Beats Rhymes & Life – A NiteHawk story…

Sometimes you wonder why things haven’t always been a certain way that seems to make the most sense. When walking into a place such as Williamsburg’s NiteHawk Cinema, you instantly hate every movie experience that you’ve had before then. It’s a “could have had a V8” kind of moment where you’re immediately spoiled. I recently went to the theatre this past weekend to see their debut screening of Michael Rappaport’s documentary on A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, Rhymes & Life.

Now, sure, there’s been plenty of theatres with amenities and service features. This is nothing new. And yeah, by now you’ve probably heard or read a dozen reviews of Beats, Rhymes & Life. But what makes this different is that this is the first theatre like this in New York City.  Brooklyn to be exact. And really, it’s not like any other. It’s laid back, with a bar and a hipster aesthetic, but a feel that’s classic New York. Also, this is not any regular review. This movie holds a sentimental place for me because I went to see it with my boys and fellow members of my own erstwhile rap group, The Balance. How ironic that we’re sitting on the footage for our own documentary, 3 years in the making now.

Nitehawk was suggested by the homie Khadj about 2 months ago. He told me the scope of things and I looked it up to see what it was all about, but I couldn’t be prepared enough for what it’s like to really be there. Just pulling up to the theatre feels like pulling up to a Brooklyn hotspot. It looks clubbish. Then the ground level bar adds to the it factor by providing a hangout kind of atmosphere where one can go after or before viewing a film or simply stay if doing neither. This is only bolstered by the second bar upstairs on the theatre level where you’re greeted by friendly staff that will serve you drinks and take your ticket order. The viewing rooms themselves are what the movie experience is made of: Plush red and black seats separated by movable arm rests and triangular tables between them, with so much space in front of each row that you’d have to be Yao Ming to kick the seat of the person in front of you. There is no chance of that annoying ‘excuse me’ dance that people have to do when they have to get up out of their seats for something and shuffle through the row.  You’re then greeted by an accommodating wait staff that will check your ticket, take your order and instruct on how to make further requests after the movie starts. This is what makes Nitehawk special; you’re equipped with a pen and pad on your table, complete with a ringed holder where you can place it to order more items cool and quietly without disturbing anyone’s experience – including your own. The menu is uniquely gourmet and quirky while maintaining a casual movie-friendliness to it. Things that stand out like the fried peanut butter and jelly bites and the other decadent desserts will keep word-of-mouth buzzing, and though there is not yet a way to get served alcoholic beverages while watching the movie, the in-house drink specials without alcohol are memorable. Besides, you can reach the upstairs bar almost quicker than the bathroom by taking one step out of the screening room. Unfortunately, there’s only one bathroom, so just hope for no lines (there’s also one at the downstairs bar). The brightest side to all of this and the cherry on top is the uber-cool manager Jess G, who will greet patrons with a warm smile and is visible throughout – even handling service duties herself.

As far as Rappaport’s foray into documentary filmmaking, his obvious fandom comes across. He doesn’t waste our time with an introduction of himself, assuming that if you don’t already know who he is, then it’s inconsequential to the film. The doc begins predominantly as a Q-Tip show, with a lot of the focus on his thoughts on how the roots of Hip-Hop shaped the movement that fueled the group. And while members like Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad are introduced and interviewed one by one, their roles are never really explored or defined. This is not helped by the fact that a great deal of time is spent praising Q-Tip for his sampling and production genius. There is no real denying that Q-Tip is the nucleus and leader of A Tribe Called Quest, and he spends as much time refuting that notion as he spends crediting himself for most of the groundbreaking elements of the group. This is what allows the viewer to see the Tribe dilemma from all angles. It’s probably the biggest point of contention for any reservations or apprehension stemming from the group itself about the movie. You either love Q-Tip or don’t like him as much after watching the film and apparently Phife leans more toward the latter. Although Phife is introduced and noted here and there in the first half of the film, it’s not until the last half where he gets the most attention when discussing his turmoil with Q-Tip and his battle with diabetes. Between Phife’s obvious underachiever pattern and desire to stake his own claim in life (as seen by his foray into sports journalism) and the iconic lure surrounding Q-Tip’s career during and post-Tribe, it’s easy to see why the group fell apart. This is the climactic point of the film that brings the life out of it. Jarobi and Ali just come across as commentators and bystanders who either sway towards team Phife or team Q-Tip (in this case, Jarobi being Phife’s best friend, and Ali appearing to rock more with Tip by default).  It’s wise to infer that a significant portion of the film got scaled down and edited out, as made evident by the slew of cameo clips in the ending credits from rappers and industry insiders whose interviews did not make it into the documentary. This is probably disappointing to true fans who would have loved to hear more from artists like De La Soul or Busta Rhymes, who actually have a longstanding working relationship and friendship with the group, and less of Pharrell drooling over them (which is cool by the way, because his commentary served as a highlight, but still…). A great job is done on emphasizing the importance of the group’s catalogue, but Rappaport seems to be a bigger fan of their earlier work. He uses a couple songs more than once throughout the film instead of throwing in some other classics, and when the film approaches their later releases, they just get glazed over. Rappaport ends things with footage from the group’s newer tour efforts and a suggestive blurb across the screen that informs that they are still obligated for one last album under their original contract with Jive records…Leaving hope for Tribe Stans still crossing their fingers.

At the end of the day, nothing beats getting that Midnight screening V.I.P. service (Thanks Jess). But more importantly, nothing beats seeing this kind of film with my crew and thinking about the similarities in our own story. We cracked up at the coincidences and the comparable traits between Q-Tip, Sol-Leks and I. We spazzed out as the classic verses dropped and rapped along, and Sek kept asking when me and WhoIsNumber5? are going to get to work on our documentary. A Dope moment in history and a great effort by Rappaport to document what no one else would…and get it into theatres at that. Good to know that it came from a fan. I’m not even technically one of ATCQ, but their music is a huge part of my life’s soundtrack so it can’t be denied. I’m inspired to work on this doc, and to step up my movie theatre game. I suggest you do the same. And NiteHawk is an excellent place to start.

“Ayo Shaheed, take us the F*ck outta here!”

(17) Classic Sounds…

Like…

Speaking of Homophobia, and I say that because of this clip right here,  here’s a group that went against the popular Hip-Hop grain, made a song about a penis and rapped over house music. Say What??!

The groundbreaking founders of the legendary Native Tongues collective were apart of the wave of afrocentric rap outfits that almost dominated the late 80’s scene. What separated the Jungle Brothers from the pack, however, was their expressiveness and desire to party that matched their desire to drop jewels. Unlike the Public Enemy‘s and X-Klan‘s of the time, Jungle Brothers saw the lighthearted side of things, and used Hip-Hop as a mechanism to make people think and dance in the same swoop. The similarities between those groups, were the clever uses of funk/soul samples into drum-centered, vocal snippet heavy jams.

The production on this particular album is from that clever class that helped the Native Tongues click become popular. The infusion of different samples from jazz and funk songs were placed in such ways that didn’t dilute the distinct Hip-Hop song like some rap, but were more creative than just a straightforward loop or replayed interpolation. While the verses are usually just consisting of break beats, there’s a horn break here, a guitar loop there, and then a cavalcade of vocal samples that range from African chants to spoken word phrases. Yet, the sum of all of it’s parts is simplicity. It doesn’t come off as scratching and mixing caucophony like alot of songs from that era. The putting together is the production, but it’s the cohesion that makes it come off as seamless as if it were in fact one loop.

A great example of this is on tracks like “On The Run” and the album’s title track and lead off cut, “Straight Out The Jungle”. This may be the album where the group showed the most balance of their career, vacillating effortlessly between smooth and concise delivery and more upbeat and faster paced ones. On the former, the group gets funky and mirrors the pace the title suggests. It’s an uptempo groove that finds the group’s two rappers, Afrika Baby Bam and Mike G trading lines that make them seem like they’re moving through something with purpose. It’s not so much that they speed up their individual flows, but they keep up with the beat, which seems busy due to the scratches and elements that dj Sammie B continuously throws in there. On the latter, it’s the opposite. Probably some of the coolest blending of conscious and bravado ever seen in rap, the two rappers go back and forth in calm cadences, using a rhythmic default melody that has you rapping along with it before the song is over. They also make eloquent use of the jungle theme as they pass the mic in a flawless relay. This is all done over a stripped down guitar loop for the verses and great vocal parts brought in for the hook and breakdown that bring the song alive. It was their debut song and one of the best introductory cuts ever for a rap group.

The balance continues not only in tone, but in topic as the group spends a considerable amount of time between dropping pro-Black gems and describing their lifestyle and what makes them fly on addressing the ladies. There’s subtle tracks like “Behind The Bush”, which is just as laid back as the title track and cleverly suggestive(and begins with the horn sample that is used everytime  they rap on the remix of De La Soul‘s Uber classic “Buddy”), then you have not so subtle tracks like the infamous “Jimbrowski”. Coining a term that quickly became Native Tongue slang and fell right in line with the “Jimmy” parade going on in rap at the time, this song was bold. Basically, it’s an ode to the rappers’ genitalia that finds them characterizing and personalizing it and providing sexual braggadocio in an overly playful way that avoids graphic description. Featuring all kinds of zany background adlibs from legendary dj Red Alert, the song was a big enough deal to garner it’s own instrumental remix on the album called “Jimmy’s Bonus Beat”. Despite it’s lack of raunch, it is still a very blatant sex song that is kind of reckless for a bunch of dudes running around wearing African medallions. But the Jungle Brothers never claimed to be saints, nor prophets. They never took the mantle of being the CNN of the streets, or being the voice of the unheard.

It’s this absolving of responsibility that allowed them to walk the line between fun and consciousness. So when they crossed boundaries that were only crossed by local clubs outside of New York in areas that hadn’t broke into the mainstream yet, and made a rap song over a beat by a house music producer, it kind of made sense that it was them. “I’ll House You” was a breakout hit that despite journalists review of this album as a commercial failure, cemented the group in rap history. And to my knowledge as a kid in the 80’s I distinctly remember my cousins in Brooklyn bugging out to this song and hearing it everywhere. I didn’t understand why this house song about house was being considered rap music. It’s the equivalent of someone trying to explain Kid Cudi to me now. Yet, as a grown man now with some music knowledge and Hip-Hop appreciation, I’ve come to value this song as pioneering to the subsequent movement that followed in the late 80’s and early 90’s where rappers began mixing house in to often shameful results. They took a risk and made it okay for rappers to step out of their box. It’s catchy as hell and in my opinion, it’s the only rap/house song that really worked. I only hope that they feel as though they’ve gotten their appropriate recognition for that. 

One thing that they should get recognized for, is the fact that they brought another game changing element with them. To add to their laid back ethos, the Jungle Brothers represented another shift that was taking place in rap; the intonation. A departure from the super animated and commanding voices that dominated the previous decade of rap, the JB’s were lighter-voiced and full of melodic-based confidence that was sort of a throwback to the days of the Cold Crush Brothers, yet so indicative of the new school that they were representing. Having that said, it’s only poetic justice that this album introduces us to the king of the light voiced rappers, Q-Tip. Appearing on the very necessary and very popular track “Black Is Black”, Q-Tip makes his impression felt, and this was before there the debut album of A Tribe Called Quest. This is where the group’s impact is most felt. Whereas the title track briefly and lightly touched on their conscious angle with lines like “Men killing men just because of one’s color/ in this lifetime, I’ve seen nothing dumber”, they address the color issue exactly on this song with lines like “My light complexion has no meaning/ If you think so, you’re still dreaming” and “I tried and tried to tell my people/we all are one, created equal/before we master, we must plan/is that so hard to understand??” And tho this is probably the cheesiest song on the album, it is by no means wack. And it was a topic dying to be spoken about that not enough rappers have tackled to this day.

The group also gets heavy on the track “What’s Going On”, which features one the best, but sloppiest samples of a Marvin Gaye song ever. Using vignettes of everyday drama, the group paint a picture of a world suffering from way too much negativity. 

As a pioneering group for the afro-centric age of Hip-Hop, the Jungle Brothers brought us untouched topics, pride for African roots among Blacks, House rap and Q-Tip. They are definitely employers of the one lightskinned, one darkskinned formula for rap groups with 2 main rappers, yet they taught us to look past that because “Black Is Black”.  What’s interesting is that their voices don’t have any huge distinguishing qualities from one another on this album…It’s more a matter of their inflections that help you tell them apart if not watching a video or listening intently. And while for some reason their follow-up album has received more critical acclaim, this album has gone on to heralded as a classic as it rightfully should.

My favorite tracks here are “Braggin’ & Boastin”, “I’m Gonna Do You”, The super boombastic “Because I Got It Like That” (which I ride around with on my iPod and has a massive amount of remixes) and on the later releases, their original promotional single, aptly titled, “The Promo” was added to the album. Also featuring Q-Tip, this is one of my favorite Hip-Hop beats. 

All Together, this album gets 16 Candles out of a possible

4812 or 16.

4(Classic Just because where it stands in Hip-Hop, whether it be the time of it’s release, it’s influence, or the popularity of it’s singles overall)

8(Classic because it was solid for it’s time, but may be a little dated or less than amazing by today’s standards)

12(Classic as a complete release and probably celebrated widely on the surface, but possibly lacking one key element – be it one song that doesn’t fit, a wack guest appearance, lyrics, lack of depth or beats)

16(Classic all around)

More like a 14 but once I give a 16, it’s a 16. And as far as Afrika’s questionable persona….Look up his new musical endeavors and judge for yourselves…For now, enjoy the music.