A Tribe Called Quest's Phife Dawg and Jarobi On the Beats, Rhymes & Life Beef and Rap Today

When Michael Rapaport's documentary lens captured the behind-the-scenes drama between members of iconic rap group A Tribe Called Quest, his subjects took to the media to voice their discontent. But by the time Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest premiered at Sundance, Tribeca, and won the Audience Award at the L.A. Film Fest, Rapaport had earned all but one Tribe member's public support.

In its opening weekend, Beats, Rhymes & Life earned $111,982 in only four theaters, notching an impressive $27,996 per screen average. As it expands into more cities in its second week, the doc has already grossed an estimated $299,000 and counting.

Movieline sat down in Los Angeles with ATCQ's Phife Dawg (AKA Malik Taylor), the only member of the group who had supported the documentary since its Sundance debut, to discuss his take on the public exposure of Tribe's private personal drama. Minutes into our conversation, Jarobi White joined us, in town for the film's premiere -- a pleasant surprise that took the chat into frank discussion of the film ("It's a good movie"), how the hip-hop community has changed for the worse, and why both Phife and Jarobi turned to their respective first loves (sports and cooking) while the future of A Tribe Called Quest remains up in the air.

There's so much honesty and love for Tribe Called Quest in the film -- what were your expectations of the project when you first got the call? You were the last member to sign off on it, right?

Phife: Mmm hmm.I didn't really know what to expect, but I thought there aren't a lot of rap groups that can say they have a documentary done about them, so my attitude was like, "Shoot, why not?" I'm sure there are a lot of people that would like to take our place. I felt like we should all embrace it.

Was this the first time you had all been approached to do a documentary?

Phife: That I know of, at least. I think somebody mentioned it a while back but it never materialized and we never thought twice about it. But this time, you know, it came to fruition, so everybody was cool with it.

Was the fact that Michael Rapaport was an actor and someone you knew beforehand make that decision easier?

Phife: Yeah, well he had already had a relationship with Q-Tip for a while, 12, 13 years or whatever. I met him back in like 2006 -- really sat down and had a conversation while we were at a Knicks-76ers game, and that's how I got to know him a little bit. But I really didn't get to know him until we started filming.

[Jarobi enters the room to greet Phife.]

Jarobi: Hi! Hi, Malik. [Laughs] What'cha talking about?

Please join us! Well, I was at the Rock the Bells concert where, in the film, cameras capture conflict backstage between Phife and Q-Tip, and most fans were probably unaware of the complexities and dynamics behind the scenes. Did that make it a tough decision, to allow a camera into that inner circle?

Phife: I guess so, but you know, it's a documentary. When I hear the word "documentary," I don't think certain things should be left out. You've got to keep it 100 percent as much as you can, unless your group has a meeting beforehand and says, "Yo -- don't say this, 'cause boom, boom, boom." Other than that, it's a documentary so let's document, you know what I mean?

Are you guys happy with the final film?

Phife: I thought it came out good.

Jarobi: Yeah, it's a good movie.

There was a highly publicized back in forth in the media around the time of the film's Sundance debut in which members of Tribe voiced their dissatisfaction with the project; can you elaborate on those feelings, and what may have changed since then?

Jarobi: I think just like in dealing with our music, we put our all into our music and our music is very truthful. We're about truth, and we're about the music. I think we wanted more music stuff, you know what I mean? Because our fans are a certain kind of fan and they want to see that nerdy stuff, like, "How do you make that beat?" After being with us, Michael had his vision, we had our vision of what we wanted it to be. And it was, you know, grown men hashing it out. Unfortunately, it spilled out to the media. Usually those things happen behind the scenes, you know what I mean? But, you know, people got mad and started, I guess, venting to the public, which put it on front street, which I didn't really like.

I can understand how difficult it would be to be the subject of such focus and then have that story, the personal conflict, come out without having control of any filter of what gets out.

Jarobi: Well, see -- I think people are getting the wrong idea, like we're trying to hide something. This stuff is our life, there's nothing to hide. It's just that we wanted a better balance. The balance wasn't to our liking, and that was our main problem. And I think originally, in seeing the movie -- if you were ever to hang around us, dude, it's not that heavy. To seem like we're heavy dudes... I mean, we're heavy, but we bug out! Spend an hour around us and you'll probably laugh for 45 minutes. And the movie didn't really reflect that to my liking, but you know, that's life.

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  • Rick Lebherz says:

    come on back, we need you
    the game has lost its roots and ways
    the message and vibe takes a back to getting paid
    today its all about the beats manufactured in a lab
    they know/buy whats golden and focus on the cash
    but the message and the lyrics over all tone
    its trash its joke and the vylnly should be thrown
    out with the bath water, that i have left in the tub
    after here is crap being bumped in a club
    and generation thats losts and just buying what sells
    ATCQ pulls us out of this hell.
    lets simplfy the message
    lets take back our tracks
    and lets do it on the up,
    not time for fakin jacks
    win back the point with a little bit of class
    What good will it do?
    Whats point of show?
    You should know