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Michael Rapaport’s quest: To give Tribe its due

The actor’s first directing project, the new documentary ‘Beats, Rhymes and Life,’ is his bid to show A Tribe Called Quest’s ongoing influence on hip-hop.

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Over a dozen years since abdicating its spot as rap’s pacesetter, the New York hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest’s rhymes have never stopped being checked. Ask Pharrell Williams, the Roots, the Beastie Boys, Common and De La Soul, who freely rhapsodize about the Queens quartet’s impact and enduring legacy in Michael Rapaport’s documentary, “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.”

Slated for release in Los Angeles and New York on Friday, the film has been shadowed by controversy since its Sundance debut in January. Both love letter to the group’s import and testament to its messy dissolution, “Beats, Rhymes and Life” captures Tribe’s psychedelic spirit and trademark idiosyncrasies. In the process, it reaffirms the group’s influence on spiritual descendents, including Kanye West, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and worldwide underground music.

While the New York neighborhoods nearest Linden Boulevard received the strongest vibrations, Tribe’s skypagers have continued to commune with West Coast subterranean culture since its last full-length, 1998’s “The Love Movement.” Locally, Tribe’s inheritors rank among the most significant figures around — a fact underscored by Rapaport’s recruitment of Highland Park label Stones Throw composer/producer Madlib to score the film.

“Madlib took it very seriously. [Rapaport] requested melancholy music, so Madlib created three or four CDs’ worth that we called Sadlib,” Chris Manak, a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf, the founder of Stones Throw, said. Unfortunately, those tracks contained unlicensed samples, so Madlib reworked the music to eliminate the samples. “Madlib thought they were obscure enough to escape copyright lawsuits,” said Manak, “but the film’s attorneys disagreed.”

Rapaport also tabbed Manak to handle music supervision. A renowned producer and DJ, he readily acknowledged the creative debt that he and his imprint owe to Tribe. Indeed, Stones Throw boasts a direct bloodline to A Tribe Called Quest in the late artist J Dilla, who first achieved widespread notoriety upon joining the group in 1996.

“When Stones Throw began, both Madlib’s and my own productions were hugely influenced by Tribe Called Quest,” Manak said. “They took chances that no one else was willing to take. In preparing for my set at the movie release party, I looked for interpretations of their songs and found everything from keyboards and awkward raps, to white hillbillies singing un-ironic versions of ‘Can I Kick It?’ There’s no one who doesn’t like them.”

Filmed at the 2008 Rock the Bells tour and a subsequent trip to Japan, “Beats, Rhymes, & Life,” bears evidence to the group’s persistent hold on popular imagination. Tens of thousands of fans still know the words to Tribe songs, and promoters continue to pay top dollar for bookings. And despite the acrimony among members captured behind closed doors, their onstage chemistry remains.

“They made hip-hop more honest. At the time, labels had wanted people to go pop like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. Tribe made it about the music, aesthetic, and keeping it real for ourselves,” said Prince Paul, the legendary hip-hop producer and former member of De La Soul, Tribe’s Native Tongues brethren. “Even today, anytime you go to an underground hip-hop function or backpacker show, they’re treated like gods.”

Even among those with a less traditionalist bent, Tribe has retained a cachet. Each Wednesday night at Lincoln Height’s Airliner, blocks-long lines queue up at the Low End Theory, the genre-obliterating club night that takes its name from Tribe’s most celebrated effort. Befitting its eclectic, forward-thinking namesake, the club showcases everything from futuristic beats and eccentric rappers to psych-rockers and glitchy experimental ambient. Most recently, Thom Yorke and Erykah Badu popped in for surprise DJ sets.

But despite its now well-branded name, Low End Theory came quite close to being called something entirely different, but Tribe’s notions of unity prevailed: “It was the only one that everyone could agree on,” said Low End Theory co-founder Kevin “Daddy Kev” Moo. “It was an homage. We were all obviously huge Tribe fans. For many of us, their beats and rhymes were our blueprint on how to make albums.”

Understandably, there may be no deeper reservoir of goodwill than among those who witnessed the group at its creative zenith. Raised on the Upper East Side and baptized by “Bonita Applebum,” the debut album’s first single, Rapaport likened the group’s breakup to his parents’ divorce.

“Tribe incorporated jazz in a way that sparked a greater musicality to hip-hop. They brought an innocence and honesty and inclusiveness. They made people comfortable in being themselves. They were [socially] conscious without beating you over the head,” Rapaport said in an interview at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. “Without asking, you can hear their influence in OutKast, Kanye West, Common, and even Drake. I bet that if you asked Drake what some of the inspirations were for a song like “Best I Ever Had,” he’d say, “Bonita Applebum.”

Due to geographical separation (group member Phife Dawg now lives in the Bay Area) and lingering tensions, most sources place long odds on the group ever recording new music. So the new film is the closest thing to New Testament that one will get — a reaffirmation why they were instantly canonized upon their demise.

“We always tried to be ourselves and create our own lane. We studied the music closely and worked hard to ensure that our rhymes, cadences, and flows came off right,” Phife said, still the self-effacing sideman at 40. “Whenever people ask me about our legacy, I always try to sidestep the question. That’s for the people to decide.”

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Movie review: 'Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest'

-- Jeff Weiss

Image: Phife Dawg, from left, Q-Tip and Jarobi White in the movie "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest ." Credit: Robert Benavides / Sony Pictures Classics

 
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