion that A Tribe Called Quest – featuring Q-Tip (Kameel Ibn John Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor), DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White – burned bright and influentially as a group for close to 13 years, and then inexplicably broke up. The documentary tells their story from the beginning, through the difficult years and culminates in their recent comeback tour.

Phife Dawg, Q-Tip and Jarobi White in a Scene from ‘Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest’
Photo Credit: © Sony Pictures Classic

HollywoodChicago.com had the privilege of not only speaking with Michael Rappaport, who besides this directorial debut is a mainstream character actor, but also Phife Dawg, a founding member of the group. The freewheeling interview highlights the group’s highs, lows and the actor/filmmaker from the same New York City, different borough, who wanted to tell the story.

HollywoodChicago.com: Michael, how did hip-hop and rap speak to you as a white middle class kid from NYC?

Michael Rapaport: I don’t think the ‘white’ had anything to do with it. I think the only thing where maybe the white comes into play is that I probably was one of the few people who was exposed to that form as early as I was. The first piece of rap music I heard was ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang. Everybody who heard it loved it, and I was a kid that started collecting the other records, and just loved it all. I loved the beat, what they were saying and how they were saying it. It was fun, playful and had a lot of humor in it. I was a kid, and it was a fun and innocent thing.

HollywoodChicago.com: Phife, you talk about your childhood with Q-Tip growing up in Queens. What was that time and place like and how did it influence and inspire your eventual hip-hop career?

Phife Dawg: New York City pretty much reeked of music. Reeked of rap and hip-hop. As for me, growing up in a strict West Indian, Trinidadian household, and a Christian household as well, I had to fight for the right to go and actually be a part of it. In the process of all that, Q-Tip was my best friend as a kid, so whatever I did – and vice versa – we asked each other to be a part of it.

When it came to hip-hop, he was like, ‘yo kid, I want some MC sh*t, and I think you should be a part of it.’ One thing led to the next thing, he went to the same high school as the Jungle Brothers, and people in that nature, it was about being in the right place at the right time. There were only two things you did in New York City, Queens to be exact, music or sports.

HollywoodChicago.com: Michael, this is your first documentary and release as a film director. What was it about this band and subject that compelled you to move forward with the project?

Rapaport: Obviously it was the music first, that touched and inspired me, and gave a lot of fond memories for me and anyone else who was exposed to it. When the group broke up in 1998, I was unhappy with that and I didn’t understand why. I didn’t understand why they stopped recording. I wanted more music, and that curiosity about why is what spawned the film.

A Tribe Called Quest’s music to me is just as important as any classic rock group. I loved documentaries about the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, they always looked great. I looked at Tribe the same way, they just looked so cool. Rappers to me, when I was a kid, were like superheroes. Guys like Kurtis Blow, Biz Markie, Phife Dawg and Q-Tip, larger than life characters. Why wouldn’t you want to tell their story?

HollywoodChicago.com: So when did you pitch it to the group?

Rapaport: I brought it up a few times in jest, ‘somebody should do a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest.’ In 2006, I went to a great concert that they did, they hadn’t performed in awhile, in Los Angeles at The Wiltern Theater. I got there super late, but I got to go backstage, where everybody was super happy. There were actors, actresses and models there, everybody waiting for them. It was that night the idea came, and I got it together for the ‘Rock the Bells’ tour in 2008. I asked them there, they said yes and getting started with it was the easy part.

HollywoodChicago.com: Phife, your music was very influential on hip-hop as we know it today, like how The Beatles changed rock music. What was it about the chemistry and relationships in the group that simply wanted to push all the limits of what everybody thought was rap and hip-hop back then?

Phife: For me, it was just a matter of being professional, precise and not wanting to look like an idiot in front of 15,000 people. [laughs] That was my main thing, you never wanted to look crazy or dumb. If it takes 30 days of rehearsal, you better ace all 30 of those days. When it’s game time, you’re ready to play ball.

HollywoodChicago.com: Was that the philosophy of everybody in the early days?

Phife: Not everybody, just me. I didn’t want to look dumb on stage, and I didn’t want to disappoint my band mates, just like Michael Jordan didn’t want to disappoint Horace, B.J. and Scotty. They are counting on me, I’m eating off of this and so are they. I don’t want to take food off of somebody’s plate because I went ‘5 for 40 at the foul line.’ I’m going to concentrate and make it happen.

Rapaport: You asked about chemistry, it’s about Phife and Q-Tip, their voices and energy. Tip is more laid back, has a more nasally voice that flows, and Phife is such an energy. That’s why I love the Ralph McDaniel’s footage [McDaniels created one of the first hip-hop TV shows] when Tribe is doing ‘Can I Kick It.’ You just see Phife popping out of skin, his physical energy was translated in his voice. In the albums, you just felt that. That combination of Q-Tip being laid back and Phife just ‘unnnhh’ [describing the energy], they just had that back and forth thing. It was that difference in them that made it so perfect.

Phife Dawg and Director Michael Rapaport of ‘Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest’
Photo Credit: © Sony Pictures Classic

HollywoodChicago.com: So did you have an idea of what kind of truth you wanted in the documentary, or did that truth develop as the interviews and story came together?

Rapaport: The truth did develop as the interviews and story came together, just being patient and diligent and shooting stuff. You can’t predict what you’re going to get in a documentary, I had no idea and I think even the group didn’t realize how interpersonal and emotionally charged as it turned out, that was just one of the beautiful things of making a documentary film. You can’t predict that. It was good and lucky timing, and A Tribe Called Quest being open enough to have me do it.

HollywoodChicago.com: Phife, around the time of the Beats Rhymes & Life album and Midnight Marauders, you were quoted as saying you didn’t feel like you fit in anymore, mentioning Q-tips and Ali’s conversion to Islam. How did that religious conversion both change the dynamic of the group and influence the records themselves?

Phife: I hate to even go back on that. It was the worse time of my career. I was really lost, should I still be a member of A Tribe Called Quest, do I even want to be a member of the group? Because I felt like the odd man out. I would never disrespect a man’s way of life, especially if they’re happy.

I just felt like because I supported and was loyal to the group, and them being Muslim – because Ali Shaheed was born and raised Muslim, then Q-Tip converted years later – it seemed like it was a field day for the media and reporters against Phife. I remember one article for a publication in London, the segue was ‘Q-Tip and Ali Have Seen the Light, is it too late for Phife?’ Sh*t like that.

HollywoodChicago.com: Did you consider converting?

Phife: Me personally, I’m not going to change overnight, nor did I want to. Call it stubborn, call it ignorant, call it what you want, but I don’t think I have to join a particular faith or culture or creed or religion just to fit in, since I was part of the clique since it’s inception. It was just unfair that they were happy, but I’m getting sh*tted on because I didn’t join that particular fray. It’s no disrespect on the Islamic faith, I wasn’t ready to join. I never complained, I just sat back and watched it unfold. Unfortunately it backfired on me the most, that’s why I said that in the article.

Phife Dawg Representing in ‘Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest’
Photo credit: © Sony Pictures Classic

HollywoodChicago.com: Phife, as chronicled in the documentary, you got the gift of life from your wife in your recent kidney transplant. Did you make any promises to yourself after you recovered, as far as what direction you wanted you life to go from here?

Phife: Yeah, one of my main goals is to become a sports broadcaster. That is the ultimate for me. I have my own label, and I want to record artists, but that’s as far as I want to go with a label. Like Berry Gordy, behind the scenes. But when I returned to New York City, I caught the music bug again, and I haven’t stopped writing since. I’m almost done with my E.P., entitled ‘Songs in the Key of Phife, Volume One.’ The LP will follow.

So I am totally involved with music, but my goal is to do the sports thing. I am working on a pilot for a radio show, soon to be TV I hope, called ‘The Fan-talist.’

HollywoodChicago.com: Since you are a super knowledgeable sports fan, which team, it could be any sport, reminds you most about A Tribe Called Quest, and why?

Phife: The 2000-2001 Los Angeles Lakers. Because it was Kobe and Shaq, and they didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but they still worked it out to win three championships. Ali, for example, was our Phil Jackson. That is what it boils down to. I’m the point guard, and the big man, Q-Tip, is not going to get the ball until I get to the party. That is how I relate it. That’s Phife Dawg, bomb!

Rapaport: Like sports, there were always people saying who’s better, Que-Tip or Phife? I would always say, who gives a sh*t, they’re on the same team! But does play a part in how it works day-to-day.

HollywoodChicago.com: Michael, you’ve worked with so many influential directors as an actor. Who in particular inspired you in the making of this documentary, or was it just the influence of the rhythms of hip-hop combined with what you know about filmmaking in general?

Rapaport: I always was curious and fascinated by filmmaking, and I’ve been fortunate to be around some great ones. Obviously Spike Lee and Woody Allen, they have a very similar way of working. John Singleton was great, Tony Scott was great, also an independent filmmaker name Nick Gomez, and then there was Ted Demme, who was an inspiring guy.

With documentary filmmaking, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and I knew I was outside my terrain. I had enough experience on sets to know what needed to be done. I am also a great fan of the genre, and all sorts of film were inside me. I was overwhelmed at times making the film, the editing process was the hardest thing. You wanted it there immediately, and as fast as computers and editing is today – and it’s amazing – you still need to find the story. I needed to learn to trust the material. I knew I had a f*cking movie, and I knew that was a blessing and a curse because I knew I wasn’t going to quit. There were no excuses because it was all right there.

“Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” has a limited release in Chicago and elsewhere July 15th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring interviews with group members Q-Tip (Kameel Ibn John Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor), DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White, plus Mary J. Bilge, Common, De La Soul, Mos Def, Ludacris and Adam Horowitz. Directed by Michael Rapaport. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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