Michael Rapaport answers the door to his Hancock Park house with a vague look of panic on his familiar, strawberry-blond mop-topped face. As he struggles to restrain two massive dogs so I can make my way into his home, I notice that the air inside is thick with incense, like I've barged in on a teenager who doesn't want his parents to know he's been taking bong rips in the living room.
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.