Friday, July 22, 2011

Beats, Rhymes & Life

A reflective review of the movie- Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.

Those three words pretty much sum it up.
The quest for the right beats to unleash meaningful rhymes that both reflect and project life.

Much of my musical taste and outlook on life has been shaped by the musical group A Tribe Called Quest. It's laced in my writing, often referenced in my arguments and is imbued in my swag.

The dichotomy created by the varying elements of this eclectic hip-hop group represent the complexity that comes with knowledge of self. For instance, balancing the duality of being beholden to nurtured Afrocentrism, while the unyielding enlightenment causing acquiescence to mainstream society prevails.

Stepping out on a limb, I'll say this is the only movie I have ever watched where I was literally smiling from ear to ear throughout. Even when I was about to cry. Not because I'm like the crazed fans I recall seeing pour tears at the sight of Michael Jackson, rather because there is something about my connection with the music they make that hits my core.

There was a reason why it never felt right for me to step into the starting blocks of a single high school track meet without first listening to nearly all of the Midnight Marauder TAPE. "Aiyyo swing, swing, swing to chop, chop, chop..." always happened right before the 110s.

There is a reason why I can visualize neighborhoods in New York that I have never visited. Although I don't, I too represent Linden Boulevard.

Having made the cross country trip, solo, by vehicle, at least 5 times in the past decade and having lived in 5 states, mostly as an adult, my life has been an Award Tour. And for that the Tribe has laid much of my life's soundtrack. Much of the rest they have either been influenced by or they have in-turn influenced.

Such is the case for my current local link to the film. Oxnard native Madlib did the score for the movie. Wait a minute, a cat from Oxnard, where I currently live, of all places, was tapped to do the music for what turned out to be more than a documentary about my all-time favorite hip hop group?

During the documentary when the movie's director, Michael Rapaport asks the question of on-again-off-again group member Jarobi White, "What's the hardest thing about being in a group?" His answer - "Constantly considering someone else even before yourself," that, in my view, was one of the most introspective moments of the film. Not only is that a universal theme of generic relationships, it is a struggle that has plagued many before them and likely many to follow.

The Tribe remained relevant through my formative years partly because of their conscious and whimsical wordplay. I would argue that your mind processes differently when listening to music from the Native Tongue era.

In retrospect of their break up and upon witnessing the chemistry that I only got to see on stage first hand once - Rock the Bells 2008 at the Gorge (footage is in the film) - I question, could the Tribe regain relevance in a society inundated with images of sex, drugs and violence? As a culture as a movement, hip hop has evolved, but the guidance of our more wise and conscious elders could remain useful in the game.

Now if they would only listen to their own words,
Phife: You on point Tip
Q-Tip: All the time Phife
Phife: Then play the resurrector and give the dead some life.

James Joyce III is based in Southern California and saw the film during the opening weekend at the sole west coast theater showing the movie at the time.


  1. I saw this film last weekend. I enjoyed it but definitely OVERSTAND Tip's objection to it. The film focused on their internal conflicts and the music seemed like a back drop. I would have liked to hear more about their creative process. I would've liked to know more about what was happening in each of their lives when they created each album, each song. What was their inspiration? Every retrospective piece that I have seen on musicians, vocalists and visual artists speak to the artist's background and experience. Those of us in the know, know that Ali Shaheed is a practicing Muslim. Rapaport could have focused on that and illustrated how Ali's spirituality influenced his musical output. Phife's roots are in the Caribbean as are many hip hop and dance artists from NYC during that era. His Caribbean roots influenced his flow, let's discuss that.

    As a creative woman who always supports her man, I find it of interest to know what women/love interests supported them and influenced their music. Like Miles Davis had Betty Mabry who inspired Bitches Brew and Lenin had Yoko Ono; what women occupied the lives of each of the members and influenced their creativity or lack thereof?

    So much was missing from this "documentary". Rapaport missed a tremendous opportunity. Like you I am tremendously moved by THIS music. Native Tongue's was the first rap output I heard that actually resonated with me (Aside from L.L's I Need Love...I know he was talking to me when he wrote that!). At the end of the day, I'm disappointed and yearning for more...

  2. Not having seen the film yet, I am at a disadvantage in this discussion. I cannot criticize one way or the other. I can say this: I remember many a friendly argument at 439 East State about which album was better - Low End Theory v. Midnight Marauders. I noticed one important distinction in the collective perspective. The older you are (which likely correlates to your first exposure with Tribe) the greater the chance you'd side with Low End. Conversely, the younger you are (and similarly situated, exposure-wise), the Marauder in you screamed for air play. And part of me thinks that is what is unique about the group. I am hard pressed at this early hour to find another talent that I am so loyal to a sophomore or above album that Ive heard before the debut. For instance, I doubt a Jay fan whose first exposure to The Blue Print would say, after some investigation, that it is a better album than Reasonable Doubt. Then again, kids today...

    A note to the blogger - you haven't always made that cross country trip alone. And I do recall Tribe was in the air, but thankfully we didn't leave our wallets in El Segundo.

  3. I hear ya sister T, but for a group that has been all but dormant for the past decade or more, this is getting the cob web off of their pubic persona and hopefully the first of a few attempts to delve into the soul of this group. I agree with the inspiration and all, not sure about the know about women in their lives, while interesting it misses the point.

    As for Jonah, your right. On my second trip I had a co-pilot who was supposed to drive, but fell asleep behind the wheel in Colorado, so I had do pretty much make the trip solo! LOL (Record corrected)

  4. Oh and if interested, listen to this NPR story.

  5. I didn't fall asleep behind the wheel in Colorado. That's ridiculous to even suggest. It was Kansas.