Interview: Michael Rapaport On The Preciousness of Audio Cassettes and His A Tribe Called Quest Doc

Actor Michael Rapaport’s first documentary, Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which opens tomorrow at the Angelika, is more than a musical biography. We spoke to the first time director about the story that began with a simple question — Why won’t Tribe make more music — and emerged as a moving personal drama.

FrontRow: So tell me about your love of hip-hop. I read that one of your sons is named after a member of De La Soul, and now you have this movie about A Tribe Called Quest. How far back does your love of the genre go?

Michael Rapaport: You know hip-hop has been a part of my life since I was nine years old. My father brought home a promotional copy of Rappers Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang, and from that time till my early, mid 20’s that’s all I listened to. I’d grown up in NYC listening to the radio and having those moments where you’re listening to the radio and you’re hearing Run DMC for the first time, and, you know, hearing The Fat Boys for the first time. And it was an exciting time in hip-hop and an exciting time in music. It really gave me a lot of joy. It opened me up to a whole bunch of different things that I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to, hip-hop and basketball. But hip-hop was a soundtrack to it. It was a soundtrack to my youth really.

FR: That’s something I think you captured pretty well in the documentary, the role of the radio, the role of those DJs in disseminating the music. And that has changed so much today because of the way people find music through the internet.

MR: You know, DJ Red Alert, and Mister Magic, that was the Internet. Like, you sit around there and you had it once or twice a week, and you’d record it. It was like you’d get these tapes. I remember having the Run DMC song — there was a live version of the song or when we got Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick — those tapes were like gold. It was like they had value to us, and you’d pass them around and you just let people listen to it and be like, “Nah, you can’t take the tape.” That was like a big deal because it was like this evolving, interchanging thing that was happening moment to moment. And growing up in New York you were right in the front row for it.

FR: Do you think that changes how you relate to the music – that preciousness, that gold, that you’re talking about?

MR: I think that does change how you relate to it. I think then, because it was so little and so few and far between, you’d listen to the song over and over and over and you didn’t have an iPod filled with music. Now it’s like ‘how much music’ — you just want to fill your iPod up just to say you’ve got 15,000 songs. Whereas before, if you had a 45-minute tape, that was your whole life. Your whole life revolved around it, and you just played it over and over and over. And if you got an album you’d play it over and over. And you’d really engross yourself in the artist and in the song. I think that changed; I think there was more of an appreciation for it. Where as now you can get access to things so quickly, which is great on a lot of levels, but it just there’s an emotional quality, there’s an emotional attachment to discovering something when it wasn’t so easy to find. That I think is gone. It’s just gone.

FR: This is your first documentary. How and why did you start working on it?

MR: I started out making the movie because in 2006 [A Tribe Called Quest] performed at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, and they hadn’t performed in a long time. I talked to them about doing the documentary then, and it just didn’t come about. And then in 2008 they went back on tour, and they were headlining a huge hip-hop tour. I asked them if could I do the movie, and they said ‘yeah.’ Really getting started was the easiest thing. And we started filming the shows first. Then that’s when Phife was going through his health stuff, and there was all of this drama and friction. I knew that I had to keep going because there was a story that was bigger and more exciting than what I had initially planned.

FR: There are a number of narratives you could have followed. One being the group getting back together. The there’s the friction between Q-tip and Phife, and then there’s just trying to capture what they’re legacy is, which is so huge. Did you set out saying you were going to do the historical piece and the other stuff happened when you already started?

MR: The historical stuff, that was the easiest because they did that. And anybody could have documented that. It was just a matter of picking the songs you wanted to talk about, going into certain angles you wanted to talk about. What they accomplished musically was easy, it’s just about piecing that stuff together in a concise and informative and entertaining way. All the other stuff, the more dramatic stuff, that’s the stuff that I had no idea existed. I had no idea I was going to be exposed to and certainly didn’t think it was going to be a part of the movie. But once I was exposed to it I knew it had to be a part of the movie because my whole reason for making the movie was: is the Tribe Called Quest going to make more music? Why don’t you guys make more music? It was always kind of like that, and that was really my mentality. But I knew in getting the answer to that question it was going to have to be looking at some of the troubles that the band has had. I wanted to explore that within A Tribe Called Quest as people.

FR: For someone who is not familiar with the music, how would you explain just they brought to music?

MR: I mean, A Tribe Called Quest, they brought musically, they brought the use of what was in their parent’s record collections. They brought jazz to the forefront of being used in hip-hop. They brought a sense of humor and a consciousness to the music without beating you over the head. And I think that the word that came up a lot during the making of the movie was “inclusiveness.” Their music, although it came from the roots of pure hip-hop, it was for everybody. I think that was an intangible quality that they had that they couldn’t predict or form or contrive. Their music was for everybody, and the way they presented themselves, it made people comfortable being themselves and being who they are. And you could see their influence today, from Drake to Kanye West to Black Eyed Peas. [Black Eyed Peas] adore A Tribe Called Quest. You know, Black Eyed Peas, the first thing out of their mouth was, “Oh yeah, A Tribe Called Quest.”

Image: Q-Tip and Michael Rapaport

Michael Rapaport will be in town this Friday, July 29, and will participate in Q&As following the 3:10pm show at the Angelika Plano and the 8:00pm show at the Angelika Dallas on July 29.