Beaten Rhymes and Strife: The Instinctive Travels of A Tribe Called Colonized

Jared Ball

A documentary film about the legendary rap group A Tribe Called Quest should be a very big deal.  A film about them should be as wide-ranging as this collective of talent.  And the film should be as powerful as the time and culture that produced them.  Most importantly, it should educate and inspire its audiences as did the group themselves.  Instead its just another film that mirrors so much of what remains wrong in general; the story of truly dope Black people produced by a far less dope White one and, of course, now owned by Sony whose music wing currently assures that nothing like A Tribe Called Quest ever again even approaches a radio broadcast or video screen.  Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is a film for its times capturing the low end of a theory that has been so ravaged by marauders at midnight that its rhymes are beaten and stripped of their content like, as you’ve no doubt guessed, a wallet left in El Segundo.

What should be colossally ironic is that the film comes from Michael Rapaport whose film career has as kind of bookends the underground interracial love affair of Zebrahead (1992) and the most appropriate portrayal of the super-wigger television executive in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000).  Its this role that seems to be best representative, the White boy who assumes himself to be more authentically Black than Black can be and who, like Quentin Tarantino in another of Lee’s films Girl 6 (1996), can make the quintessential Black movie; or at least the quintessential movie about a seminal Black rap group.  And it is just another reminder of how little power the colonized have over themselves, their art or their image.

A Tribe Called Quest deserve better.  Never mind that the film may indeed be a low budget affair, it felt more like watching a student’s final film exam, or the film of someone with privilege and access who just one day picks up the closest thing resembling a camera and says, “Hey! I want to make a movie about my favorite band!”  They have only ended up just recently, and seemingly, to have reconciled struggles over the group’s on-screen depiction and the all-important money splits.  In a now famous email front man Q-Tip received by mistake and then read live on MTV executives openly looked to deny the band producer credits and equal pay.  But worse of all is that after more than two decades in the game and legendary status the band’s inability to control its image and the financial and social capital they generate leaves us with what is ultimately a flippant approach to a group, to a time, to a cultural expression that today so desperately needs some thoughtful reflection.  The film encourages no deeper appreciation for the legends and no deeper understanding of why so few today who are like them could become as big as they once were.

For instance, the film only quickly passes by the political and cultural shifts of the late 1980s into the 90s never fully developing that context out of which A Tribe emerged.  The group members are never shown on camera responding in-depth to those shifts and their involvement in them.  Through direction their encouraged responses to the dashikis they once wore were dismissively described as the off-brand move of nerds.  Maybe, but in a rare Dutch television documentary on the group from the 1990s currently posted to the website of DJ Premier these very same men discuss that time as one of revolutionary political and cultural shifts building off of movements in the streets and universities to reclaim an African past and to build a more radical future.

Or how is it that you make a documentary about the group who to this day has one of the most memorable and referenced anti-industry lines in rap music history and they are not asked to discuss, nor is any investigation made into, “industry rule number 4080, record company people are shady…”?  In fact, quite the opposite.  Record exec Barry Weiss is so warmly involved in the film that he is even granted free run to haphazardly opine on the personality flaws of Tribe front man Q-Tip.  No.  Instead it is far sexier and marketable to Sony’s audience to focus the film on the internal beef between group mates and to waste other opportunities to interview legends like De La Soul by having them only to quickly comment on the demise of their fellow Native Tongues.

So the group that made songs named after Steve Biko and asked “What’s a Black nation without Black unity?” has its answer in a film made about them; a community without control and without proper honor.  But shoot, its almost that time anyway, so if you want a truly good documentary on hip-hop, go back to last year’s release from Dream Hampton on the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Black August.



  1. True, the doc could have addressed industry rule number 4080, the tribe’s foundation of black unity, and the ideology of the native tongues but I have learned that docs, books, etc., are the voice and vision of one individual’s perspective which in this case ironically and even some will say disturbingly is from a white guy. But he has his own personal narrative on the tribe just like most fans. Although Rappaport dismissed what could have been some truly insightful topics, I will not be overly critical of the doc primarily because any artist or fan from that movement, had an opportunity to pick up a camera and do the same. Would it have hit mainstream theaters maybe or maybe not probably the latter. But I can recall as a budding doc film student in Chicago at a screening for the weather underground I was the first to ask the filmmaker why he did not include more of the perspectives of leaders from the black panther party, since TWU, based their movement on the principles of the BPP. Actually, I was pretty offended by the lack of BPPs voice on TWU in the film. My understanding was the majority of BPP members did not respect TWU. The director’s response to my question was “If you want to have BPP’s perspective on the weather underground I encourage you to make that movie.” You know what he was right. So I grabbed a camera and shot my own film, not on the BPP/TWU debate, but on a topic that meant something to me. I suggest black people do the same. If you don’t want Rappaport or any other person who appears to be mainstream giving voice to our narrative then I implore brothers and sisters to shoot their own film and give it their voice. Two decades have passed and not one black person and their are thousands if not millions of us who loved the tribe, they were the soundtrack of our lives, yet who among us has picked up a camera to give them the proper honor? The greater question beyond your critique is why did it take someone else to do something that we could have and should have done for ourselves?

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