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A 'Quest' that is called hip hop

Published August 10. 2011 05:01PM

If you're curious about the origins of hip hop and rap music, "Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest" is a good place to start.

The engaging film provides insight into the creative tensions, personality clashes and business and personal decisions that are part of professional music careers.

The documentary film is directed by Michael Rapaport, an actor perhaps best known as Frank on TV's "My Name is Earl" and a teacher on "Boston Public," and the boxer in Woody Allen's feature film, "Mighty Aphrodite" (1995), in his big-screen directorial debut.

That Rapaport is a fan of rap and hip hop is evident from his approach to the material, which concentrates on the personalities of the members of the hip hop group known as A Tribe Called Quest, said to be a pioneer of the genre.

Rapaport's such a fan that he named one of his sons, Maceo Shane, after P.A. Pacemaster Mase, aka Maseo of the hip hop group De La Soul.

To make his case that A Tribe Called Quest is essential to the hip hop movement, Rapaport interviews hip hop stars who might be more well-known, including Common, Pharrell Williams, the Beastie Boys and Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, aka Questlove, drummer for the rap group The Roots.

Each makes the point that Tribe pushed the boundaries of early rap and set the stage and format for many successors.

The Queens, N.Y., group, founded in 1985, includes rapper producer Q-Tip, aka Kamaal Ibn John Fareed (formerly Jonathan Davis); rapper Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor); deejay-producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad; and rapper Jarobi White.

Tribe, along with De La Soul, was part of the Native Tongues Posse. Tribe used jazz tracks as the basis for many of its tunes, including "Bonita Applebum," "Can I Kick It?," "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo," and "Jazz (We've Got)." The group also used humor in its lyrics and a goofy charm in its performances.

Five albums were released between 1990 and '98. The group received several critics and music industry awards. The group broke up in 1998, but reunited for the 2008 "Rock the Bells" reunion.

"Beats," which takes its name from Tribe's fourth album, while by no means an exhaustive history of the rap and hip hop genre, offers an entertaining behind the microphone view.

The main disagreements seemed to be between Q-Tip and Phife. Theirs was more "A Tribe Called Mess." They put aside differences for the reunion, agreed to in large part to pay medical bills incurred by Phife, who is diabetic.

"Beats" assumes the audience knows the difference between Tribe's good-humored material and gangsta rap. Rapaport could have provided a bit more context in this regard for the general movie-going public.

The visual style of the film captures the in-your-face immediacy of rap and hip hop. There are lots of close-ups, awkward angles, a mixture of black and white and color images, and over- and underexposed scenes.

"Beats" is not unlike a home movie. And that's part of its charm. The viewer feels as though he is a fly on the wall, privy to the inner workings of a legendary music collaboration.

What's remarkable in many ways is the way rap and hip hop artists created what they did. They used what was at hand. Turntables sampled sounds. Loops were created. Beats were added. What resulted was a new music form, perhaps the first since jazz.

There also is a refreshing acceptance of life and the ebb and flow of artistic struggle, commercial success, and the bonds forged by the creative process.

"People are placed in your life for a reason and a season," it's observed.

"Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest": MPAA Rated R (Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent Or Adult Guardian) for language; Genre: Documentary, Music; Run time: 1 hr., 37 min.; Distributed by Sony Classic Pictures

Credit Readers Anonymous: After the release of "Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest," director Michael Rapaport fended off criticism from Q-Tip, who tweeted that people should avoid seeing the movie. Phife, on the other hand, supported the film in its screening at Sundance.

Box Office, Aug. 5: The box office went ape, er, apes. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" proved true to its title, with the remake opening at No. 1, with $54 million, dropping "Smurfs" to No. 2, $21 million, $76.2 million," and "Cowboys & Aliens" to No. 3, $15.7 million, $67.3 million.

4. "The Change-up," $13.5 million, opening; 5. "Captain America: The First Avenger," $13 million, $143.1 million, three weeks; 6. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," $12.1 million, $342.8 million, four weeks (third in worldwide domestic box office with $1.1 billion, behind "Titanic," $1.8 billion, and "Avatar," $2.7 billion); 7. "Crazy, Stupid Love," $12.1 million, $42.1 million, two weeks; 8. "Friends with Benefits," $4.7 million, $48.5 million, three weeks; 9. "Horrible Bosses," $4.6 million, $105.1 million, five weeks; 10. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," $3 million, $344.1 million, six weeks

Unreel, Aug. 12:

"30 Minutes or Less," R: In the action-adventure-comedy, Jesse Eisenberg is a pizza delivery guy who has a bomb strapped to his chest by criminals Danny McBride and Nick Swardson, who order him to rob a bank.

"The Help," PG-13: Emma Stone, home from college in Jackson, Miss., in 1962, befriends African-American maids Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer and her book gives voice to a community's struggle in the drama. Opens Aug. 10

"Final Destination 5," R: Teens survive a suspension bridge collapse in the supernatural thriller.

"Glee: The 3D Concert Movie," The documentary chronicles the "Glee Live! In Concert!" summer 2011 tour. Gwyneth Paltrow, Jane Lynch and Chord Overstreet appear.

Read previous movie reviews at Email Paul Willistein at: and on Facebook.

Two Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes

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