As a native New Yorker and a devout hip-hop head, Michael Rapaport could’ve easily set his Big Apple Rap Masturba-Tron™ to auto-jerk and let it run for the duration of his documentary on A Tribe Called Quest. But it turns out the actor and first-time director’s admiration for the influential ’90s act doesn’t cloud his sometimes-klutzy but altogether sincere and captivating examination of Tribe’s innovation and eventual implosion.
Following Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and on-again/off-again member Jarobi (Rapaport, like everyone else, is unable to explain to us what latter dude actually did for the group) from the come-up days in Queens to their major-label success, stepping back in spells to catch the scope of the artsy, kente-clothed Native Tongues movement. Nonstop headbutting between Tip and Phife — over control freakitude, disrespect, musical direction and pretty much any other topic you can name — led to Tribe’s disbandment, but rather than predictably dwell on the surliness of the creative class, Rapaport instead depicts his subjects as people first and rappers second.
He’s not always successful — and, as with many music docs, you leave wanting more first-hand insight from the artists and less repetitive praise from secondhand subjects — but the glimpses he provides into the difficult private life of Phife, a Type 1 diabetic, are reason enough to watch.