Monday, December 24, 2012

The Hip Hop Documentary: Ice T & A Tribe Called Quest

This week I was fortunate to be able to watch two really interesting hip hop documentaries. The first being "Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest" directed by Michael Rapaport, and the second was "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap" directed by legendary hip hop artist Ice T. Both easily kept my attention from beginning to end, and gave me a mini-refresher on the importance of remembering your roots, and also how powerful this culture was and continues to be.

Surprisingly, I only found out about these movies through a random Netflix browse, although I wish I had caught them in the theatre with the extra audio boost and big screen. This could be because I live in Canada and they were on limited release...or it could be because they weren't heavily marketed. Nonetheless, it was great to see the stories being told, and re-told, and great to take the familiar stroll down musical memory lane with the artists I have grown to love over the decades.

"Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest"
was released in 2011. Directed by actor Michael Rapaport, I found this to be a solid story of the journey of Tribe from their beginnings in Queens, NY--and very informative about the details of their coming together...and near falling apart as of late.

I consider myself to be a fan of Tribe, and a fan of hip hop in general. However, while I wouldn't go so far as to classify myself as a hip hop HEAD, there were probably details of their story that are well known to others, but were new and interesting to me. Nonetheless, I loved the story about how they formed as a group, how their unique style and content started a movement along with The Jungle Brothers and De La Soul.

I was in awe watching the old footage, hearing the old beats, and literally being taken back to the 1990s when this music was filled with so much SOUL. I could feel the hip hop in this my skin. I could feel the newness of what Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, and Jarobi were doing. I was getting excited as they told the old story, and my heart reminisced along with them because I know that their albums provided the soundtrack to my adolescence and teenage years.

A Tribe Called Quest is without a doubt one of my favourite hip hop groups of all times. I must have listened to my "Midnight Maurauders" cassette about a zillion times back in 1993/1994. I felt these guys. And I loved Q-Tip, because even without the other members, he still carried the essence of positive movement, and self-knowledge...and good times.

What I found the most interesting about this documentary, despite the awesome vintage footage, the banging soundtrack, and the story itself...was the rift that emerged between Q-Tip and Phife. I didn't know Phife was ill. I didn't know why the group broke up when they did. Again, these were details that I wasn't aware of with time...but were all clarified in the movie.

Testimonies and reflections by other hip hop experts like Quest Love, Angie Martinez, the late Chris Lighty, Ludacris, DJ Red Alert, and Pete Rock (to name a few) also added great context and authenticity to the story.

It was fascinating to watch the back-and-forth between the two childhood friends, hurt feelings, misunderstanding, and joint passions gone awry. Like any other family...they had their differences, and it caused tension for those around them. I admired the stability of Ali and Jarobi throughout the journey because despite what was going on between the two MCs...they kept their cool and were down for the team.

Tough to see Phife battle his issues with diabetes, but heartwarming when his wife stepped in to give him her kidney. Again, a part of the story I never would have known...but it makes the essence of the group and what they represent to hip hop culture as a whole that much more powerful.

When Tribe reunited for the Rock The Bells tour, I could feel the relief of fans everywhere, and the magic coming alive again to see them back on stage again. There are few moments in musical history, and combinations, and chemistries that make sense...but this is just one of them. And while Q-Tip is still a great solo artist, there is nothing like the combination of the group that brings nostalgia and true musical appreciation.

I think Michael Rapaport did an awesome job telling this story, infusing the music, the images, the footage, and the narration and creating an inspiring story about a group of friends who came from simple beginnings, and created this powerful force in hip hop. To this day, I don't think there are many (if any) hip hop groups who have emerged with the same influence and tangible STYLE that Tribe had. From the Kente-cloth prints and African medallions, to the pace of their flow and feel-good cadence, this documentary was a great tribute to a legendary band...and hopefully a reminder to the guys in the group that they are an amazing force when they work as a unit.

Now, the Ice T documentary took on a different tone because it was taking a look at many hip hop artists, and taking brief moments from their journey to tell his story in "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap." Released this year (again, who knew?), the movie features hip hop pioneers like Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D, Afrika Bambaataa, Doug E Fresh, Ice Cube, Common, Nas, Snoop, MC Lyte and Salt 'N Pepa, and newer cats on the scene like Kanye, Eminem, and Mos Def. Interestingly enough, the artists don't get much "newer" than the latter...and also interesting, that most of the important voices were accounted for, but there was no mention or representation from Jay-Z.

Ice T is as old school as it gets, so I can see that his allegiance was to telling the stories of his immediate peers: the guys he came up with, and the obvious legends of the genre. Melle Mel and KRS-1, Kool Keith, and Run DMC amongst the others: he made sure to pay natural hommage to those who crafted the artform from day one.

His focus was to take a look at the art form of hip hop: the creative process, stories of inspiration, and general reflections on how the artists became who they were. Most gave a freestyle or an a capella rendition of one of their tracks, or the songs of one of their peers. The interviews were laid-back, often taken in the artist's home studio or home town, which was also an interesting feature.

It was great to see most of them in their natural element, comfortably discussing what hip hop meant to them, and what their predecessors instilled in their style. The presence of Ice T in the interviews was consistent, and the conversational tone of the film carried through as he told his own stories, shared laughs with his peers, and reflected on the journey along with them.

Ice T's direction included many aerial shots of New York City, LA, Detroit, or wherever he happened to be interviewing his subjects. The visuals were all current, with no throwback footage or soundtracks, which added to the movie's real-time authenticity. I must say, the gentleman and ladies all aged AMAZING...and it made me almost proud to see such a solid body of representatives from the genre.

The two documentaries definitely had their distinct styles. While the Tribe documentary had a definite narrative and chronological progression in story, the Ice T documentary was more impromptu, and less structured in theme. For me to scrutinize their cinemetography and directorial styles would be to take away from the main points of both films that I was looking for on an entertainment (not an analytical) level: that hip hop is a powerful force, and that it's legends and griots can not--and should not--be forgotten nor taken for granted.

What amazed me most was the level of knowledge, of artistic genuis, and the power of influence from Ice T, Tribe, and the many artists who participated in the creation of these films. I was so impressed by the art of hip hop, what it was, and how strong it's influence is today. I loved to listen to the great minds speak, and loved to see that the origin of hip hop was so intellectually charged.

I also loved the unique voices, intonations, and the one-of-a-kind characters that hip hop produced. It made me realize that while today's hip hop artists have their own individuality, there was SUCH a distinct essence to the original hip hop artists. Their voices alone! Hearing Big Daddy Kane or Q-Tip SPEAK, hearing Ice T SPEAK, hearing MC Lyte, and Common, and Chuck D, and Phife...these were voices that you will never forget because they OWNED their art. They owned their craft to the fullest: no gimmicks.

I don't know what it says about the hip hop artists of the past decade, because I didn't hear anyone utter anything about Weezy, Jeezy, T.I., Rick Ross, or any of the other money-makers that are taking the industry by storm right now...but I do know that it made me feel so relieved that I grew up in the 80s/90s and was able to experience the coming-of-age of hip hop, feel the transitions in styles and grooves, and really enjoy what it the moment.

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