Sundance 2011: 'Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest'

by Neil Drumming

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Phife cried in front of, like, 300 people. It was a little awkward. You know Phife: "Phife D-Dawg is first up to bat," "the five-foot assassin," the "funky diabetic," the cocky chipmunk who murdered "Butter" and "Buggin' Out" on Low End Theory. You know: Q-Tip's partner.

It was Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, during the Q&A that followed a screening of the documentary Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. Director Michael Rapaport (yep, Zebrahead Michael Rapaport) called Phife to the stage to talk about the film we'd all just seen. The forty-something rapper, tiny as always, more bloated than you remember, bopped to the mike—or limped, I'm not sure—and thanked Rapaport for an honest, surprisingly revealing portrayal of his legacy. He thanked the audience. He thanked his wife, sweetly and rightly so for reasons I won't give away here. He dutifully answered questions. Asked to comment on the state of hip-hop today, Phife did as most old-schoolers do: he lamented. And at some point, quite unexpectedly, he burst into tears.

Maybe it was the overwhelmingly positive reaction of the audience to the film. Maybe it was the swell of emotion from having seen much of his life—his battle with diabetes, his battles with his band mates—laid bare on the big screen. Maybe it was simply because, as he said, he wished the other three members of A Tribe Called Quest would have been there that night to experience this with him. (Yes, there are four members of ATCQ, and sometimes "Y.") Whatever the reason, dude was overcome, and he buried his head on the podium and let it out—right there in front of us.

I had my doubts going into Beats, Rhymes, and Life. I never made it all the way through Zebrahead. I never warmed to Rapaport's sitcom The War at Home. And anyone affiliated with Bamboozled is somehow tainted in my opinion. Call me quick to judge; I just wasn't confident that Rapaport could pull it off. Turns out, it didn't much matter. By the time "Can I Kick It" drums kicked in, the images of Phife and Q-Tip walking about their—and my—old neighborhood in St. Albans, Queens flashed across the screen, and all due respect was paid in full to DJ Red Alert, De La Soul and the Native Tongues as the greatest and most joyful clique to ever grace hip-hop, I had lost the large majority of my objectivity.

Of course, a couple hours later, when it was all over, I had to admit that Rapaport had done a damned decent job. The rivalry between Phife and Tribe frontman Q-Tip that forms the central narrative of the film is dramatic and compelling if not quite completely fleshed-out. (There was rumor that this rift was part of the reason no other Quest-ers showed up that night. But who the hell knows?) It's neither the beef nor the nostalgia that ultimately hooked me. The power of the film hit me only afterward, when Phife took the stage and mentioned offhand that all but one group member was forty years old.

I like hip-hop music. I still listen to it. But Beats, Rhymes, and Life tells a story most rap songs will never tell, a story of growing up and growing old with this amazing, galvanizing music-turned-culture and all its conflicting values and impossible categorizations of black maleness. It's a story of young men bonding over something, fighting over nothing, finding a calling, getting married, changing careers, struggling with their impulses, actually questioning their attitudes and their egos—not just boasting, not just bragging. It's a story that made a grown man cry. I turn 37 today. So, you know, that's a story I can relate to.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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