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Can Tribe Called Quest film survive the strife?

By mark jenkins,

Can you spot the rapper in this scene?

On one side of a Georgetown luxury hotel’s meeting-room table is a man with twitchy energy and a booming voice. When not talking or sipping Diet Coke, he is methodically stabbing a pad of hotel stationery with a hotel pen. To his left sits a taciturn man, sipping hot verbena mint tea on sultry June day. He looks tired, or bored, with little passion for the subject at hand.

A picture might help. It would ID the loud guy as Michael Rapaport, star of Woody Allen’s “Small-Time Crooks’’ and such TV series as “Boston Public.’’ And the quiet fellow as Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor, one of the rappers in A Tribe Called Quest.

The duo is on the PR highway to publicize Rapaport’s directorial debut, “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.” The documentary has drawn fire from another Quest member, Kamaal “Q-Tip’’ Ibn John Fareed, but the film’s no hit job. Above all, Rapaport is a fan.

The film, which opens July 15 at the E Street Cinema, documents the 1991 departure of founding member Jarobi White, the group’s breakup in 1998 and tentative reunion, and the sometimes-bitter disagreements between Dawg and Q-Tip. (DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammed seems to be Tribe’s Ringo, getting along with everyone.) It also examines Dawg’s health issues, including diabetes and a kidney transplant.

“This was the subject,’’ the director says of his movie. “I had been thinking about directing a film for, like, 10 years. I knew going into it that it wasn’t going to be easy,’’ he adds. “And I knew that the only way to make a film as independent as this was to be compelled. It had to be something that I have to do.’’

“Capturing the joy that Tribe Called Quest brought was easy,’’ says Rapaport. “The other stuff was a big challenge for me.’’

Dawg, who’s wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap but isn’t a fan — “I just like the logo’’ — admits that “there’s parts that you really don’t want to watch. You don’t want to relive it.”

“I knew everything was game when my Dad gave them all those pictures,’’ Dawg says of the childhood snapshots used in the movie. “But the fans embraced us, and I think it’s our duty to embrace them back. If the conduit is a documentary, then so be it.’’

Quest was one of the first hip-hop groups to draw on jazz, and it used samples in more diverse and surprising ways than most of its predecessors. “What I was trying to achieve with the rhythm of the film,’’ the director explains, “was something like what Tribe Called Quest achieved with their music. I wanted the film to use different mediums to tell the story.’’

Sampling became a problem for hip-hoppers in the ’90s, as the owners of the original songs began to demand more money and control. Like many rap groups, Quest gradually moved away from samples. “It never really affected us to the point where we had to shelve albums,’’ Dawg says. “Some artists have to push back albums for years.’’

“Because they can’t afford the clearances?’’ Rapaport asks.

“Exactly. And the crazy thing about that is, you know timing is everything in the music industry.’’

Clearing the rights to samples, Rapaport learned, hasn’t gotten easier since Tribe’s heyday. For the movie, “it all came down to these artists being familiar with A Tribe Called Quest and appreciating what they did. Because it sure wasn’t, ‘I got this bag full of money for you.’ One song, one sample, I’m not [jiving] you, the guy said a million dollars!” He cackles. “That was the starting point for negotiating one of the songs!’’

“It was frightening,’’ he adds. “Because certain songs had to be in the movie. I’d have the scene edited to the music, and they’d say, `You can’t get the song.’”

More drama came after the film was complete, when Q-Tip tweeted that Rapaport didn’t “respect’’ some of the group members’ requests. The director fired back.

“I was on the defensive, in public,” he says. “That’s just my personality. I’ve gotten in trouble for that my entire life. But I felt like I was backed up against the wall, so I was like, ‘aw ‘ight.’ ”

Blaming some of the heat on Twitter itself, the 40-year-old director sounds nostalgic for the dead-tree media. “This [expletive] thing is real time! You used to do press, and like four months later it would be, ‘Oh, I said that?’ Now it’s, BOOM! Going through that was like, ‘Wow, this is the new age!’ ”

When discussing the project with the Tribe members, Rapaport says, “I always said you four will see the movie in a way that no one else will see it. ’Cause you’re seeing yourself and your best friends. You’re vulnerable, and I respect all that.’’

But Rapaport thinks Q-Tip and the others will appreciate the documentary more if they watch it with a theater full of fans. “I would love to be in the audience with the entire group and have them experience what the audience reaction is,” he says. “I think that would be good closure for all of us.’’

© The Washington Post Company