Twenty-one years after releasing its debut album, A Tribe Called Quest becomes the subject of a rock ’n’ roll-style documentary, featuring all of the triumphant highs and depressing lows. Actor and comedian turned director Michael Rapaport takes the viewer through an extensive history lesson as well as face to face with each member’s thoughts and feelings through both archival and present-day interviews. Many lauded members of the hip-hop community stop by to pay their respects to the group, being that it is arguably one of the greatest hip-hop ensembles ever as well as the cornerstone of the ’90s East Coast hip-hop renaissance.
The film starts with an in-depth and surprisingly fascinating history lesson on the group. It goes deeper than just showing the Behind The Music-style, present-day, green-screen interviews and old pictures, as Q-Tip brings the camera crew to the lower Manhattan high school he and Ali Shaheed Muhammad attended. Rapaport turns this section into a full-fledged piece of ATCQ propaganda with animations in the style of the group’s first three album covers.
Rapaport’s team filmed the group’s 2008 run of Rock The Bells shows and came out with some bone-chillingly good footage. The clips are interspersed into the back-story while the members discuss the creation and impact of certain songs. Beastie Boys, Pharell, Mos Def, Pete Rock, Large Professor and others offer their perspectives on the tracks as well. Hearing the people discuss the importance of the songs and then seeing how effectively they can still rock a crowd 20 years later brings to light A Tribe Called Quest’s sustaining influence and authority within the hip-hop and general musical worlds.
The doc’s triumphant feel changes quickly when discussing the group’s breaking up. The small, bickering jokes that the viewer was just glancing over, distracted by the colorful dancing animation and booming beats, turn serious. As the group’s creative fire burnt out in 1998, relationships within the band began to wear thin. Fingers point at Q-Tip and his allegedly over-sized ego, and Q-Tip points back saying the others weren’t in it with the same heart as before. This all happens in the documentary as Phife’s health is deteriorating due to type one diabetes.
The reason why this doesn’t fit into the history section of the film is because these issues and disputes have carried over into the present day, and this is where Rapaport’s creation really starts to shine. By getting into the present lives of the group’s members, he shows the natural drama and struggle that they went through as careers progressed. The doc moves away from being a feast for Tribe and hip-hop fans and becomes an accessible human drama for any viewer. The audience members will begin to hate and love Q-Tip simultaneously, feel proud and sad for Phife, become generally curious about the next step in the group’s career and maybe even call themselves fans by the end.