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Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, Parinda Patel, attended a press junket with actor-turned-director Michael Rapaport, in anticipation of his latest documentary film project, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. Rapaport spoke about how his life-long love of hip hop (and Tribe in particular) prompted him to make this film. He also speaks of his now very public relationship with the group, which took a tumultuous downturn ealier this year when the film hit the Sundance Film Festival.
Michael Rapaport: I pitched the idea of making a documentary to Tracy Edmonds, who used probably the smart method not to indulge that idea because I wasn’t ready to do it at that time.
Reporter, Nathan Lerner: How long ago was that?
Michael Rapaport: Eleven or twelve years ago on Gamble and Huff. I had read an article that he [A.D Amorosi, City Paper] wrote about Gamble & Huff today and one of the things he mentioned was there’s no Scorsese documentary. Now obviously I’m not Scorsese, but I was curious about Gamble and Huff and their story. The same curiosity I have about Gamble and Huff is the same curiosity about A Tribe Called Quest. It was the exact same kind of thing you think about wanting to do and you have access and you ask, obviously I didn’t pull that off. But just to jump into whatever you guys want to talk about, that curiosity about A Tribe Called Quest was the same thing and it’s funny that you mentioned that specific thing in the article which I like. When I was in the car, Gamble and Huff is so Philadelphia, I’ve always loved this city, I got introduced to Philadelphia when I was seven. I saw Rocky and that movie completely changed my life, it was the first movie that ever made an impression on me so I love this city and have always had an affinity for it. I fell in love with the Sixers because of Dr. J, the Broad Street Bullies because of Bobby Clark but I always saw, Rocky as my favorite movie of all time.
Reporter, A.D Amorosi: Coming up as a B boy within the hip-hop world, what was a New Yorker’s impression of the Philadelphia hip hop scene?
Michael Rapaport: The first impression I had of Philadelphia Hip hop was, I’m pretty sure it was either the summer of 85’ or 86’, on the radio, just like in the Tribe movie, listening to either DJ Red Alert or Mr. Magic. There was a live show, which was rare, of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. But they had this Beat Boxer on, I can’t remember his name but the impression was, first of all, the way the Fresh Prince spoke, he had no accent, he sounded almost like a white dude, you know and he’s beat boxing and rhyming really fast. They had this crazy show that you couldn’t see you could only hear the live telecast from like Union Square, which was a big club or something and they had this Beat boxer, Ready Rock C and he was doing these crazy beats. The DJ at that time was so important; they were so much a part of group, which has now become extinct. So that was the first impression I had of Philly Hip hop. They were saying “yeah, we’re representing West Philly” but the way Fresh Prince spoke didn’t sound like a Rapper, it almost sounded like a white dude but then he was flowing and they had this crazy DJ and this way ahead of his time Beat Boxer, so that was my first impression of Philadelphia Hip Hop.
Reporter, Nathan Lerner: You did a great job with capturing individual personalities of the members and their personal dynamic. What came as the biggest surprise to you about A Tribe Called Quest and making the movie?
Michael Rapaport: The biggest surprise that I learned about them, I mean I was unaware of the depths of what Phife is going through health wise. Obviously I’m a fan and I’m a fan who kinda had an inside scoop because I knew Q Tip but I didn’t know Phife so that was the biggest surprise just the deterioration that his body had gone through from the diabetes and obviously the happenstance of starting to do this movie before he was getting his Kidney transplant.
If you meet Phife, he’s very open now and doing this movie had probably helped him become more candid about it. I’m not patting myself on the back but he had to talk about it so much, he’s not like “Hey, here I am,” he’s a low key guy so I didn’t expect him to talk to me about that. The first time he told me about the whole run of what he suffered through with the diabetes for the last eight or ten years was on camera and it’s in the actual film. I knew the diabetes was a problem, I just didn’t know the details. I mean we toned it down in the movie because it was like ”Holy shit” and it’s like that way in the movie but when he walks you through all that he’s been through you’re like “Holy Shit!”
We don’t show it in the film but he showed us these scars and catheters and when you’re shooting a documentary and you don’t know what to expect, and I did not expect that. He’s talking to me and obviously it’s coming from someone I have a lot of respect for, but his personality and his disposition, you know, he’s this little guy and his voice is very boisterous. He’s got this childlike quality about him because he’s got this high pitch voice and he’s little so when he’s talking about this, and he’s like “ I’ve been through a lot of shit,” it’s breathtaking. We had a thirty-minute thing when I was editing the diabetes section, which is what we called it, there was thirty minutes of him walking us through all of it. So that was the biggest surprise and the interpersonal nature of the film was my biggest surprise in terms of the end result, being exposed to that and the guys being so open in front of the camera when I started shooting about it.
Reporter: What was it like for you, meeting, hanging out with and documenting these childhood musical heroes of yours and has it changed your perception of A Tribe Called Quest?
Michael Rapaport: Meeting, hanging out with and documenting them as musicians was exciting. I would be a little bit tongue tied in regards to the musicality of who they are, talking about this song, talking about that song. I never expected them to be superheroes outside of A Tribe Called Quest. As performers, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Big Daddy Kane, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, you know, Eric B and Rock Kim, they’re like comic book characters. Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five take on the Sugar Hill Gang; it could be a comic book! You know, Q Tip the abstract poetic and Phife Dog, the five-foot assassin, they’re like larger than life.
So as musicians I had adoration for them but as people, I didn’t expect that, I mean I’ve been around celebrities a lot so you know there is a difference. But, certainly when he’s talking about the music, when Q Tip is articulating in this scene in the movie when he breaks down the “Can I Kick It” beat, which wasn’t planned, asked for or contrived. It was just like one of those emotional moments when Phife was talking about the diabetes and he just does it, as a filmmaker you’re like “wow” and as a fan you’re just like “Holy Shit”. The scene is great in the movie because Q Tip talking about music, he does it in such a passionate and easygoing way the same way Phife talks about sports. And the dichotomy of their interests and their passions, the way they even do it, with Phife its sports and Q Tip is more laid back and those are their personalities, the thing that made Tribe great.
I didn’t judge them as people; I’m in no position to judge anybody. I’ve had my own share of dysfunctional relationships, including with the group so this is par for the course in my life. I treated the scenes of the history of the group, the magic of the records, different, their shots different. Animation cuts off at a certain part of the film because in my opinion the magic was depleting and when it got into the more interpersonal stuff it’s more Cinéma vérité as opposed to the other stuff like the animation the pictures are moving. It’s this magical time because me and my editor, we’d talk about “sprinkled magic.” That’s why I wanted James Blackman to do it, because I wanted magic, the nostalgia of the first time I head Fresh Prince on the radio, the first time I heard Run DMC on the radio, those nostalgic magical times.
PFS, Parinda Patel: With that being said, do you feel you have a better understanding of why this band broke up, as you meet them as people?
Michael Rapaport: Yes, I definitely feel like have an understanding of why the group broke up and my question when I started the movie and what spawned this movie was, will a Tribe Called Quest make more music and why did they break up in the first place? So yeah I feel like I have a better understanding of why they broke up.
Q Tip and Phife in particular have known each other since they were two years old and you know, it’s no crime to want to do a solo album, it’s no crime to not want to do this anymore. It’s no crime for LeBron James to want to leave Cleveland; it’s the way you do it. I think that Tribe outgrew each other, I think that Q Tip is an artist that has this instinct to continue looking forward and not look backwards and I think that the relationship that they had as friends changed drastically during the successful period of the run of A Tribe Called Quest. Their relationship changed and had nothing to do with what was going on in the group. What was going on in the group was symmetry, it was perfection, but they were having problems from the beginning.
I don’t go into every single detail of when it started because that’s not what I wanted to do. I don’t think in ninety five minutes you can go into every single detail, you just want to try to give an overview, an impression and a vibe of what happened. I just happened to start filming them, when like Phife says, when they went back on tour he says “Rock the Bells” was like the straw that broke the camel’s back for the second time. And that’s just how it is. They have an intense relationship; they’re like brothers with a sibling rivalry.
Reporter: One of the most shocking moments on the Rock the Bells tour was hearing Plug One and Plug Two say, “I hope that it’s over.” So could you elaborate a little more about being on tour with A Tribe Called Quest?
Michael Rapaport: First of all about the guys from Day La Soul, from Day La when he said that was always in every cut of the movie that I had and my producer was like “Why do you want this? What is the big thing? You can’t even hear him, you’ve got to subtitle it.” And I was like, I took liberties with certain things, I wanted the film to be for everybody, the tribe-centric fans. There’s going to be a shorthand with a couple of things that maybe if you’re, like when I watch the Metallica documentary, “I don’t know what they’re talking about, I have no clue, but I love the documentary”. And you know, there are certain things in there for the Metallica fans. So you can’t spell everything out, but I knew that if we established that Day La obviously came up with them and if you really know the history you know that they’re really close with them so him saying that as a fan and as a friend being like “Yo, shut it down,” you know “why keep going through this and I don’t want to be around it.” Because Day La, they were on that tour with them saying “oh Q Tip and Phife are fighting again, these guys almost got into a fist fight” and they’re like “be done with it!” “If you can’t figure out a way to do it then don’t do it,” and that’s what he said.
And you know being on tour with them; it was incredible being on stage shooting it. But it’s just as incredible for me because the first thing we shot was the Los Angeles Rock the Bells stuff and I was so excited at times, I was like I can’t believe this is actually happening, that I’m shooting this movie. But, before the show as soon as they were all in that back room together, when Phife is wearing the Lakers stuff, you can tell there was an intensity, there was a vibe that was off. It’s not like they were sitting there seething, ready to beat each other up, you know, I watched them on camera getting along, sitting side by side but there’s like a distance between the two of them, between Q Tip and Phife. And if you’re a fan of the group, you know, it’s like Run DMC or like they say in one of the songs, “Lavern and Shirley, Re-run and Chachi.” Q Tip and Phife, like they say in the song, musically it just was in sync but their personality and friendship has changed over the years. If you and me are sitting here and I don’t know you, right, and let’s say these two people are arguing, it’s uncomfortable to be like “take it easy.” If you’re sitting in a room with people that you admire and you’re watching the discomfort, it’s hard to veer on that. When it started to get further along, Q Tip is saying these things and Phife is saying these things to me, and watching them articulate how frustrated they are with each other, it’s hard to be around because you’re like, “well did you ever talk to him about it.” The only meddling I did in their business would be on camera and I would be like, “have you ever spoken to him about that?” And nine out of ten times I asked, it was always, “nope.” And I was like “Oh shit, you guys never talk about that?”
One time when we were watching the film in my apartment, I was walking through the film with Q Tip and Ali. They started having a conversation about the break up and the scene in the movie, which caused the break up, and they went on a sidebar conversation, because it was a heated thing between them and me. It was intense like “he said this, why is he saying that and he wasn’t there” And I’m like, “Yo, talk to him, this is the spirit of A Tribe Called Quest, you said it. If he’s not telling you this, call him up. I’m just doing this, don’t get angry at me.” But that conversation went to Q Tip and Ali and they’re sitting in front of me having a fifteen minute sidebar conversation about when they broke up in 1998 and then after they agreed to disagree on what happened I said “ You guys never talk about this?” And they were like “nope.” That kind of stuff is what has made the group fall out of sync. And just to acknowledge it because I know it’s going to come up, this discourse in Q Tip not liking the movie and Phife liking the movie, Phife supporting the movie, Ali supporting the movie and eventually after this last film festival in Los Angeles where we won the award, you know, all of them except for Q Tip being there. It’s not me, this perception that I’m the bad guy.
Look at the nature of the group, watch the movie, and course there’s going to be discourse in there. They don’t move as a group, they move as individuals under the asperses of A Tribe Called Quest. But I had no agenda against A Tribe Called Quest. I made this movie out of the sole reason of being a fan. I financed the movie a lot of money. So all the things that happened and the end result of it has all been fantastic but in the last six to eight months we’ve kept saying we should be documenting the documentary, it’d be one of those situations where It’d be better than the movie.
Reporter: When you were filming at Rock the Bells did you intend on making a bigger documentary about the group or were you just intending on making it about that tour?
Michael Rapaport: My imagination of the film would be the first 45 minutes of the movie the who, what, when, where, why, the influence, the growing up in New York, the native tongues, the Run DMC living in their neighborhood and how much that inspired them and all the logistic making of stuff and more of a concert based film on how they did it. I’m glad that that’s not the movie I made because we wouldn’t be sitting here doing a proper press junket for a movie that’s coming out from Sony Pictures Classic. I would have probably skated by on the strength of A Tribe Called Quest for a prestigious straight to DVD release, no matter how good that film was made. Scorsese put out Shine the Light, this is Scorsese and the Rolling Stone, you know how much business this did…nothing, that was The Rolling Stones and America’s best director!
Me and A Tribe Called Quest concert film of an overview of what they did, at best would have been a prestigious DVD release. That’s just the nature of things people want to see, the film would appeal to a larger audience then the people who bought those albums. So it’s only right that this is the way it turned out. It’s only right that the movie is emotionally charged, the group and the music are emotionally charged. The reason that the group and the music are emotionally charged, the reason why the group and the music are so timeless is because there is an emotional quality to the music just like anything special. It ignited an emotional reaction, whether it’s Picasso or Tupac or Woody Allen or Allen Iverson. When you give a piece of yourself, like Allen Iverson playing when he was in his prime, that was an indication of who he is as a person, someone to play that hard. That’s an artistic expression, the same way in what Q Tip and Phife did, and that was an artistic expression. This movie is emotional, this process has been emotional, the aftermath has been emotional, the tweeting has been emotion but it’s only right because the music of A Tribe Called Quest is emotional.
Reporter: You alluded to the fact that your relationship with the group at times became dysfunctional, how did that manifest? And at what was the closest you came to thinking the group was going to pull the plug?
Michael Rapaport: There was no pulling the plug though! The closest they came to pulling the plug was when A Tribe Called Quest and their camp threatened to put out a cease and desist and an injunction for me to go to Sundance. I told them this “You can cease and desist the film, you can try to get us taken out Sundance but I am going to Sundance with a DVD and I am showing this movie.” They said, “You’re going to look crazy.” I go, “ try to get us pulled out of the festival but I am going to Sundance and I am showing my movie.” Because I believed in the movie, I knew the movie was honest, it was made out of honesty. And with all this bullshit about the producers and the emails, I don’t care about that. People apologized, things were change, things were altered, an incident happened, I kick you, I say sorry, you accept my apology… I can’t do anymore. The email stuff, people do that all the time, I mean it wasn’t me who did it. So it’s like you’re getting mad at someone you’ve never even met. So the closest it came to was that.
The only positive thing that has happened out of this is that the movie speaks for itself, but it’s made people more curious about the movie because they’re like “what happened with this thing, what’s the big deal.” You look at the Metallica documentary and the piss on television, this is a dignified portrayal of the group. There’s another version of the movie that another filmmaker would have done that wouldn’t have been as dignified, that I can promise you.
Reporter: How do you feel like you’ve changed as an individual from going through this process of making the film?
Michael Rapaport: As an artist, as a filmmaker, I was forced by the nature of making the movie to go inside myself and find the trust and belief to actually execute all of my ideas and trust the people around me to enable them to execute their ideas. Because of the nature of what’s happened, I had to really look at myself. You could sit here and philosophize and talk about Independent filmmaking, I love John Cassavetes and we all put him on a pedestal as an Independent filmmaker and the godfather of this, he was really the one to put his money where his mouth is first. I had to look inside myself and think, “what am I doing?” I’m an actor who wanted to be a director if I Iet this go away and I compromise this movie, I’m not going to be able to look at myself in the mirror. “Who’s going to take me seriously as a director, how am I going to take myself seriously as a director?” It gave me the confidence to believe in myself as an artist and as a filmmaker. Creatively, I feel that this was the emergence of me as an adult because the acting that I’ve done in my twenties, I was a child. I’m forty-one now, this has helped me become a man-artist. That’s how it’s changed me.
Reporter: As a filmmaker what was your visual model for this?
Michael Rapaport: One of the things I reference in the scene where Q Tip is in the room with Phife, I told my editor and he was like “what are you talking about?” I said, “You know that movie Shadows by John Cassavetes, I want the editing to feel like that.” I understand narrative filmmaking more than I understand documentary because I participated in it more. But the documentaries that I aspire to were, I mean Give me Shelter is like the pinnacle and I always gave the analogy of Tribe being like a rock group, the Stones because Mick Jagger is like the eccentric front man who gets all the credit and Keith Richards is the second guy who everyone loves and gravitates towards and is more assessable. That was always the Q Tip and Phife dynamic along with the fact the Charlie Watts in the back is like the quiet stoic guy keeping the beat just like Ali Shaheed Muhammad as the DJ. The Last Waltz, there was also a great Blondie documentary from BBC, the Ramones documentary, the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, I’m Trying to Break Your Heart. I watch a lot of Maysles documentaries, but any music documentary I watched, I was either inspired by in the beginning or during, while I was making the film. I’d get frightened thinking, “how am I going to pull this off,” and then you watch and say well they did it. It was so overwhelming at times and most of that was during the editing process. The hardest part technically of this film was the editing but those films as well as the Radiohead documentary, I mean I’d watch them over and over again just to feel like I wasn’t crazy.