MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Taking a handful of people and molding them into a band is no small task. There has to be a balance of everything from personality to musical taste. One group found that balance in a spectacular way back in the 1990s. A Tribe Called Quest became one of the most important groups in hip-hop. A new documentary tries to tell the musicians' story.
But as NPR's Frannie Kelley reports, the film, like the band, is complicated.
FRANNIE KELLEY: Filmmaker Michael Rapaport - the same Michael Rapaport who acted in "True Romance" and appeared on the "Chappelle's Show" - is a hard-core Tribe fan.
Mr. MICHAEL RAPAPORT (Filmmaker): When they broke up in 1998, their last album, "The Love Movement," for me, I was unsatisfied with that, and I just didn't understand why they were breaking up. They meant so much, emotionally, to the fans that that was really my sort of reasoning for making the film: Can they make more music? Will they make more music? Why did it end?
KELLEY: Those are burning questions for every fan of the group. Tribe's D.J., Ali Shaheed Muhammad, has one possible answer.
Mr. ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD (DJ, Producer): You become obligated to the fans. You become obligated to the promotion aspect, to having to keep the art in the minds of the people. Whereas before that, it's just a matter of dreaming, creating, exploring and taking great pleasure.
(Soundbite of song, "Check The Rhime")
Q-TIP (Rapper): (Singing) Back in the days on the boulevard of Linden, we used to kick routines and the presence was fitting. It was I the abstract.
PHIFE DAWG (Rapper): (Singing) And me the five footer. I kicks the mad style so step off the frankfurter.
Q-TIP: (Singing) Yo, Phife, you remember that routine that we used to make spiffy like Mr. Clean?
PHIFE DAWG: (Singing) Um-um, a tidbit, um, a smidgen. I don't get the message, so you gots to run the pigeon.
Q-TIP: (Singing) OK.
KELLEY: When hip-hop was young in the 1980s, it was more fun than it is now. And when they were first getting started, straight out of high school, group member Jarobi says A Tribe Called Quest had more fun than anybody else.
Mr. JAROBI WHITE (Hip-hop Artist): Being so young, I mean 19, 18, that's young. We had no idea. Everything was just flying by the seat of your pants. How it felt was the only thing that matters. Am I enjoying it? Do I feel good about it? Yes. That's what we were doing. The money and the fame and all that stuff, that was all secondary.
(Soundbite of song, "Award Tour")
PHIFE DAWG: (Singing) Back in '89, I simply slid into place. Buddy, buddy, buddy all up in your face. A lot of kids was busting rhymes, but they had no taste. Some said Quest was wack, but now is that the case? I have a quest to have a mic in my hand. Without that, it's like kryptonite and Superman. So, Shaheed, come in with the sugar cuts. Phife Dawg's my name, but on stage call me Dynomutt.
PHIFE DAWG: Me and Q-Tip were best friends from like 2 to 15. Me and Jarobi became best friends from like 12 until now. Ali Shaheed went to the same high school as Q-Tip. That's how they met.
KELLEY: Rapper Phife says, back then, Tribe was part of a bigger community of people in New York making music that they believe was important, a community of people that made music together and pushed each other to be better.
Tribe made sure to thank some of those people on record.
(Soundbite of song)
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST (Music Group): And I want to (unintelligible) to my man (unintelligible), my man (unintelligible).
KELLEY: A Tribe Called Quest burned hot and bright. They brought jazz into hip-hop. They had a huge impact on their peers and on a younger generation.
And then, it all fell apart.
Mr. RAPAPORT: The Beatles broke up. Led Zeppelin broke up. Jimi Hendrix even broke up his group and formed another group. Public Enemy broke up. It just -it happens.
KELLEY: In the story Michael Rapaport tries to tell in his film, Tribe broke up because Q-Tip and Phife vied for control and credit. But the story the band tells is different. While they were in the studio, their world was changing.
Mr. JAROBI: The largest difference between the hip-hop game now and back then is that people make songs. They don't do projects. We did projects. Notice I didn't even say album. We did projects.
PHIFE DAWG: I just know about my group and why we came together. But the way I see it, as of right now, you don't see a lot of that because you have to split that money three, four ways.
KELLEY: Phife and Jarobi and the other two members of Tribe agreed to make the movie because they wanted their work to be documented, and their peers pushed them to do it. Nas, one of the most celebrated MCs in hip-hop, told Ali Shaheed that Tribe is hip-hop's Beatles.
And there was perhaps another reason. By the time Rapaport came calling, Phife was sick from diabetes. Eventually, he needed a kidney, which his wife donated.
Making the movie helped at least some of them talk about the good times and the bad.
PHIFE DAWG: I guess I needed therapy for going through what I went through, or at least while I was going through it. And I usually don't talk about it with anyone. And when I started talking to him about it, it felt like that's really what it was - therapy. You know what I'm saying? I just really put it out there, knowing that he was going to show the world. You know what I mean? And I was like, yo, so, OK, you got the beats. You got the rhymes. This is life right here.
KELLEY: As for all of those unanswered questions - the whys, the what-ifs - the answers are in the music.
Frannie Kelley, NPR News, New York.
(Soundbite of song, "Can I Kick It?")
Q-TIP: (Singing) Can I kick it?
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Yes, you can.
Q-TIP: (Singing) Well, I'm gone.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Go on, then.
Q-TIP: (Singing) Can I kick it? To all the people who can Quest like A Tribe does. Before this, did you really know what live was? Comprehend to the track, for it's why because getting measures on the tip of the vibers. Rock and roll to the beat of the funk fuzz. Wipe your feet...
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.