Interview: Mike Rapaport discusses his documentary featuring A Tribe Called Quest
Michael Rapaport, known for his roles on television and in film including on Prison Break and Boston Legal as well as in Special, SLC Punk, Hitch, and many others, makes his directorial debut with Beats, Rhymes & Life which illuminates the history and legacy of the rap group A Tribe Called Quest which is released by Sony Pictures Classics this Friday. I had the fortune to sit down with him in a roundtable interview a few weeks ago where we discussed the controversy surrounding the film, his inspiration for crafting a documentary, the experience of growing up in New York as a beat boy, and his favorite music films. Continue reading for a transcript of the full, unedited interview which features questions from a number of journalists including myself.
So what I was saying is that I read his [Unknown Interviewer #1’s] article who said I pitched the idea of doing the documentary to Tracy Edkins who was probably smart not to indulge that idea because I probably wouldn’t have been ready to do it at the time.
How long ago was that?
Like 11 or 12 years ago on Gamble and Huff.
And I had read a article he [Unknown Interviewer #1] wrote about Gamble and Huff today and one of the things he mentions is there’s no Scorsese documentary. Now I would say I’m not Scorsese but I was curious about Gamble and Huff and their story. And it was this same curiosity that I had about A Tribe Called Quest.
It was the exact same kind of thing. You think about it and you want to do it and you know you have some access and you ask. Now 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. It was just funny that you mentioned that specific thing in the article which I liked. When I was in the car Gamble and Huff is so Philadelphia and for me I’ve always loved this city. I got introduced to Philadelphia when I was 7. I saw Rocky and that movie completely changed my life. That was the first movie that ever made an impression on me so I love this city and always had an affinity for it. I fell in the love with the Sixers because of Dr. J and the Broad Street Bullies because of Bobby Clark but Rocky was – I always say that’s my favorite movie of all time, the impression it made on me and these images of Philadelphia going through my head.
Mind if I ask just to start what then, coming up as a beat boy coming up in the hip-hop world, what was a New Yorker’s impression of the Philly hip-hop scene?
The first impression of Philadelphia hip-hop was in I’m pretty sure it was the summer of either 85 or 86 you have to check the date. Just like in the Tribe movie, I was listening to either DJ Red Alert or Mr. Magic and there was alive show (which was rare) of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and he had this beatboxer named… the fuck is his name? But the impression was… first of all the way should I call him The Fresh Prince or should I call him Will Smith at this point?
He was the prince then.
The way The Fresh Prince spoke he had no accent. He almost he spoke like… he sounded like a white dude. You know what I mean? And he’s beat boxing he was rhyming; they were rhyming really fast and they had this crazy show that you couldn’t see you were just hearing. It was a live telecast from Union Square which is a big club or something and they had this beatboxer Ready Rock C and he was doing these crazy beats and Jazzy Jeff was like… and the DJ at that time was so important – it was so much a part of the group which has now become extinct. So that was the first impression of Philly hip-hop because they were representing West Philly but the way he spoke didn’t sound like a rapper. It almost sounded like a white dude but he was flowing and they had this crazy DJ and this really way ahead of its time beatboxer. That was my first impression of Philadelphia hip-hop.
Cool. Do you mind if I get some pictures during this?
No, do what you want to.
You did a great job of capturing the individual personalities of the members…
…and interpersonal dynamics of the members. What came as the biggest surprise to you?
The biggest surprise to me that I learned about them or the biggest surprise in making the movie?
Okay, the biggest surprise that I learned about them. I mean, I was unaware of the depths of what Phife was going through health-wise. I’m a fan, obviously, and I’m also a fan who kind of had the inside scoop because I know Q-Tip. But I didn’t know Phife so that was the biggest surprise and 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 given his kidney transplant. If you met Phife he’s very open now and probably doing this movie has helped him be more candid about it – I’m not patting myself on the back but he’s had to talk about it so much. 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’s suffered with the diabetes for the last 8 or 10 years was on-camera in the movie and it’s in the actual film. So that was my biggest surprise.
You had no foreknowledge of that?
I knew that the diabetes was a problem I just didn’t know the details. We toned it down in the movie because it was like “Damn.” I mean he comes off sympathetic when he talks about his diabetes but we had to bring it down because it was like “Holy shit.” and it’s kinda like “Holy shit.” 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 has these scars and catheters. He was fucked up and when you’re shooting a documentary and you don’t really know what to expect – and I did not expect that – and he’s talking to you and it’s coming from someone that obviously I have a lot of respect for but his personality and his disposition – he’s a little guy and his voice it’s very – he has a childlike quality about him because he’s got a high-pitched 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 30 minute section when we were editing – the diabetes section as we called it. It was 30 minutes walking us through it and you’re like, “Holy fuck, man. Jesus Christ.” That was the biggest surprise and the interpersonal nature of the film was my biggest surprise as opposed to that and the guys being so open in front of the camera when I started shooting about it
I have a question. Since I started my magazine I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of interesting people – people who I may have thought untouchable at the time. What was it like meeting, hanging out with, and documenting these childhood music heroes of yours and has it changed your perception of A Tribe Called Quest?
Well meeting and hanging out with them 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 and 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 King, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Eric B. and Rakim – they’re like fuckin’ comic book characters. You know Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five or The Sugarhill gang could be a comic book. Q-Tip the abstract poetic and Phife Dog the Five-foot Assassin – they’re larger than life. So as musicians I had adoration for them but as people I didn’t expect that. I’ve been around celebrity a lot so I know there’s a difference but certainly when they were talking about the music and Q-Tip started articulating – you know the scene in the movie where he breaks down the Can I Kick it Beat (which wasn’t planned, asked for, or contrived) it was one of those emotional moments when Phife was talking about the diabetes when he just does it for a filmmaker and as a fan you’re just like, “Holy shit.” And the scene in the movie is really great because Q-Tip talking about music he does it in such a passionate, easy-going way – the same way Phife talks about sports. The dichotomy of their interests and their passions and just the way they even do it. Q-tip is more laid back and those are their personalities, those are the things that made Tribe great. I didn’t judge them as people. I’m not in any 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 knew that and I treated the scenes of the history of the group – the magic of the records – differently, they’re shot differently. The animation cuts off at a certain point in the film because in my opinion the magic was depleting and when it gets more into the interpersonal shit it’s more cinema verité as opposed the other stuff. The animation, the pictures are moving, it’s this magical time because me and my editor and the producers were talking about sprinkle magic. That’s why I really wanted James Black to do it because I wanted the magic of the nostalgia of the first time I heard Fresh Prince on the radio, the first time I heard Run DMC on the radio and recording the tape in that nostalgic, magical time.
With that being said do you feel you have a better understanding of why this band broke up now that you know them as people?
Yes. I really feel I have a better understanding of why the group broke up. My question when I started the movie, and what spurred this movie on, was, “Will A Tribe Called Quest make more music and why did they break up in the first place?” And so I feel like I have a better understanding of why they broke up. Particularly, Q-Tip and Phife have know each other since they were 2 or 3 years old and 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 who is continuing that instinct to push forward and not go backwards. I think that the relationships that they had as friends changed drastically during the successful run of A Tribe Called Quest and their relationship as friends changed which had nothing to do with what was going on in the group. What was going on in the group was symmetry – it was fucking perfection – but they were having problems from the beginning and I don’t go into every single detail of when it started because that’s not what I wanted to do and I don’t think in 94 or 95 minutes whatever it turned out to be you can go into every single detail. You want to try and give an overview and impression and a vibe of what happened. I just happened to start filming them when, as Phife says, when they went back on tour he says it best, “Rock the Bells was kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back for the second time.” They have an intense relationship. They have that like brotherly relationship and almost a sibling rivalry. They’re like brothers with a sibling rivalry. I’ve been doing press for a month and that’s the first time I’ve said that. I’m so sick of repeating myself that when I come up with something new to say I’m like, “I gotta mark that down so I can run with that for the next week.”
Piggybacking off of that, I saw them in 2008 on the Rock the Bells tour in Maryland. I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit more on the experience of being on tour with them because one of the most shocking moments was when Plug One and Plug Two say, “I hope that it’s over.”
That kind-of hit me so hard. I couldn’t believe they would say something like that.
So could you elaborate a little bit more about that experience?
Well first of all about when Dave from De La Sould said that, that was always in every cut of the movie I ever had and my producer asked, “Why do you want this? What is the big thing? You can’t hear them and you have to have subtitles and…” You know I took liberties with certain things. I wanted the film to be for everybody: for the Tribe-centric fans there’s gonna be a shorthand with a couple of little things. Like when I watched the Metallica documentary I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. I have no clue. But I love the documentary. And there are certain things in there that are for the Metallica fans. You can’t spell everything out but I knew that if we established that De La obviously came up with them and if you really know the history they’re really close to them so him saying that – he’s saying that as a fan and a friend saying, “Yo, shut it down. Fuck. For yourselves.” Like, “Why keep going through this? I don’t want to be around this anymore.” Because De La was on that tour with them and they’re like, “Oh they’re fighting again.” “These guys almost got in a fistfight.” So they’re like, “Fuckin’ be done with that! If you can’t figure out a way to do it, don’t do it.” And that’s what he says.
Being on tour with them was incredible. Being on stage and shooting it but it’s just as incredible for me because the first stuff we shot was the Los Angeles Rock the Bells stuff. I was so excited at times that the camera was like this [shaking up and down] and the dailies were like [shaky] because I was so fucking excited and I would take the camera around and go “What the fuck is going on?” because I was just like, “I can’t believe this is actually happening.” But before the show, as soon as they were all in that back room together when Phife was wearing the Lakers stuff – whenever you want to reference what city Phife is in just look at his jersey.. You can tell their relationship it was intense – there was a vibe that was off. Now it’s not like they’re sitting there seething ready to beat each other up. I watched them on camera get along and gel but there’s a distance 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 Laverne and Shirley, Richie and Chachi – Q-Tip and Phifer like they say in the song it musically it just was in sync but their friendship has changed over the years. Say you are sitting here and I don’t know you and let’s say these two people are arguing. For us it’s uncomfortable – like, “What the fuck?” or like “Yo, take it easy!” So if you’re in a room with people you admire and you’re watching the discomfort it’s hard to be around that and then when it started to get further along and Tip is saying these things and Phife is saying these things to me and I’m watching them articulate how frustrated they are with each other it’s hard to be around that because you’re like, “Well did you ever talk to him about it?” The only meddling I did in their business was on camera – I’d be like, “Have you ever spoken to him about that?” and 9 out of 10 times when I asked that about specific things it was always, “Nope.” and I thought, “Oh shit, you guys never talk about that.” and one time when I was walking through the film with Q-Tip and Ali in my apartment they started having a conversation about the breakup and the scene in the movie which caused the breakup. They went on a sidebar because it was a heated thing with me and them – it was intense. You know, “He’s saying this.” and, “Why is Jarobi 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, call him up. I’m just doing this [motions toward the camera], don’t be fuckin’ angry at me!” but that conversation then went to Ali and Q-Tip and they’re right in front of me having a 15 min conversation about when they broke up in 1998 and then afterwards when they agree to disagree on what happened I said, “You guys never talk about this?” and they were like, “Nah.” and I was like, “You never talk about this stuff?” and they were like, “Nope.” and that kind of shit is what has make the group fall out of sync. And just to acknowledge it because you know it’s going to come up this discourse with Q-Tip not liking the movie and Phife liking the movie, Phife supporting the movie as well as Ali. And then eventually this last film festival in Los Angeles where we won the award all of them except Q-Tip being there. You know it’s not me. This perceived thing that I’m the bad guy – look at the nature of the group watch the movie. Of course there’s going to be a discourse. They don’t move as a group – they move as individuals under the auspices of A Tribe Called Quest. So you know, “Mike’s an asshole.” “Yeah I’m an asshole so are you.” But I had no agenda against A Tribe Called Quest. I made this movie for 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 been fantastic but in the last 6 to 8 months we kept saying we should be documenting the documentary. It’s one of those situations because it’d probably be better than the fucking movie.
Now when you were filming the Rock the Bells…
How old are you?!
[laughs] 17. So when you were filming at Rock the Bells did you intend on making a bigger documentary about the group or were you intending on filming just the tour?
I was intending on filming the tour. My imagination of the film would be the first 45 minutes of the movie: the who, what, when, where, why and their influence. Growing up in New York, The Native Tongues, Run DMC living in their neighborhood and how much that inspired them, all the making-of stuff – more of a concert-based film on that 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 Classics. I probably would’ve skated by on the strength of A Tribe Called Quest with a prestigious straight-to-DVD release no matter how well that film was made. You know Scorsese put out Shine a Light – now this is Scorsese on the Rolling Stones – you know how much business it did? Fucking nothing. Nothing. This is the Rolling Stones and America’s best director. Me and A Tribe Called Quest with a concert film and an overview of what they did would be, at best, a prestigious DVD release. So that’s just the nature of what people want to see. The film wouldn’t appeal to a broader audience than 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 because the group and the music is emotionally charged. The reason why the group and their music is so timeless is there’s an emotional quality to it. Just like anything special it ignited an emotional reaction. Whether it’s Picasso or Tupac or Woody Allen or Allen Iverson – to me Allen Iverson playing when he was in his prime that was an indication of who he is as a person – someone who’ll play that hard. That’s an artistic expression the same way what Q-Tip and Phife did was an artistic expression. This movie is emotional, the process was emotional, the aftermath was emotional, the tweeting has been emotional, everything has been emotional but it’s only right because A Tribe Called Quest’s music was emotional.
You alluded to the fact that your relationship with the group became dysfunctional. Did that manifest in the movie and what was the closest you came to thinking they were gonna pull the plug?
There was no pulling the plug. The closest it came to pulling the plug was when people, I don’t want to say who because I don’t want to get myself in trouble but when A Tribe Called Quest and their camp threatened to fuckin’ put an injunction from me going to Sundance and I told them, “I am going. You can cease-and-desist the motherfucker, you can try to get us taken out of Sundance but I’m going to Sundance with a DVD and I’m showing this fucking movie.” I told them that and they said, “You’re gonna look crazy.” and I said, “You try it and we’ll see. Get a cease-and-desist, try to get us pulled out of the festival. I’m going to Sundance and I’m showing my fucking movie.” Because I believed in the movie, I thought the movie was honest, it was made out of honesty and when all this bullshit about the producers and the emails – I don’t give a fuck about any of that. People apologized, things were changed. There was an incident that happened. You know I kick you, I say sorry, you accept my apology after I say I’m really sorry. I can’t do anymore. The email shit, people do that all the time and it wasn’t me who did it so it was like. “You’re getting mad about someone you never even met.” The closest it came was that and I was like, “Go ahead and do that but I’m going to be at Sundance and if you think you look like an asshole in the movie just wait until what you look like when no one sees the movie – wait until that happens, wait until you do a cease-and-desist, when you do an injunction, when no one sees the movie, when you take your movie out of Sundance – then see what kind of hysteria you’re going to cause. People are going to think you’re burning buildings and looting. Because of all this shit that’s happened the only thing that’s positive that’s happened out of it is that while the movie speaks for itself it’s made people more curious about the movie because it’s like, “What happened with this thing?” You go in the theater thinking, “What’s is the big deal?” You look at the Metallica documentary and you look at the piss that’s on television and this is a dignified portrayal of the group. There’s a version of this movie that another filmmaker would’ve done with the material I had that wouldn’t have been as dignified. I can promise you that. There’s an undignified version of the movie that’s sitting in a hard drive in Los Angeles in a vault but they didn’t see that version. I didn’t even show them that.
Well 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 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 and while you could sit here and philosophize and talk about independent filmmaking and I love John Cassavetes and we all put him on a pedestal as an independent filmmaker and the godfather of this and he was the really the one who put his money where his mouth was first. I had to look inside myself and say, “What am I doing?” You know I’m an actor who has some respect but I wanted to be a director. If I let this go away and I compromised 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, better yet how am I going take myself seriously? It gave me the confidence to believe in myself completely as an artist and as a filmmaker and I feel like, for me, creatively this was the emergence of me as an adult because the acting that I’ve done. In my 20s I was a child although you don’t know that and I’m 41 now and this helped me become a man-artist so that’s how it’s changed me.
As a filmmaker, what were your visual models for this? You mentioned Cassavetes as a godfather but what documentaries – what brand of filmmaking – encouraged you to make you want to do that?
I’ll tell you one of the things that I referenced: in the scene where Q-Tip and Phife are in the room – what I told my editor and he said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “You know in that movie Shadows by John Cassavetes?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “I want the editing to feel like that.” and he said, “What the fuck are you talking about?” and I said, “I want it to be like the arguing in Shadows and I want it to feel like that.” I understand narrative filmmaking better than I understand documentary filmmaking because I’ve participated in that but the documentaries that I referenced and aspired to. Gimme Shelter is the pinnacle and I always gave the analogy of Tribe being like a rock group and the Stones because Mick Jagger is the eccentric front man who gets all the credit while Keith Richards is more like the second guy who everyone loves and gravitates towards but he’s like more accessible and you feel like you know him. And that was always the Q-Tip/Phife dynamic. Also, Charlie Watts in the back and he’s the quiet, stoic guy keeping the beat just like Ali Shaheed Muhammed is the quiet, stoic guy keeping the beat as the DJ. More inspiration came from The Last Waltz, there was a great Blondie documentary for the BBC, there’s a Ramones documentary At the End of the Century, obviously the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, I’m Trying to Break Your Heart Wilco, I watch a lot of Maysles Brothers documentaries, I watch pretty much everything, there was a Who documentary, I watch documentaries about the Pixies, any music documentary. I was either inspired for in the beginning or during because while I was making the film you get frightened about how you are going to pull this off and you watch like, “Hey they did it. And they did it.” It was so overwhelming at times, mostly in the editing process. The hardest part technically of this film was the editing but those films were definitely a part of it. So I mean I watched a lot of them and I watched them over and over and over, sometimes just to feel like I wasn’t totally crazy.
That’s great. Thank you.
Thank you. Cool.
Hopefully this interview has show insight into the film and sparked your interest to see it. My review is coming Friday, so make sure to come back and let us know what you think.