Michael Rapaport, Actor and Director: Interview on The Sound of Young America

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Bullseye
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Michael Rapaport

Michael Rapaport (above right, with Q-Tip) has an extensive list of acting credits, from Woody Allen films to roles on Boston Public, Friends, and Prison Break. For his newest project, he began with a vision to profile his favorite hip-hop group, A Tribe Called Quest, and ended up documenting their deep-rooted friendships and conflicts along with the musical history of the group.

The movie is called Beats, Rhymes and Life, and features interviews with members Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Mohammed and Jarobi White. Animated sequences of Tribe songs are interspersed with remarks from hip-hop producers, radio personalities and rappers, and give a portrait of the time as well as of the group itself. The film opens in NYC and LA on July 8th.

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JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest is Michael Rapaport. He is, of course, best known as an actor, having worked for some 20 odd years with legendary directors like Woody Allen and Spike Lee, and on numerous television programs, innumerable films, in audio, all over everywhere.

He's here today, though, for his directorial debut; a documentary called Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. It's the story of one of hip hops most significant and storied groups, and I know one of the most significant to Rapaport specifically. It opens July 8th in New York and Los Angeles.

Michael, I want to ask you personally what A Tribe Called Quest meant to you in 1989, 90, when they came out and you were a very young man; you were at an impressionable age.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: There was an excitement about them. Honestly, their first album to me, when I look back on it now, it's like if you're walking around school on lunchtime and you're passing by all these different conversations. One conversation is about this girl who's pretty with a nice ass and I want to meet her, what's her name? Her name's Bonita. You keep walking and there's another conversation about being from Queens and what that means to you. Then there's another conversation going on about safe sex. There's other kids that are more serious militant kids and they're talking about ham and eggs, and we don't eat pork, and we take care of our bodies and we're conscious and all that stuff.

That first album was youthful. It was very innocent, it wasn't contrived; it was just colorful and really epitomized what it felt like for me as an 18 year old growing up in New York City. It felt like these kids that you knew.

JESSE THORN: It seems like that humanity is at the core of what they represented along with the rest of The Native Tongues, De La Soul notably, at the time. Hip hop was all about this kind of grand epic scale. The kind of rock and roll epic scale of Run DMC or the militant epic scale of Public Enemy or the super crazy performer rhymer Big Daddy King epic scale. There's a big different between that and a character on the microphone who's a person, just like someone who you would see in high school.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: They were very honest and vulnerable. One of their famous songs is “Bonita Applebum.” It wasn't like, I'm gonna do you and do this to you! It was like, I just want to take you out, can I dance with you? There was a sweetness to it. There was a sexuality to it, but it wasn't over the top. The Rolling Stones have “Angie,” and The Doors wrote “Gloria,” they wrote “Bonita Applebum.”

JESSE THORN: In Tribe's career there was this first album that, as you say, is distinguished by its tone, but it's not their most coherent and cohesive album. They came out, they had “Bonita Applebum,” a sizable hit, but it was very difficult for them to imagine what their next record would be. In fact, we have a clip from the film in which Q-Tip is talking about making their second album, The Low End Theory.
Do you remember when you first heard The Low End Theory?

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: I do exactly remember that, and I don't have a great memory, but it was a distinct memory. I was in Detroit filming my first movie, Zebrahead. It was in the summer and the radio was on, and I was like, what's this? The DJ said this is the new song from A Tribe Called Quest. I was like, holy crap. It was big, full, rich. At the time I wasn't a “go to the record store and buy an album” guy, I was a radio guy.

But then Low End Theory came out. I got the tape, every song on the album was great and every song was so different, and they were talking about jazz and there was jazz samples and Ron Carter, I was like, who the hell is Ron Carter? The cover art of the girl in the shape with green black and red, it was conscious without beating you over the head. It was perfection. It was excellent.

JESSE THORN: A Tribe Called Quest are one of the greatest hip hop groups of all time. There are a lot of other great hip hop groups and artists: there's Eric B and Rakim, there's Outkast, there's the Wu-Tang Clan, there's a dozen or 20 groups that are also monstrously significant in the history of hip hop. What was it specifically about A Tribe Called Quest that made you want to not only make a film, but make - - this is your first directing effort. To make transform what you do in your life from being actor into being director, there must have been some specific impetus.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: The instinct to make this movie came from, in 1998, their last show was publicized as their last show in New York when the put out The Love Movement. I was at that last show, and I said to my girlfriend at the time, I feel like my parents are getting divorced. I said that night, somebody should do a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest. You just didn't expect it to end.

For a group to make three great albums, and then a fourth really good album, and then a fifth album that had probably their biggest song, a great song, on it, but for their last album to be not as good and as cohesive as the other ones. For them to break up, you felt like they would never break up. Just like when The Beatles broke up, it was devastating to the fans. For hip hop, Tribe breaking up, you just didn't think it would happen. You weren't surprised when this group broke up, and you weren’t surprised when that group broke up, Tribe Called Quest it was like, oh, no.

On that night I said somebody should do a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest. Every time I would see Q-Tip around New York or people around the group, Christ Lighty, I would always ask is Tribe gonna make more music? They should make more music. Why don't they just make more music. The solo album was good, but they should make more music.

I love the music that that time in my life, hip hop, I knew that those guys are the same age as me, and I knew that - - I never wanted to be a rapper, I just loved the music. I knew without asking that they listened to the radio and recorded the radio like that was gold.

JESSE THORN: That's Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest talking about hearing himself on the radio for the very first time.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: Hip hop and what happened from that golden era of hip hop as they like to call it, informs everything about popular culture today. The T-Mobile girl is standing there with the white kid rapping, and it's not like, what the hell is this? It's not mockery, it's not exploitative, it's like, yeah, of course there's a T-Mobile girl standing next to the white kid rapping, what the hell is he going to do, play the electric guitar? No, he's going to rap.

Justin Bieber is beat boxing. Of course he's beat boxing, that's part of the routine now. Beyonce will rhyme. Michelle Obama is doing the Dougie. Nancy Reagan wasn't doing the Dougie. This is acceptable part of popular culture.

JESSE THORN: The closest she got was sitting on Mr. T's lap.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: Exactly. Hip hop and what came from that time was looked at in the 80s like - -

JESSE THORN: That was the inflection point. The early 90s is when it transformed from a sub-cultural phenomenon to a mass cultural phenomenon.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: And it's grown ever since, for better or for worse.

JESSE THORN: That footage that you shot backstage at Rock the Bells was the first footage that you shot on this film.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: That was the first thing. Right before Tribe arrived, I did my interview with De La Soul.

JESSE THORN: The scene is, if I'm remembering correctly, Dave says - - you ask him - -

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: I said is this A Tribe Called Quest's last show, and he says, I hope it is. There's a pause, and you see Pos from De La gasp and say, you just said that? I say really? He goes yeah, I hope it is, because if they're not going to do it and do it right, they should just stop; I don't like being around it, and for the fans it's not genuine. A Tribe Called Quest is about love, and if they're not loving each other they should just stop.

I knew that that would be in the movie because it was so on the money and so truthful and so not emotionally involved. He just stated it. It’s the only thing he says in the movie, and he just laid it out there. Every cut of the film that we had, and we had a bunch of them, that was in there. My producers would do that, why are you so insistent on having that? You can't hear it, we're going to have to subtitle it. I was like, him saying that is spot on and him saying that is the truth laid out.

JESSE THORN: What was it like for you when you showed up thinking that the documentary you were going to make was going to exclusively be about celebrating this amazing music and the effect that it had on the culture, which is certainly an important part of the documentary; but, you were just dropped into a situation where the members of the group were, essentially, at each other's throats. They almost fight in the film.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: There was two things going on. Watching people you don't know argue can be uncomfortable. Watching people you admire and have a lot of respect for, really - - you could feel the tension in the room, and you could feel like something was off. Being around that is always uncomfortable, but being around it with someone when you're not expecting it - - I wasn't aware of it, I didn't make this movie because someone tipped me off that they didn't get along.

I want to make sure to clarify, it's not like their relationship is - - it's brotherly. It's out of love, and the love and the hate. It's that classic dynamic. I want to preface that. But being around that was upsetting. I've been in relationships with people that I love that are fractured. It's hard to go through that. I related to that, and that's why, story-wise, I went to that and let that play out. All the music stuff and all the glory and all the sampling and all the impact of their music, that's easy to document. They did that. They did the work for me, it's just a matter of piecing it together, picking the right stuff, editing it correctly. To the story of it, the sort of implosion of the group was more challenging to piece together and to edit and to structure, and also very exciting.

JESSE THORN: A Tribe Called Quest has three core members, two MCs, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, who is a DJ and also sometimes producer. This is a story about these three guys, and also Tribe Called Quest's sometimes-fourth member Jarobi.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: That was a big surprise.

JESSE THORN: It's hard to put a finger on what his role is in A Tribe Called Quest because he isn't a vocalist and he's not a producer; he's like totemic. Jarobi's role in this film is, he's like, in the group even, he is a symbol of their relationship with each other.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: And you hear him talking on the first album, he was going to rap on the second album, there's verses he did on Low End Theory, and then he left the group. You would see him on the first album, he was awkward looking, odd looking, then you'd hear rumors like, oh yeah, Jarobi's in jail. And Jarobi's in a mental hospital. It was like folklore about Jarobi. What happened to Jarobi, where's Jarobi. I heard he's sick, I heard he's on crack. Really, I just thought when I interviewed Jarobi was going to answer what the hell happened to Jarobi. I wanted it to be a little side thing.

JESSE THORN: Like you'd do a little segment, Jarobi turned out to become a professional chef.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: Exactly. I didn't know the dynamic and the impact and the importance of his relationship to the group. I didn't know the closeness of him and Phife.

JESSE THORN: You see when he's talking about his relationship, and he grew up very close with Phife. When he talks about his relationship with Phife and the relationships of A Tribe Called Quest you see that the reason he was in the group is because he was in part the soul of the group.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: Q-Tip calls him the spirit of A Tribe Called Quest. What did he do musically? It wasn't about music, it was about just keeping them going forward, keeping everything balanced. Four is a better number than three when you're dealing with people. I think he was that stabilizing presence there, and he brings a lot to the movie. He brings a lot of emotion to the film.

JESSE THORN: There's no shortage of emotion in the film. You're talking about a situation where Phife Dawg is diabetic.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: He's the funk diabetic.

JESSE THORN: And he has struggled terribly with his health over the past ten years or so, and in fact was struggling with his help even before A Tribe Called Quest dissolved. He also doesn't have the name to trade on that Q-Tip does. Q-Tip had a couple of solo hits and has a reputation as a producer that Phife doesn't have. So Phife is in a very precarious and scary position, literally scary because it's mortal for him.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: His health deteriorated in the last - - he talks about it candidly in the film, and I cut out a lot of stuff about it because it was almost too indulgent. It would have been too indulgent as a filmmaker. The way his voice is, he has a boisterous quality about him, less is more with him. He's unfiltered, and he talks about his health and his struggles with his health in the same way with his addiction to sugar.

It sounds funny, you get a laugh - - that's what I love about the movie is that he'll be talking about his addiction to sugar, like, “Yeah, I love Lorna Doones and Snickers and Pina Coladas.” And you're laughing, but in having this addiction it's destroying his body, and it pushed him to the brink of - - he almost died. He was so emotional and so honest and so open about it that it's really - - it takes your breath away.

JESSE THORN: As a filmmaker, like a lot of documentary filmmakers, you're in a very difficult position, which is you're making this film about these people. Particularly in a music documentary where you need their position to use their music, even if you have their permission to shoot them on camera, and that's put you in a very difficult position the last six months or so as the group has had lots of contention, both among themselves and with you in the film.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: Yup, the Twitter.

JESSE THORN: Yeah, there was a Twitter back and forth and there was Ali Shaheed and Q-Tip did an MTV interview with Sway that was not positive about a lot of things, and then at the end they said you should go see the movie.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: It was very confusing and distorted.

JESSE THORN: At one point one of the producers of the film accidentally hit reply instead of forward on an email and sent out an email that was about a dispute over producer credits, and this producer that you were working with said - -

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: “Fuck em, I don't want them to be producers.”

JESSE THORN: “We're going to fuck them on this and everything,” I believe, I'm working from memory.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: That caused a rift, and that was an accident. To this day - - they didn't ask to be producers until December 19th. They were like, we're ready to move forward, we love the final cut of the movie, but Tribe Called Quest and their managers would like producer credits. I sent an email out, a very professional, thought-out email saying, you know what, I don't think you guys should be producers of the movie because, number one, you didn't produce the movie, number two it makes it feel like propaganda. It could feel like this was a contrived thing, and it wasn't. I don't think that it puts the best face forward for the movie.

In response to my email, one of my producers pressed reply all saying what he said, which caused a whole uproar, to which he apologized for and I apologized for endlessly, but they took that and ran with it and ran with it and ran with it, and threatened to shutdown the movie, and threatened to put cease and desists and all these legal things because of this email. I was in such a vulnerable position I was calling them literally begging, going, he apologized, I apologized, this is what was going on.

JESSE THORN: It must be really hard for you because not only is this the first film you've ever directed, not only have you put two and a half years of your life into this, but these are people that you admire or you wouldn't be making this movie.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: The whole thing was upsetting and disturbing and frustrating; and, at that point, frightening. I knew we had something good. There was a lot of anticipation about the movie being at Sundance. And then they're trying to be producers on the movie, and then threatening to shut down the movie.

That John Cassavetes moment came to me, who has been a big inspiration to me as an actor and as an artist. I looked at myself in the mirror and I was like, you ain't shutting down shit. You're not shutting down anything. I'll tell you one thing, and I told them this, I'm going to be at Sundance with this movie, playing it, whether it's in the festival or not. You're not stopping me, you're not stopping this movie. I'll hand out DVDs. I'm going to Sundance. You're not getting in the way of this. This is the uncut version of that situation.

Ultimately they got back on board, and right before Sundance, they said Tribe Called Quest is not coming to Sundance, but we're supporting the movie, then Phife ended up coming to Sundance. The thing about that is Ali Shaheed Muhammed had prior engagements, he wasn't coming to Sundance no matter what. Need to make sure I say that.

JESSE THORN: He was on tour.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: And that was booked since the fall. The rest of the guys, Q-Tip didn't show up to Sundance, and Jarobi didn't show up to Sundance, and Phife was there by himself and the movie premiers and it's a very emotional movie, and Phife was there, and it was a very emotional time for him and it was a very emotional time to have your movie received the way it was. Then there was more stuff in the press, and that was kind of singled out.

Honestly, since the movie got accepted into Sundance - - the editing process and finishing it, the completion of making the movie is enormously hard, but since the movie got into Sundance, dealing with all this stuff and then dealing with the group, finishing the movie, clearing music, dealing with the craziness in the press and the Twittering and the MTV interviews, fighting that, has been such a shocking surprise and I honestly should have been documenting the last six months, it would have been better than anything that was in this movie. The whole package of it would have been nuts, and it would have been very good for other filmmakers. This is what it takes to make a movie in this day and age.

JESSE THORN: The movie seems like ultimately it's about that love that Dave from De La Soul talked about. It's about fraternal friendship, that real brotherhood family relationship between these guys. I can only imagine that it's hard to have yourself inserted in there.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: It was very hard. I'm not a little wilted flower, I'm not a delicate - -

JESSE THORN: Really Michael Rapaport, you're not?

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: I know, a lot of people think that I'm very sensitive and gentle.

JESSE THORN: You have a reputation as a soft spoken guy.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: I'm very, you gotta be careful with me because - -

JESSE THORN: You've certainly been typecast in that sort of role.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: I always play that delicate kind of Edward Scissorhands, like there's a tear in my eye.

The thing that makes me be able to laugh about it is that when the movie is screened in front of audiences, it's been just - - the humor that was found in the movie, there was things that I thought were funny, but there's so much humor and emotion, and it's only right to me. Tribe Called Quest's music was very emotional. The emotion that's in the film, it's only right. It just worked. It's just worked out, and I'm so proud of the film and all the people that worked with me on the film and that put up with me on the film and that carried me at times when I was like, I can't do it. We had a good team around. I had a little tribe making the movie. It was cool, my kids being patient with me, it's been fun.

JESSE THORN: Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America.

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: I really appreciate the interview and your insight into it, it was cool.

JESSE THORN: Why don't we go out on that Tribe Called Quest's song that changed Michael Rapaport's life, “Can I Kick It.”

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: Yes you can.

JESSE THORN: Michael Rapaport is the director of Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. It hits theaters in a staged release this week. You can find out when it's coming to your town at www.sonyclassics.com/beatsrhymesandlife.

Our transcripts are provided by Sean Sampson. If you're interested in contacting him for transcription work, email him here.

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