The hardest part about being in a group is “constantly considering someone else — even before yourself,” Q-Tip says in one scene from the documentary “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of [artist id="1150"]a Tribe Called Quest[/artist].”
In 1990, four friends from a Caribbean-flavored, middle-class hamlet in Queens, New York, became the focus of a bidding war that landed them a (then-whopping) $350,000 major-label deal. All in their late teens at the time, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi would go on to become one of the most groundbreaking groups in the history of hip-hop — and eventually one of the most divided.
That tragic division was apparent on Wednesday, when the 5-foot Assassin himself, Phife, made a solo visit to MTV News’ “RapFix Live,” hours before the Michael Rapaport-directed doc was set to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival. Just last month, Tip and Ali sat on the “RapFix Live” couch with host Sway (Jarobi connected by phone) and detailed their long-simmering issues with the filmmakers. Phife, who had traveled in January to Sundance in support of the doc, was notably absent. Dressed in a red leather jacket and matching sneakers, the animated MC explained why he was a no-show.
“The way I look at it, I want to benefit from the fruits of our labor while they’re still ripe — sounds like a Lil Wayne line, right?” Phife laughed, with a nod to Weezy’s “6 Foot 7 Foot.” “We’ve been doing this for 20-some-odd years. I got gray hairs because of this rap stuff, not to mention the relationship that me and Tip have had in the past.”
A veritable who’s-who of hip-hop past and present sat in front of Rapaport’s camera to help re-tell the story of ATCQ, from how they approached game-changing sophomore album Low End Theory to the making of the classic ensemble cut “Scenario” to the group’s fateful decision to disband in 1998. (Archival footage of MTV’s Kurt Loder breaking the news on air punctuates the latter scene.) Native Tongues members, Veteran DJ Red Alert, Angie Martinez, Large Professor, the Beastie Boys, Pete Rock, Prince Paul, Pharrell Williams and Common are just a few of the luminaries who turn up to testify.
“How many groups got documentaries — hip-hop — being done about themselves?” Phife asked rhetorically. “Run-DMC should definitely have a documentary. They’re the reason why I wanted to [be a rapper]. Same goes for EPMD, Slick Rick. … They came to Tribe Called Quest and asked us; we’re supposed to count our blessings and embrace this joint right here.”
Phife, who plans to release an EP and LP under the title Songs in the Key of Phife, said fans shouldn’t hold their breath for new material from Tribe, either. The foursome hasn’t been in a studio together in 13 years, according to P. While the documentary celebrates one of rap music’s most significant catalogs with stirring scenes like the one of Tip poring over his vinyl collection as he recreates how an old Lonnie Smith record became the basis of ATCQ staple “Can I Kick It,” some of the most startling scenes follow the rap icons on the road, beginning with 2008′s Rock the Bells jaunt, where things begin to unravel backstage, particularly between lyrical wizards Phife and Tip.
“I think we’ll get along more if we just dealt with each other on the normal more so than the actual business, because we definitely be at each other’s throats,” Phife told MTV News about Q-Tip. Asked if there was still tension between him and Tip, Phife responded emphatically, “Absolutely.”
But “the film is dope,” Phife said of “Beats, Rhymes & Life,” which is set to open July 8 in New York and Los Angeles, and a slew of other cities, including Toronto, St. Louis and San Francisco, in the weeks thereafter.
And for fans holding out for the follow-up to the Love Movement, all hope isn’t lost. “I don’t know, man, I would like to see that,” Phife admitted. “And my only reason for saying that is the fans have stuck by us. Got to give the people what they want.”