A Tribe Called Quest has trudged through many of the clichés of fame and ego and somehow managed to keep their classic status untarnished. The first time I heard Q-Tip was on De La Soul‘s 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy, 1989). I was instantly a fan, and A Tribe Called Quest was immediately placed on my radar. These four dudes, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi (A, E I, O, U, and sometimes Y) all met in high school. Their first release, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (Jive, 1990) was little more than an excellent companion piece to De La’s debut, but there was definitely something different about it. There was a playful sophistication about the beats and the rhymes that was barely evident in such stellar hits as “I Left My Wallet in El Sgundo” and “Bonita Applebum,” but that permeated their career. While I think their sophomore effort The Low End Theory (Jive, 1991) is their best record, People’s Instinctive Travels… remains one of my most-listened-to golden era albums (“Go Ahead in the Rain” is my jam!).
Quest really hit their stride on The Low End Theory. Number two on the mic, Phife Dawg stepped up and started to shine on this one as well. “Buggin’ Out” is his undisputed arrival as an emcee. Many will debate whether Low End or Midnight Marauders (Jive, 1993) is the classic Quest album, but no one is likely to argue that it was down hill from those two.
A good documentary on a niche topic as such finds itself in a tight spot. One one side, its topic must attract enough of an audience to sustain it. On the other, it must tell them things they do not already know. Michael Rapaport makes his big-screen directorial debut with Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (Rival Pictures, 2011), and he successfully negotiates said tight spot. Having been a Quest fan since day square, I’m fairly knowledgeable about their history. I collected every magazine article I could find about them in the early days (It didn’t take long for that to be an intractable task, but I still have the clips), but I found this documentary enlightening about every era of their past: the humble, high-school beginnings, the birth of the Native Tongues, the departure of Jarobi for culinary school (I always wondered what happened to the wavering vowel), the petty squabbles, the comeback, and the one album still left on their 1989 Jive Records contract. I got chills several times and verbally expressed surprise at others. It’s not only a good documentary, it’s a good movie.
As it turns out, internal beef and misunderstandings were the reasons A Tribe Called Quest fell off. Phife moved to Atlanta before the recording of their third record Beats, Rhymes, and Life (Jive, 1996), and he was the first to say that the chemistry was dead. To make the long story brief, they got back together for the “Rock the Bells” tour in 2008 for all the wrong reasons. Even their boys De La Soul said they didn’t want them to continue, citing an on-stage lack of love. Quest is all about love, and if it isn’t there, it isn’t them.
Don’t let it get twisted, it ends well: all beef squashed, Q-Tip rockin’ it solo, Ali Shaheed Muhammad still makin’ beats, Phife doing well, and Jarobi cooking good food. Props to Rapaport for bringing their story to the screen. Go’head witcha self.
Here’s the trailer for Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest [runtime: 2:22]:
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).