The pioneering New York hip-hop group, best known for classics like “Check the Rhime,” ‘‘Bonita Applebum” and more, split upon the release of 1998’s The Love Movement. While they’ve reunited for performances since then, a long-simmering clash between childhood friends Q-Tip and Phife has kept them out of the recording studio ever since.
Rapaport, a longtime fan, says he started work on his recently released documentary in 2008, hoping to determine why they broke up and answer the question, “Will they continue to make music going forward ever?”
Not a likely scenario.
“We haven’t recorded an album in like 13 years now. We don’t just want to go in there for the money and it sounds like crap. The consensus would be, ‘I’ve waited so-and-so years for this and y’all come out with this?’ So we’d rather not do it than for that to happen,” Phife told The Associated Press while helping to promote Rapaport’s film, “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.”
Though made with the group’s cooperation, Q-Tip has criticized the movie for focusing too much on infighting and not enough on music. He didn’t show for its screening at the recent LA Film Festival and voiced his anger at Rapaport via Twitter, although he has recently retweeted other people’s positive thoughts on the film
Even Phife – who is supporting the film – isn’t enamored of the director.
“He was very animated, adamant, any word you could mention with an ‘A,’“ Phife said. “Sometimes he’ll lose his composure, and he’ll get it back. He was just real antsy.”
Rapaport says tension between the Q-Tip and Phife was “very apparent the minute I started filming. The minute they were in a room together, you could just feel something was a little off. I didn’t know – or try to dictate or manipulate the film at all. And I was persistent, diligent and open and non-judgmental.”
“Their conflict and their strife is the same thing that the Beatles and ‘N Sync and Destiny’s Child and Guns N’ Roses went through,” added Rapaport, whose acting credits include “Mighty Aphrodite” and “Hitch.” ‘‘Talking to the press and getting the accolades and who is in charge. ‘Q-Tip is better than Phife!’ ‘No, Phife is better than Q-Tip!’“
Phife, whose real name is Malik Taylor, seems to remain bruised by his clash of egos with Q-Tip. In the film, he blames Q-Tip for dissolving the group for a solo career, a claim that Q-Tip has denied. The two feud so much that at one point, they get into a brief scuffle on tour.
Rapaport interviewed each of the group’s original members separately. Rapper Jarobi left after the group’s first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, to become a chef. Beatmaker Ali Shaheed Muhammad has moved on to other projects. But like many fans of New York hip-hop’s early-1990s “golden age,” all speak fondly of Tribe in its prime.
Tribe’s mostly laid-back style and inclusion of jazz samples shifted the soundscape of New York hip-hop and wielded a powerful influence on current hitmakers ranging from Pharrell Williams to Kanye West, both of whom make appearances in the new film.
The contrast between Q-Tip’s humble approach in songs like “Electric Relaxation” with Phife’s aggressive style on “Buggin’ Out” was “what made A Tribe Called Quest,” Phife said. “He wasn’t as braggadocio so people paid attention. And I was. So we bounced off of each other. ... It was a matter of playing to our strengths.”
Phife hasn’t been so strong in recent years. A diabetic, he received a kidney transplant from his wife in 2008 and is shown struggling with weight loss and nervously entering the operating room. He says he’s glad for fans of Tribe’s music to see his struggles.
“With this documentary, I want them to see when I was cool, when I fell by the wayside with it, when I was turning the corner, and now I’m back,” he said.
As to whether fans will ever be able to welcome Tribe back, Phife demurs: “We’re taking it one day at a time. We’re friends right now. Q-Tip and I are friends. We’re brothers, better yet. And um, I’m happy with that right now.”