Sundance Interview: Michael Rapaport on A Tribe Called Quest, directing-slash-acting
In less than three years, Michael Rapaport managed to cobble together the beginning, middle and bitter end of – in my opinion – one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time, A Tribe Called Quest. He got some raw answers from all parties, and all to what seemed like his own backbeat as a director. He parsed through hundreds of hours of MTV and TV interviews, archival music videos and block parties, coming clean out the other side with a solid narrative of late ‘80s hip-hop to rap realities of today.
And yet, most of the time when I explained just who helmed Sundance-selected “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest,” I’d get a “Michael Rapaport? Really?” in reply.
The 40-year-old New York-native and adherent hip-hop lover first showed up at the Park City film fest with “Zebrahead” and since has pulled his weight in projects from Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” to Phoebe’s boyfriend in “Friends” to voicing a video game and launching his own production company.
But he didn’t have a director’s credit until now. Rapaport sat down with me at en empty Thai restaurant in Park City to discuss Tribe’s – and his own – future. He took on the reasons why Q-Tip refused to endorse the film by making the premiere, why making a film on hip-hop is so tough and his future as a actor-slash-director. (No, not Slash.)
What I liked about the film is that it has a musicality about it. it clipped along. It had its own rhythm especially with the animation and the way you cut the jokes and stuff like that. Did you kind of go in with the musicality in mind?
I definitely went into it with the musicality in mind. I talked to my editor about wanting it to feel like a jazz film. And I think a couple of times we accomplished that. I mean, you can’t have a narrative documentary totally like a jazz film but, you know, but there was some scenes and some edits and some sequences that I feel like accomplished that. I was quietly proud and kind of like…I didn’t want to be too jazz nerdy.
How long did it take to start really breaking the ice with the guys because they’ve got a tough story, y'know?
Yeah. You know honestly, the ice got broken very quickly because there was so much going on and so much of a sort of underlying tension between them that it just worked out. The ice got broken quickly. Particularly with Phife and he’s just so open and honest and just so unfiltered that that was really like…he set the tone of it. And then, you know, Q-Tip and the rest of the guys opened up a little slower but eventually just jumped in too, you know? And so I think it was a tribute to them and that they trusted me and we were just able to…we clicked a little bit.
[More after the jump...]
Especially like considering that each had something to say about the other and what role Jarobi played in the whole outfit and all that. When you talked to Q-Tip, for instance, did you interview him and then interview somebody else and then were you able to go back to him and be like, well they said this and this…?
I never did the “he said she said” because I felt like that would be starting fire, so the only time they really saw what other people said about them was when I showed them the movie. And then, of course, you know I showed them a rough cut and then they wanted… “I want to see this, I want to see that.” I didn’t know. Maybe a documentary…maybe that would be a better way to go to say everything but it just didn’t feel right to me to do that.
You guys had so much archival footage to include, too , you know, did you feel like you wanted to limit your time and energy interviewing them instead of having hundreds of hours of this stuff?
Well, now that’s a good question. No I didn’t want to limit my time interviewing them. The more the merrier. Because the more I talked to them, the more comfortable they got and the more open they got. I mean, I kind of went backwards. One thing I would have done differently in the making the film is I would have got -- or at least been more aware of -- the archival and still [photo] stuff beforehand. I knew it existed because I’d seen it growing up, but then you’ve got to track it down and license it and the whole thing, but if I had had that in the beginning as a template of a visual sort of reference or template of what we had to work with, it could have made things a little easier for me in my head. But that was kind of my inexperience and just the way the speed of the way the project went. It just happened so quick when we actually started that there was no time for that. But I would definitely do it in reverse if I did another doc.
So Phife attended the premiere but Jarobi, Ali and Q-Tip didn’t. They released a statement about the film and Phife mentioned that, hey, maybe everybody could get together for Tribeca or something in the future. What is kind of your reaction to their statement on the film?
Well, my reaction to the statement on the film is, you know, it’s a statement that was…it’s a press statement so it’s not as….it’s a little…when I read things on the Internet…I mean I know it’s from them. It’s a little disappointing that they weren’t here. It’s not a little disappointing: it’s disappointing that they weren’t here. It’s disappointing for me more so I was disappointed to Phife that they weren’t’ here because for whatever the reasons are why they chose not to be here or they couldn’t be here, Phife did choose to be here and I don’t think it was fair for him.
I mean I feel good about the movie. I feel confident about the movie. I feel proud of the movie and I know they do. They chose not to be here and they missed out because it was a celebration and the party and the festival will always go on without anybody, but they missed out on their moment and there’ll be other screenings and other festivals and stuff like that, but the first time is so special for everybody involved. They’ll have to go through that when the rest of us have kind of already went through it. To get that initial reaction is a priceless thing. There’ll be more and I would bet they would be there for the rest of it.
And at this point, spending the number of hours that you did and with the material and being such a fan of their music, did you feel like you had to keep them at arms distance? Did you want to make them your buddies? And did you take personal offence that they didn’t come?
That’s a good question. I didn’t want to make them my buddies. I tried to keep my relationships with them business. But it’s not like business because it’s so personal. It’s so personal but it was a tough balancing act. I feel like it was a slap in my face that they didn’t show up. I feel like they’ll come around, like I said, and be at the other things and I feel like it’s more of slap in the face to Phife and the fans that they didn’t show up. But because I kept the relationship business, I don’t take it personal. They missed out on a valuable evening. And a valuable experience but when they see it for the first time with a real audience, they’ll get to have their experience.
Moving from personal to business, you kind of have to feel it coming because of the statement that Q-Tip was making on Twitter and Facebook and all that kind of stuff, he was obviously upset by it. Were you at….I mean were you tempted to remove the parts of the film that he had problems with or was that the problem?
I wasn’t tempted to do… I know what the best version of the film is.
Did you show that version?
I think I showed one of the really, really good versions of the film.
98%. There were a couple of little things that the audience members wouldn’t notice… and I might be wrong. In the best interest of preserving the legacy of A Tribe Called Quest and telling the story that I wanted to tell, I did show the best version of the film, so yeah.
In the film, we hear Q-Tip using strong language toward Phife, calling him “faggoty,” and hear audio from the fights and tough stuff like that. Were those the things that Q-Tip was mainly concerned about?
No, I don’t think he was concerned about any of that stuff. I don’t think he was concerned about any of his on-screen stuff. I think he was more concerned about some of the other people’s on-screen stuff. Actually I could pretty much say, unless I’m forgetting something, he had no problems with any of his stuff on-screen.
That’s… yeah, he didn’t want me to cut anything about himself. It was more so the interpretations of other people’s truth.
It kind of hurt him I guess?
It definitely hurt him. It definitely hurt him. Understandably, but it wasn’t anything below the belt or you know I just turned the cameras on, you know? It turned into this, you know, this Twitter thing turned into this me and him having some strife… I have no strife with Q-Tip. I don’t like the Twitter thing especially when I’ve been available for phone calls, e-mails or face-to-face meetings for two-and-a-half years, for whenever they want me. But you know, the initial reaction to the film when I first showed him the film was exactly this: “I’m not mad at you, Mike, I’m mad at them. I love what you did… You did what you’re supposed to do.”
Yeah, that’s why you feel like he might come around?
I would guess he’s going to come around.
Going forward from here, you mentioned you may want to do other documentaries after “Beats, Rhymes.” You feel like that is the medium you want to work with then? Do you want to work on feature films or television? What do you want to do with this experience?
I love the experience. I absolutely want to direct something else. The next thing I want to do is a feature—this script that I want to do. I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time. I would love to do another documentary. But not about hip hop. We’re not involving hip hop music.
There’s so many other groups that I’m fascinated by. But hip-hop music… first of all, the music clearing side of it is a whole other thing. If I were to do another hip-hop documentary, I wouldn’t have any discussion until the music was cleared before I picked up a camera.
It’s sort of like putting a hip-hop album together, what you can clear.
Yeah. That would be the big thing like right off the bat. So that grind that we went through—clearing the music—and not just the Tribe music but De La Soul’s music and the Jungle Brothers and all the other hip-hop shit because it’s so sample heavy, was a whole other workload. And it was frightening because some people would be like, “Oh you can’t use the song.” But the theme is caught up around the song—the video.
Sampling and riffing on predecessors, using the community, that’s part of what hip-hop is.
Exactly. So that was a challenge that I was not expecting. So that’s why I wouldn’t do another hip-hop [movie]. But you know, I mean, there’s other stories I would love to tell within hip-hop. The thing I got the kick out of the most about doing the doc… I mean there’s a bunch of things, but artistically, you know, the interpersonal emotional stuff is what I’m driven to and what I gravitate toward. So whatever story I told -- whether it was music or something else with a documentary -- I’d want it to be personal and interpersonal, because that’s what I feel like I have an understanding of.
Yeah. And you can really feel that in the film like it actually meant something to you and to a lot of people. And with the feature film that you think you want to direct, you already have it optioned and can you tell us anything about that?
It’s a script called “Mr. Magnificent”. It’s a comedy—a dark comedy—about the guy that has the world record for the most world records. So it’s a comedy it’s really, really well-written and I would like to do that next.
Do you have any kind of prospective timeline?
My only timeline that I’ve had for the last two-and-a-half years has been Sundance. So once I get out of here alive, I’ll be able to start really thinking clearly.
What is the larger career arc for you, balancing acting projects along with your directing tip? Do you have any acting gigs on the horizon and do you want to be an actor/director or do you want to eventually want to go into directing and take on bit parts or…?
I’m always going to want to act. Directing is whole new world and it inspires me totally differently because I’ve been acting for 20 years. I’m always going to be an actor first. But, you know, I know that I have other things that I’ve wanted to do as far as directing and producing things and just trying to see things through. And I would like to continue to do that. I put myself on the line. I put my own money on the line to get this done, so I knew that the only way to sort of bust out of the stereotype of how I’m perceived… because you know if you’ve acted even for a certain parts, everyone has a perception of you. I was going to have to change it myself. And that independence is why I was so dead-set on making this film for Sundance because I know that’s what this stuff is built on. So I would like to do acting always, and continue to explore other things. Directing, I’m definitely going to do something else. And I guess I want to produce other things, too.
Do you feel like people already have a perception of you and is it something you wanna change?
I don’t think there’s misunderstandings. I’m saying like public perceptions, you know? I don’t think people care privately about who I am. But if you do certain kinds of roles and, like, I’m always cast in New York and around New York and I play this and that stuff… I’m flattered that there’s any sort of perception of me. But you want to continue to push yourself and, you know, try other. I started acting when I was 21 and now I’m 40. I’m a grown man now so it’s like I almost have to re-invent myself as an actor because I’m not going to play the same roles that I did when I was in my 20s.
So just like that. It’s like growing up. It’s for any actor that starts when they’re young. You’re not going in [to auditions] for the 26-year old guy. You’re the 40-year old. You play father and stuff like that, so it’s just different. It’s different for me and it’s different for people that perceive me in any way. But it’s par for the course, for everybody.
And what do you have on the horizon for acting?
I don’t know yet. I really honestly had to stall any kind of things that were happening over the winter and the spring because the television show I’m interested in doing… and I’m just starting to come up for water to find a movie to do. So hopefully it’ll be something good.
As far as soundtrack for “Beats, Rhymes and Life” goes, obviously, it was tough to take it financing and make the push to get all this music into the film. You have Madlib scoring and of course – I’m excited for the new Madvillain shit coming out. And Peanut Butter Wolf did the music supervising. But are we going to see a soundtrack for this movie?
Tribe, De La, Jungle, you know some old-school stuff in there. There’s been talk with [Jive] and we’ve talked about doing different things. I think ideally what we would try to do is take some of the Madlib music and talk about doing some Tribe Called Quest covers and some cool artists have already expressed interest in doing that.
Hayley Williams from Paramore, for one.
That’s weird, OK.
That was kind of the most out-there thing. She would love to do something. That would be cool. Pharrell, Questlove, those guys are down, and that’s like easy pickings. They could just like pick any song they wanted, could flip it and change it. So I think that now we’re over with this Sundance thing, I think we can start getting the soundtrack thing rolling. I think it would be a fun thing and I think, you know, if it channels correctly it could be something unique and not cheesy. Like because sometimes these covers are cheesy and we’d have to do a really high brow.
Yeah, and especially with artists that Tribe would like, you know?
Many people talked about doing covers of “Bonita Applebum.” I think there could be like three or four people doing it, and it be great if you’ve got a girl doing “Bonita Appleaum.” But Too Short, who we interviewed who didn’t make it into the cut of the film -- talked about Too Short doing it as if he got Bonita Applebum and, like, turned her out. So twists like that, you know? And you could get God knows who to do “Check the Rhime.” So it’s not corny. I don’t wanna get, like, Slash showing up or whoever -- no disrespect to Slash.
What kind of struck me when Phife was talking about modern hip-hop and who’s kind of keeping it real, he named three female MCs and singers -- Marsha Ambrosius, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. Who else is making hip-hop these days, male or female?
I like Sean Price. I like Cam a lot. I mean, you know I think the guys that are out in the front are important. Jay-Z and Lil Wayne… Jay-Z is just never ending. I’m kind of out of touch with some of the sort of younger underground people. Talib Kweli always makes me happy. And so I think Madlib I think is a great producer and the Madvillain stuff... there’s always good stuff. You know I don’t dig or look for it as much as I used to. I’ve gotten a little lazy. But when good shit comes out, I’m always perking up.
Like Phife said, hip-hop can be fickle, stuff comes in and out of style. I mean, some people aren’t feeling what big MCs are producers are doing, or say that Kanye isn’t hip-hop anymore, or hip-hop’s too pop.
Well just stop buying it. Let the boom-bap stuff come back.