The new Tribe Called Quest docu-film is a timely reminder of just how insanely remarkable and unique the whole Native Tongues project was. If ever there was a lost cause in need of defending and resuscitating, this is it. Unfortunately, the film as a whole succumbs to the vogue for tiresome human-interest biopics, and concludes with the unfortunate spectacle of two middle-aged men squabbling over nothing very much at all, a whimpering descent into farce with a timeliness of its own.
I'm going to dismiss accusations that Tribe were merely wussy, white-boy hip-hop out of hand (isn't it incredibly racist and sexist to imply that only white people would "get" this sophisticated, cerebral strand of the genre, that really authentic hip-hop has to be macho and martial?). The Tribe narrative, documented in the scintillating first half of Beats, Rhymes & Life, is quite literally one of the most inspiring and interesting in the history of popular music. Intelligent, funny, funky, and politically engaged, Tribe and their milieu were the most hopeful thing in early-nineties pop culture by far.
It's depressing then, that just as Tribe's trajectory was interrupted as apathy and careerism intervened in the later part of the decade, this film should follow an opening story of consciousness, collectivism, and scarcely plausible musical brilliance with a second-half narrative detailing a somewhat inexplicable extended argument between Q-Tip and Phife during the 2008 reunion tour. We all fall out with our friends and retreat into our families is the banal, boring ultimate message of this half-brilliant film. This may or may not be true, but it's certainly a hackneyed way of treating a radically, anomalously affirmative episode in the not-too-distant musical past.
But anyway, here's to the memory and continuing legacy of those abstract, literate, world-expanding choons ...