Actor-turned-filmmaker Michael Rapaport has deep roots in the hip-hop community: He got his big break playing half of an interracial couple in 1992’s Zebrahead, a film whose soundtrack introduced the world to Nas, before going on to play a deeply confused, suspiciously Semitic-looking neo-Nazi opposite Busta Rhymes and Ice Cube in John Singleton’s Higher Learning. He’s also costarred opposite Woody Allen in Small Time Crooks and Mighty Aphrodite and stolen scenes as the obnoxious antagonist in the 2009 dark comedy Big Fan. Through it all, Rapaport has remained deeply invested in hip-hop as a fan and as a filmmaker. He recently made his feature-length directorial debut with Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest, a powerful, unexpectedly moving film about the legendary New York hip-hop outfit that focuses on the emotionally charged love-hate relationship between perfectionist frontman Q-Tip and lovable sidekick Phife Dawg. The A.V Club spoke to Rapaport at the Sundance film festival this year about killing his babies (metaphorically speaking), Q-Tip’s complicated feelings about the documentary, and whether there will ever be another Tribe Called Quest album.
The A.V. Club: How did the idea of making a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest come about?
Michael Rapaport: I’ve been a fan of theirs since the group started, since I first heard Q-Tip on the radio with the Jungle Brothers. I was never fully satisfied with the breakup in ’98, I wasn’t in love with The Love Movement album. And I would ask Q-Tip, and anybody associated with A Tribe Called Quest, when I would see them around New York—because we all see each other—“You guys going to make more music?” And when they went back on tour in 2008, I just asked them, “I want to make a documentary about you guys.” And they said okay. And we started. I went to each one of them individually, and we started. I didn’t really know the magnitude; I knew it was going to be hard, I didn’t know it was going to be so hard, I didn’t know how grueling the process was going to be creatively. They’re all over the country, they live all over the country. And the process was very, very fulfilling, but it was grueling.
AVC: What was the toughest part?
MR: The toughest part, in a nutshell, was the editing. Because these types of films, the feature-length films, they’re developed in an editing room. And specifically the kind of film I wanted to tell, it’s all in the editing. We had so much footage from concerts, and interviews, and great interviews from great people who didn’t even make the movie. At the end of the day, I kept saying, “We have to go back to the guys. If the guys can tell it, if the guys can articulate it, if the guys can present the story, we don’t need someone to explain it to us, let them do it.” And maybe if it’s not as detailed as somebody who was with them the whole time, it’s better that it comes out of them, because you get to know them better.
AVC: When did you realize the core story of the film was Q-Tip and Phife’s relationship?
MR: I realized that the story of this film, the centerpiece of it, was going to be Q-Tip and Phife’s relationship as soon as we started shooting. I could tell that something was off between the two of them; I didn’t know anything about their history. I knew as much as any other fan. I didn’t realize how deep and how long they’ve known each other, and I didn’t realize the complications in their relationship. So I realized very quickly that was going to be the main centerpiece of the film.
AVC: How did A Tribe Called Quest come onboard as producers?
MR: They came onboard as a producer after we got into Sundance, and after the film was complete. They wanted [producer credit]. I didn’t want it because on this film, the producers that are actual producers worked for nothing, and they all busted their ass for two years. I wasn’t hired by A Tribe Called Quest, you can make sure you put that in there. My only main concern about giving them producer credits, or about giving anybody affiliated with A Tribe Called Quest producer credits, was because I didn’t want the movie to feel like propaganda. I didn’t want it to feel like they had any hand or stake in the story that I was going to tell. That being said, they wanted it, and honestly they haven’t asked for much, so I gave it to them.
AVC: What have they asked for?
MR: Well, A Tribe Called Quest is one thing, and how I deal with them as individuals is another thing. Jarobi [White], when I screened the movie for him, he said, “Don’t change anything.” Phife said, “Don’t change anything.” Q-Tip and Ali [Shaheed Muhammad] have had more concerns about certain things being revealed in the movie. And Q-Tip and Ali, it wasn’t all about protecting their image. They had opinions about the movie itself: “This scene goes on too long,” “What’s the point of that scene?” They’re both very smart and film-savvy. But there was also stuff that I think they felt uncomfortable with, and they had opinions about exposing certain things in the movie. So they asked for stuff like that. And we fought. Not physically, but you never know what tomorrow can bring.
AVC: Was a lot of it the dynamic between Q-tip and Phife? That’s the source of most of the tension in the film.
MR: That’s mostly it. There were a couple of other things that Ali questioned and stuff like that. They’re all very passionate guys. “Well, why are they in the movie more than I’m in the movie? And why is this not put in the movie?” And I have to make choices as a director and editor, what pushes the story forward, what’s entertaining, and what’s a DVD extra. Because something that could be very important to the history of the group could be very boring. And there were concessions that I had to make. In my initial conception of the movie, I was like, “There’s got to be a whole thing on Busta Rhymes, there has to be a whole thing on Large Professor. Skeff Anselm, he gets propped too, so we’ve got to give him props in the movie, and there’s got to be Afrika Bambaataa, and go further into the Jungle Brothers, and go further into De La Soul.” But you know, if I do three minutes on Busta Rhymes, and three minutes on J Dilla, and three minutes on Consequence, right there that’s nine minutes. So again, you have to do what’s best for the film. And what’s best for the film might not be what’s best for someone’s ego.
AVC: I was surprised that there wasn’t more about Dilla, considering how important he was to the last albums.
MR: And we have great stuff on Dilla. At that point in the movie you had to introduce this new person, and people are so passionate about Dilla, that to do too little is not good, and to do too much takes you away from the rest of the movie. So I was very aware. There was no one who I forgot. You know, Busta Rhymes’ “Scenario” is not in the movie because of clearance issues, but we have a beautiful, funny, entertaining, insightful, funny, funny thing on Busta Rhymes that I had to take out. That maybe could get put back in, but will probably end up being something that’s used in some other way. It’s really, really good, I’m very proud of it.
AVC: Busta’s verse on “Scenario” was the ultimate “Holy fuck, who is this guy?” moment for a lot of people.
MR: Humongous. So I’m very aware, and I knew some people are going to be like, “How come there’s not that?” But I wanted to keep it contained. Once it got out of A Tribe Called Quest, and I mean the core four guys, and even if it got really close, like Busta Rhymes, like he was part of A Tribe Called Quest and what he did was so synonymous with A Tribe Called Quest—I had to make those choices. So, for the hardcore heads, I know that they’ll be like, “Yeah, you should have put this in, you should have put that in.” I’m aware of it. You don’t have to come fight me on the street or beat me up on the street. I’m aware of everybody who did everything. But I had to keep it about the guys.
AVC: You have to kill your babies.
MR: You got to pillage, kill, you know, the whole neighborhood has to be destruction.
MR: Yeah. There have to be bodies flying.
AVC: How difficult was it securing music rights? You have a hell of a soundtrack.
MR: Yeah. Music rights were very, very frightening. Daunting task. I wasn’t aware of how frightening they were going to be. Tribe stuff has been the easiest so far. There was a sequence with a De La Soul song that we almost didn’t get that was really, really, really upsetting. But we wound up getting it. Big shout out to Lyor Cohen. Because you can’t tell the story of Native Tongues without using the “Buddy” song. There’s just no way around it. There’s no substitute. And we almost weren’t able to use it in the video. But like, you can’t do Native Tongues without “Buddy.” So that was frightening. Because at one point it looked like we weren’t going to be able to do it and we were like, “The sequence is going to go.” But then you’re like, the one thing if you’re going to go outside of Tribe, you have to tell Native Tongues. There’s no way around it. So that was a scary, challenging thing.
AVC: Speaking of De La Soul, you ask them in the film, “Do you want A Tribe Called Quest to stay together?” And they say, “No, not really.” As somebody who’s gotten close to them, spent a lot of time with them, how would you respond to that question?
MR: I would love for A Tribe Called Quest to stay together and continue making music. I fought my producers and editors for that line to stay in the movie. And everyone was like, “I don’t understand why you want it.” Because De La Soul is akin to A Tribe Called Quest, and for Dave from De La Soul, that’s the only thing he says in the movie, I thought it was so powerful and poignant, to be coming from someone who’s so close to the group, and there’s no arguing how close he is to the group. What he said had to stay. It was in every cut. It never left, because I knew that even if it was only for insiders who understood the importance of that—I think we establish it earlier because we establish that they’ve known each other for so long—but I knew that that was an important statement to stay in the movie. Because it was just so honest and powerful, for him to just be like, “No, if they’re not… when they’re onstage, you want to believe it’s love, and if it’s not, they should stop doing it.” Coming from one of their peers, there was no way it was not getting in.
AVC: You set out to make an honest movie so there are going to be moments like that.
MR: And I felt that way about it too. And it was so great, because we had other interviews with him, and he’s not a very talkative guy, but for him, for that to be the only thing he says in the movie, I thought was just….
AVC: There has long been talk of A Tribe Called Quest reuniting for another album. Did you see any signs of that while you were filming?
MR: I think there are always rumblings of A Tribe Called Quest making more music. Everybody would like to see it. I don’t know if it’s going to happen; I think the expectations would be so high, but I think it’s doable. I think that the guys are still relevant; I think that there’d be a big audience for it. I think that they could pretty much do it however they want. If they just want to keep it within them, they could do it, they could get anybody they want to be a part of the album, produce tracks, guest. I mean, they can make it an event. But I know Q-Tip, his kind of philosophy about it is, “You don’t want to taint it.” And I understand that too. And he’s an artist in a very pure sense of the word. He’s for pushing forward, for moving forward; so to go back and try to capture something, the risk level is high. And it’s not a fear, but it’s like you don’t want to disappoint the fans. If you’re going to do it, it has to be high.
AVC: It sounds like it was pretty emotional having Phife at the screening at Sundance.
MR: Yeah. It was great. It was a great night. I was frightened going into it because it was my first time as a director and my first time showing it in front of a totally unbiased audience. I don’t get nervous watching myself as an actor because I know what to expect, because I did it. I’m in control of it, at least that. But right before, my heart was racing. The movie was received very well, it was fun to be in there and listen to people respond to things I hoped they responded to and also respond to things I never even thought was everything. The audience dictates what’s funny and effective. And then there were a couple things where I was like, “Oh shit, that didn’t work.” But all in all it was a great response and Phife being there, the way he handled himself in the Q&A, he was so emotional and honest. It was a special night. Obviously I was personally a little disappointed that the rest of the members weren’t here for the film or for Phife. They chose not to be here and it was disappointing, but there will be other film festivals and other premières, but the first time is always something you’re never gonna have that again. But when they see it for the first time with the audience, they’ll have their experience.
AVC: As a hip-hop fan and a fan of A Tribe Called Quest how disappointing was it to hear Phife say that he can take or leave hip-hop?
MR: No, I understand what he meant and what he means. I think it was powerful and honest. I understand what he means because I feel the same way, because it’s not the same. Doesn’t mean it’s better or worse, it just means that it’s different for people who grew up in the golden years of hip-hop.
AVC: Did you ever think about making yourself more of a presence in the film?
MR: There were versions where it was more first-person. I didn’t want it to become about me. I know that I was very careful not to make it about me. And I love Michael Moore movies and Morgan Spurlock, and that’s not any kind of insult. I just knew that this film wouldn’t be effective with that. I didn’t want to take any attention away. I didn’t even get in the end credits of my own damn movie! The end sequence when we show everybody, I didn’t [appear], but I was happy with that. I was very careful about not being overshadowing or getting in there. Just as Busta Rhymes didn’t make it, I got cut out of my own movie.