Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Beats, rhymes and Phife: A look back at the late Phife Dawg's travels with A Tribe Called Quest


Phife Dawg, who passed away at the age of 45, was a huge part of the soundtrack of my teen years, and he continues to be a huge part of the soundtrack of my current years. The following is a reposting of my discussion of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest from August 27, 2015.

I grew up listening repeatedly to A Tribe Called Quest's first three albums on cassette: 1990's playful People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 1991's more introspective but somehow even more enjoyable The Low End Theory and 1993's celebratory and communal Midnight Marauders, a rare threequel that actually doesn't suck. So while some ATCQ heads might find the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the first (and so far, only) directorial effort from actor/filmmaker/copy shop employee Michael Rapaport, to be repetitive because "it was all stuff that any Tribe fan either already knew or could pick up from a thousand different bio's on the internet," I marveled at a lot of the footage Rapaport, a Tribe fan himself, was able to gather about the origins of three of my favorite hip-hop albums, as well as the origins of the Native Tongues collective, which consisted of Tribe and several other acts who appeared on classic Tribe joints like "Award Tour" and "Oh My God."







"We don't have to do 'Fuck tha Police.' There's a time and a place for 'Fuck tha Police.' And a group for that. We don't have to do 'Fight the Power.' There's a time and a place and a group for that. We're allowed to be different," says former Native Tongues member Monie Love about the much more whimsical but no less meaningful sounds of Native Tongues artists during the documentary. Besides Tribe and Monie, the revered collective also included the remarkably still-together De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Black Sheep, the Jungle Brothers and Leaders of the New School, whose member Busta Rhymes had a breakout moment that took place not on an LONS track but as a guest MC on Tribe's "Scenario," a classic posse cut Rapaport wasn't able to include in his documentary due to clearance issues. Since "Scenario," Busta has gone on to have an unusual (and tabloid-riddled) solo career, whether he's reuniting with former Tribe frontman/beatmaker Q-Tip on the 2013 track "Thank You" or rapping in the form of either Prince Akeem or liquid metal. The last time we saw Busta, his eyes haven't been looking so good. They've been starting to get rather googly lately.



Viewers who don't know what it's like to go crate digging in a record store might not care for the footage Rapaport and cinematographer Robert Benavides lovingly shot of Q-Tip and former Tribe DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad browsing for potential beats like kids getting lost in a candy store, but as someone who did an awful lot of crate digging as a college radio DJ, that portion of The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest resonates with me. There's an equally lovely moment where Questlove--whose choice of the letter Q for his moniker was his way of shouting out ATCQ--equates Phife Dawg's "Yo!" at the start of his classic opening verse in "Buggin' Out" with N.W.A. bursting through the Martin Luther King "I have a dream" sign at the start of the "Express Yourself" video.



Despite these great touches, Tip famously distanced himself from the final product after he watched it (he would later backpedal on his negative opinion of the film). He launched a war of words with Rapaport and told him, "All you gotta do is stay white and be privileged" (both Tip and Ali's gripes with the documentary led to Tip calling for other rappers and beatmakers to "tell your own stories" and take more control of images of themselves, which is precisely what Tip and Ali have been doing: about a year before Friday director F. Gary Gray's hugely popular N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton took the summer by storm, Tip announced his plans to co-produce with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill a similar TV project about Native Tongues, while Ali launched with music journalist Frannie Kelley the NPR hip-hop musician interview show Microphone Check). But no such anger is evident in Tip's gregarious conversations with the largely off-screen Rapaport about the early days of Tribe, like when Tip recalls how he came across the drum sample for "Can I Kick It?" or when he and Ali visit their old Manhattan high school Murry Bergtraum and Tip demonstrates how effective a classroom desk can be as a percussion instrument.

As for myself when I was in high school, I was such an ATCQ head that when I took drama class and each student was assigned to recite a song or poem without any beats and as if it were a stage monologue, I chose "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" as my piece of spoken word to perform. So I particularly love the moment in The Travels of ATCQ when Tip does his best Redd Foxx--also peep Tip's dead-on impression of batshit crazy KRS-One--and reveals that the inspiration for "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo," which was made into an above-average music video filmed in guerrilla mode and on location in Las Vegas by future "What They Do" video mastermind Charles Stone III, came from Fred Sanford, a reference I stupidly never noticed until Tip pointed it out. "Son, you gonna sit down and watch a late-night movie with me," says Tip-as-Sanford while discussing the birth of "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo." "It's a good one: Godzilla Ate El Segundo."



Besides verses about wallet misplacement, the Tribe sound and steez were also all about empowerment, black unity, the love of making music as an art form (and subtweeting pop-rappers when they have no artistic integrity or are terrible at making music--or if they're MC Hammer, not even bothering to subtweet them) and perhaps the most relatable subject if you're not black but still a person of color: the love of music as a way to lift yourself out of whatever doldrums you're stuck with as a person of color. I cringe at some of the high-falutin' and vague adjectives either music critics or reviewers of the Rapaport documentary have used to distinguish the Tribe sound from the more popular gangsta rap Straight Outta Compton has brought back into the limelight this summer. The sound of the Queens trio (originally a quartet, before third MC Jarobi White, whom Tip describes in the film as the "spirit" of ATCQ, stepped away from the recording side of things to pursue a culinary career) is always "bohemian." What the fuck does that mean? Or it's always "positive."

Far less vague words like "unique" or "entrancing" would make more sense as descriptions of the Tribe sound. Here are four even better words: "gets your head nodding." That's precisely what Tip and Ali's low-end beats, combined with Phife's witty wordplay and his chemistry on the mic with Tip, did to your head, especially during The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. It made it constantly nod, out of both delight over the sonic beauty of the beats perfected by Tip, Ali and engineer Bob Power (or the musicality of Tip and Phife's voices) and approval over Phife's one-liners, and man, "Electric Relaxation" is full of gems from Phife, like "Not to come across as a thug or a hood/But hon, you got the goods like Madelyne Woods" or the simultaneously boastful and self-deprecating "Let me hit it from the back, girl, I won't catch a hernia/Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman's Furniture."



The first 60 minutes of Rapaport's documentary beautifully get that point across about the group's ability to get your head nodding. Like Questlove says about Tip and Phife's rhymes during the film, "Tip is very smooth. Phife is very hype. The yin and yang of those two, that to me was the perfect marriage."

And like so many marriages, Tip and Phife's had its rough patches. At exactly the one-hour mark, the documentary switches gears and details the sad dissolution of the group, which began to take place during the recording of 1996's Beats, Rhymes and Life and is given amusingly horror-like dissonant score cues by Madlib, who, with some assists from Beastie Boys keyboardist Money Mark, composed the documentary's original score and proves he has a future in scoring horror movies. The film's last half-hour turns into every single melodramatic VH1 Behind the Music documentary you've seen about a dissolving rock band. When Rapaport hastily speeds through the Beats, Rhymes and Life album and the fifth and final Tribe album, 1998's The Love Movement, as if he's going to get Beats, Rhymes and Life/The Love Movement cooties and as if those albums are the Lil Wayne's Rebirth of Native Tongues hip-hop--which they're actually not--you're thinking to yourself, "Yo, Behind the Music announcer who always says, 'And then it all came crashing down,' get your ass out here!"



Tribe's breakup is more complicated than how Rapaport portrays it. Sure, the group's demise was due to the rift between childhood friends Tip and Phife, who's even more of a reluctant star than the reluctant star Tip is portrayed as in both the Rapaport film and Benji B's 2014 BBC Radio 1 production The Story of Q-Tip, a documentary you'll actually prefer over the Rapaport film if the craft of beatmaking is more compelling to you than melodramatic, reality TV-style infighting. The self-described "funky diabetic"--who shunned rapping after briefly pursuing a solo career (a career the documentary oddly neglects to mention) and became a basketball scout--grew tired of Tip's perfectionist ways, what he felt was Tip's insensitive, bullying gym coach-like attitude towards his struggles with diabetes and inexplicable decisions by Tip like the much-maligned prominence of Tip's cousin, then-newcomer Consequence, as a guest MC on the 1996 album (even Consequence himself admits in a deleted scene that being thrust into the spotlight on a Tribe album by Tip like that was baffling to him too). But the circumstances that led to the breakup are actually more than just "lifelong friends who got on each other's nerves." In 1998, Phife grumbled to The Source about the business side of the rap game and said, "As time went on, [the business side] started to slap me in my face. But as far as record labels, or whoever, they're not gonna do us right."

There's a whole thread about the now-defunct Jive Records, Tribe's label, also playing a role in the dissolution that Rapaport's film gives only a cursory mention to and just plain ignores the rest of the time. That's perhaps because Rapaport was trying to appease Sony, Jive's parent company, so that he could get permission to include the De La Soul/ATCQ/Native Tongues posse cut "Buddy," which Sony partially owns and which he almost couldn't get clearance for. There's a more interesting story to be told about the record industry screwing over hip-hop acts, like how both the greed of plaintiffs and lawyers and an elephant in the room called anti-rap racism has caused the art of sampling--something Tip continues to excel at, like during his Black Ivory-sampling 2008 joint "Gettin' Up"--to lose the prominence it once had in hip-hop (no wonder so many hip-hop acts jump ship to indie labels or start self-releasing their work). But The Travels of ATCQ, which has a commercial TV-friendly 100-minute running time and could use a few more minutes of examples of Tip's frequently quoted "Industry rule number 4080/Record company people are shady" line from "Check the Rhime," oddly doesn't seize the opportunity to be the first mainstream hip-hop documentary to elaborate on that story.

One of the best scenes in Beats, Rhymes and Life is Lakers fan Phife explaining why he often wears a Lakers jersey in Knicks-worshiping New York and doesn't give a shit. Phife may be short, but he's got massive balls.
From left to right: Phife Dawg, Q-Tip and Jarobi.

The "J Dilla caused Tribe to jump the shark when his musical idol Tip recruited him as a co-producer" opinion that some ATCQ heads have about the Beats, Rhymes and Life album and The Love Movement is equally bananas. The late Dilla isn't to blame for the last two albums not measuring up to the other three. Actually, thanks to the addition of the about-to-be-legendary Detroit producer--fresh off producing several of the best tracks on The Pharcyde's last great album, 1995's Labcabincalifornia--to Tip and Ali's partnership, the production work by the trio that came to be known as the Ummah fortunately didn't turn into a rehash of the boom bap of The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. So there are quite a few cuts on the Ummah-era albums (like "Get a Hold") that stand out due to Dilla and were ahead of their time (the beloved beatmaker's role in helping evolve Tribe's sound was omitted from the film because Rapaport said he felt Dilla deserved a separate documentary of his own, but he could have at least kept the segment about everyone's admiration of Dilla, which appears in the Sony Pictures Blu-ray's extended scenes section). The now-veteran musicians' unhappiness with both Jive (the label pissed off Tribe so much the group didn't go back to record one more contractually obligated album for them) and each other was what actually soured the last two albums.

Jive alienated so many artists during its existence, like when they wouldn't allow Big Boi to release guest features his former OutKast partner Andre 3000 recorded for Big's 2010 solo album Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, and I wouldn't be surprised if "Industry rule number 4080" was Tip's way of biting the hand that fed them as early as The Low End Theory. So whenever Rapaport's interviewees bring up their frustrations with Jive and its then-CEO Barry Weiss, whom Rapaport also interviews, I wish the documentary--which, interestingly, was lucky to snag Tribe manager Chris Lighty, whose discussion of his unintentional role in the demise of Native Tongues shouldn't have been deleted from the film, and Beastie Boys member MCA as interviewees before they died about a year after the film's release--would be a little more journalistic and delve into those frustrations with Jive instead of burying the lede. That's what keeps Rapaport's otherwise satisfying film from reaching the upper echelon of hip-hop documentaries like 1983's Style Wars and even the completely light-hearted Michel Gondry film Dave Chappelle's Block Party. De La Soul member Posdnuos, another interviewee during Rapaport's film, once said he thought an earlier cut of the documentary he got to see was better than the final cut because it "had a little more spice in it." His comments make me curious about material that didn't survive the final cut and didn't even get included in the deleted scenes, perhaps due to either pressure from evil record industry bastards or pressure from Tribe.

Rapaport's film also doesn't bother to take the time to clarify one of the most frequently misheard lyrics of all time, a lyric even I continued to mishear for years: the semi-audible hook during "Electric Relaxation." Is it "Relax yourself, girl, preset plan"? Or is it "Relax yourself, girl, peace out, Premier"? The hook is actually "Relax yourself, girl, please settle down." You had one job, The Travels of ATCQ.

So why can't Tip and Phife just relax themselves and please settle down and record another album together? While, as Rapaport once noted about audience reactions after the documentary screenings, "people have walked away saying, 'I wish they could get along and make more music,'" I'm satisfied with the five Tribe albums we have, plus all those Tip/Busta collabos that I like to pretend are Tribe tracks with Busta as the new Phife. Recording another album that will measure up to those first three isn't easy. Just look at the mixed reviews Beats, Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement received. By 1996, Tip and an increasingly disillusioned Phife were no longer the same artists they were when they burst onto the scene with tunes like "Bonita Applebum"--or in the case of Phife, "Buggin' Out." They can never get back to that happy-go-lucky sound. Why try to go back? Right now, Tip is happy with both his solo career and not having to deal with intrusive and impatient types like the suits from Jive while his perfectionist self gets to spend as much time as he wants fine-tuning every nook and cranny of a project like The Renaissance or The Last Zulu; Phife is happy with his life away from the music industry.

Art isn't easy. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, and Tip would be finished with The Last Zulu by now.





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