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.
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.
Q-Tip came armed with evidence. Call it the ultimate cautionary tale against the use of "Reply All": On Dec. 17, 2010, Q-Tip was accidentally CC'ed by a Beats producer on an email referencing the group's request to be treated as producers. Q-Tip read the following portion of the email aloud on MTV: "First off let's close the billing block and put it on the poster so they can't get on that. Then we'll fuck them on everything else."
"I believe that that was the universe giving that to us and showing us who we were dealing with," Q-Tip told MTV interviewer Sway. And Ali chimed in: "There was a lot of deception that Michael played."
Rapaport told me repeatedly that the contracts his team signed with the ATCQ team going into the project did not stipulate that they'd be credited as producers. "We had an agreement in place," he said over the phone. "And on Dec. 19 , after the movie was cut and locked, they asked to be producers."
Rapaport self-financed the doc with proceeds from his current for-hire acting work (his last long-term gig was as the star of the forgettable Fox family sitcom The War at Home) before selling the movie to Sony Classics.
He did eventually agree to credit the band members as producers; they also were given control over the film's music and are scheduled to participate in profits from its release. Rapaport insists he was not forced to do this, but chose to. "I can tell you this — just to show what kind of a mensch Michael Rapaport and the producers of this movie are — there's no legal documents binding us to giving them producer credit."
Though Muhammad and White have made appearances supporting the film at subsequent festivals, Rapaport indicates his relationship with all but Phife remains touch-and-go, and Ali and Q-Tip continue to post less-than-glowing comments about the movie on Twitter. On June 25, the day after he attended the Beats screening at the L.A. Film Festival, where it won the Audience Prize, Ali responded to chiding from Q-Tip by tweeting, "It was Hollywood, everyone played their part."
Given that he feels he's been conciliatory to ATCQ's requests, the director is confused, hurt and above all angered by this media counteroffensive.
"You know what Q-Tip was trying to do?" Rapaport fumed over the phone. "He thought he was going to rally the legions and legions of Tribe Called Quest and Q-Tip fans against me and this movie. That's what that was. Period. And they were trying to make me look bad. And essentially, they made themselves look bad."
"They were wanting producer credit," he insists. "They loved the movie so much, that at the end of the day, at the 26th hour, after we already had an agreement in place, they wanted more financial participation."
Ali's "deception" comment really sets Rapaport off, because he maintains that such protests against him and the movie fly in the face of the group's actions behind the scenes. "I could care less about what Ali says," Rapaport continued. "You could put that. Honestly, I could give a shit.
"They wanted to be producers? Producers support their movies."
Rapaport says he plans to release extended interviews on the film's DVD that will "speak for themselves," offering "more insight into the type of people—" He stops himself. "People will get more insight into the dynamic of the group. I'm just going to leave it at that."
But he doesn't. "Wait till the DVD comes out. Because I'm so tired of having to explain myself, and articulate this bullshit that they started by twittering and showing up on MTV. It's fucking ridiculous."
What's maybe most fascinating about the Beats Rhymes & Life story is the way it reveals the limitations of a single narrative — filmed, spoken, tweeted — to tell any story fully.
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As consumers of stories, we've naturally evolved to the point where absorbing multiple narratives through a variety of sources seems completely natural. But what happens to the authority of a documentary when its subjects are able to disseminate their own alternate stories in real time, on the Internet?
After our interviews, Rapaport forwarded me a screen capture of a tweet from Q-Tip, who responded to a fan's query about the movie with the dismissal, "its [sic] OK. Its [sic] not the full tribe story."
"He shares in profit participation of the film and he tweets this to strangers," Rapaport emailed. "Classy, right?"
There's one moment in the film that feels particularly prescient in regards to all that would erupt in the period between the movie's production and its theatrical release. Fairly early in the film, Q-Tip is breaking down the creative process behind one of his masterpieces, "Can I Kick It?" He mentions that he sampled a Lonnie Smith record that included the song "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," which he says he always remembers because of Mike Nichols' movie. "That movie was crazy," the hip-hop legend marvels to Rapaport's camera. "Sometimes I feel like my life is like that shit — some big social mishap."