I'm here to talk to the 41-year-old actor about his directorial debut, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. Combining intimate interviews with all four members of the seminal hip-hop group with de rigueur fawning from friends/fellow luminaries (Common, the Jungle Brothers, the Beastie Boys), as well as fly-on-the-wall footage shot by Rapaport during ATCQ's run on the 2008 Rock the Bells tour, the documentary tracks the group from their late-'80s formation through the production of the five technically and thematically groundbreaking albums they released before their 1998 breakup. ATCQ ended their hiatus to play live shows in 2006, and they continue to accept offers to perform when the money is right.
Rapaport is talking to me without the usual assistant or publicist chaperone, and once we've sat down in his cozy pool house, he doesn't sit still. When he drains his glass of water, he bounces off to the kitchen to refill it himself. A couple of weeks later, he'll take a follow-up call from me as he's getting off an Acela train, and proceed to rant at full, passionate volume while walking through the Philadelphia train station.
If Rapaport comes off a little deer-in-the-headlights, the atmosphere of constant distraction in his home is nothing compared to the clusterfuck surrounding the post-production, promotion and release of his movie. In fact, the story contained within Beats Rhymes & Life has been all but overshadowed by the story of how members of the group, led by Q-Tip, have responded to it, even publicly refuting the film and its maker, a New York native and lifelong hip-hop fanboy. Rapaport's showbiz career began in 1992 with the film Zebrahead, where he starred as a white Detroit high school kid immersed in black culture — not much of a stretch for him.
"The whole reason I made this movie was to try to answer one question," Rapaport says. "Will A Tribe Called Quest ever record new music?" Three years after the film's inception, the novice filmmaker has learned the folly of presenting a yes-or-no query to a group dominated by strong personalities with conflicting interests — a tension that both makes the music great and greatly decreases the chance that they'll ever be able to make more of it.
As of this writing, A Tribe Called Quest has never returned to the studio.
At the time of our meeting in early June, Rapaport said Q-Tip — the primary producer of the group's music as well as its biggest celebrity, the member of ATCQ with the most successful solo career and the only one rumored to have dated Nicole Kidman — had not seen the finished film. And yet, on Dec. 2, 2010, shortly after the Sundance Film Festival announced it would host the world premiere of the film in January, Q-Tip tweeted to his 242,000 Twitter followers, "I am not in support of the a tribe called quest [sic] documentary."
Rumors swirled online that Q-Tip was angry about a scene documenting a tiff that broke out backstage at a 2008 Rock the Bells show between him and fellow ATCQ founding member Phife Dawg. It's the culmination of what's depicted to be long-simmering tensions between the two nearly lifelong friends and collaborators, and Rapaport makes the fight the film's climax, using it as evidence of the interpersonal problems that have stymied the group's ability to work together.
Speaking by phone from his home in the Bay Area, Phife says he didn't realize Rapaport, who had just joined the tour the night before, was even filming the flare-up. "After the smoke settled or whatever, I just saw him sitting in the corner with the damn camera. I looked at him and said, 'Yo, was you taping all that?' and he was like, 'Oh, absolutely.' "
But Phife — who emerges as the sympathetic center of the movie, which tracks his struggle with diabetes so debilitating it necessitated an organ transplant in 2008, and whose medical bills were a motivating factor for ATCQ's 2006 reunion — is comfortable with the way he's portrayed.
"I'm fine with it," he says. "Because when you say the word 'documentary,' I'm looking for the film to be as real as it can be. This is the real deal, this is what it is."
Phife has been staunchly supportive of the movie, the only member to come to Sundance to support Beats at its world premiere. Two months after that, the other three-quarters of ATCQ — Q-Tip, DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and part-time member Jarobi White — gave an interview to MTV presenting themselves as victims of the exploitation of Hollywood players who were "not working in the spirit of collaboration," despite the fact that the band had requested producer credits on the project.