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Michael Rapaport—Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, Small Time Crooks—7/14/11

[The following interview—taped at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel—first aired on Celluloid Dreams.]

Groucho: Michael Rapaport is best known as an actor in films like True Romance, Deep Blue Sea, John Singleton’s Higher Learning, Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks and Mighty Aphrodite and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. He has also made his mark on TV in a recurring capacity on Friends, My Name is Earl and Prison Break and as a regular on the sitcom The War at Home and the David E. Kelley dramedy Boston Public. Now he’s the director and producer of the new documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, about the seminal hip hop group comprised of Q Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White. Michael Rapaport, welcome to Celluloid Dreams.

Michael Rapaport: Thanks for having me. How’s it going?

Groucho: Good. Since we’re on the radio here, it seems like it would be a good place to start to talk about the radio. Tell me about your parents and how they influenced your career.

Michael Rapaport: My father was the general manager of a radio station in New York City in the '70s. The name of the station—it still exists but it’s a different was WKT Disco 92—the first station in New York City to play disco music.

G: He was Disco Dave.

MR: He was Disco Dave because he was the one who pushed the button for them to get switched. He wasn’t a radio personality; he was the general manager—he doesn’t like when it gets misconstrued. I said, "Dad, no one gives a crap." But anyway, he brought home a lot of music over the years. Music was always a part of my life, and there was an eclectic kind of taste being listened to in my house. But when I was eight or nine years old, he brought home a promotional copy of The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." And he said, "You’ve got to listen to this. You and your brother gotta listen to this. This is rap music."

G: Yeah. The cutting edge.

MR: And he started playing this on the radio. And that changed my whole life. I mean, him bringing that record home exposed me to rap music, to hip hop, very early. I fell in love with it instantly as everybody does—especially when you’re a kid. It was like Dr. Seuss comes to life. And they were talking about all these special places and special things in a fun way with a simple but funky beat. And then after that I started hearing that "Oh, this station is playing rap too. And oh, if you stay up late, there’s a whole rap show," and, you know, we would sit by the radio and listen to it and then record it. And those tapes were like gold. They were literally like gold. When you were in New York and you had possession of them. I mean—it was a big deal. Listening to the music changed a lot of things in the course of my life, I think—because it exposed me to a lot of things, made me curious about a lot of things I probably wouldn’t have been curious about. And the radio has been a part of my life since I was a kid. So it’s something I’m very familiar with.

G: Did you ever think you might do rap yourself?

MR: Never thought I’d do rap myself. Never could do it. Never really tried to do it. I mean, when you’re in New York, everybody will try to rhyme a little bit, but I knew right away that that wasn’t my forte.

G: Yeah. But you started out rocking the mic as a stand-up comic.

MR: Yes. Rocking the mic as a stand-up comic.

G: Now do you remember hearing your first Tribe Called Quest cut or how you first got into that?

MR: Yeah. I first heard Tribe Called Quest on the radio, on 98.7 KISS FM in New York City. DJ Red Alert played a song by The Jungle Brothers called "The Promo" that Q Tip was on. And I was just immediately curious—like it was like A Tribe Called Quest, which was interesting—the name was long: I didn’t know if it was Quest or is it Tribe or what is it? And his voice and his flow—his voice was very distinctive at the time. And I became a fan instantly. And then when they came out with their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, I just loved it. It was just perfection. And I was—the thing that I loved about it was the samples were familiar; it sampled songs, like "Can I Kick It?" was the Lou Reed "Walk on the Wild Side" sample. I mean, I loved that song as a kid. And that song was probably my first favorite song. So hearing it in a rap song which was my new favorite kind of music was just excellent. And then I just stayed a fan of theirs and then, you know, was always curious about them and inspired by them, and their music just gave me so many fond memories. And then when the group broke up in 1998—them breaking up and my curiosity about whether they will ever record again or why they broke up in the first place is what spawned this documentary.

G: The film tells the story of their past and their origins and their peak, and then it has an eye to the future, as you say, about whether or not they’re going to continue to record. And as the author of the film, I imagine it also basically—as you sort of accumulated it and edited it...must represent your point of view as to why you like them. In the words of those you asked about them...

MR: Yeah. I think the film absolutely speaks to why I like the band. And speaks to the musicality and the feeling that their music gave all of us, and getting other very prolific artists to talk about A Tribe Called Quest was probably one of the easier things on this journey. Obviously, coming into it, I was very informed about the music and I had a lot of points of view about the music. The thing that I wasn’t informed about, and the thing that I really didn’t have any knowledge or point of view about is their relationships and the dynamic of the relationships. So it was kind of a dichotomy in making the film because there were certain things that I just knew had to be in the movie, and there were certain things that I didn’t even know existed, which caused for excitement and also overwhelming feelings in the editing room because a lot of it was—we were exposed to such great footage across the board right off the top; it was hard to sift through it and get the best stuff.

G: I guess what I also was sort of getting to with that question is—though you never have the opportunity to be a talking head in the movie, your voice is there in every frame of it.

MR: Yeah.

G: Can you talk a little bit about how you wanted to speak through the medium of film—

MR: Got it. Well, one thing I didn’t want to do—and I don’t mean this in any disrespectful way, because I’m a huge fan—I didn’t want it to be like a Michael Moore doc, which I think, again, are excellent. But I didn’t want it to be Michael Rapaport and A Tribe Called Quest.

G: Right.

MR: I didn’t want to interfere with that. I didn’t want it to be a part of the movie. I wanted to just be the director of the movie. I was comfortable with having my voice and my sort of passion for them being present. But I was very—I mean there’s a lot of great footage of me with the group that I think is really fun and it will wind up on the DVD with me kind of trying to chase rappers down, which is a challenge at times. But I wanted the film to be about the guys. Once it became real clear about that in the editing room, it made things easier because if it wasn’t solely about A Tribe Called Quest or the four members of A Tribe Called Quest, it had to go—which is why some things didn’t make it into the final cut. And I’m very glad that I’m not really in the movie. And I felt like that was the right way to go.

G: Can you talk about your choices in terms of sort of the style: how you’d present the material and the choice of the animated segments and that sort of thing?

MR: Yeah. Well, there were certain sequences I had a very clear understanding that I wanted. And really, that’s more of the historical stuff. Anything that’s involving the music—it was kind of—you know, we had a structure from the beginning. The more challenging stuff was more the cinema verité stuff—which is the stuff in regards to the relationship, which is totally unpredictable and unplanned. The animation—which was done by a great animator, a great artist by the name of James Blagden—I saw a short film that he did called "Dock Ellis’ No No," which is about a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who in 1970—70-something—pitched a game against the San Francisco Giants on acid, and pitched a no-hitter. And James did a great short film about that. I saw him and met him; I just reached out to him and then told him what I was doing. He said he wanted to be a part of it. And what we were trying to do with the animation in the film is what we refer to as "sprinkle magic." Because everything about A Tribe Called Quest was magical—the music, the artwork, the album covers [were] all magic. So when we were going back in time and, you know, sort of referring to the albums and in the opening credits—I wanted it to be like—[gasp], and James Blagden did a great job of doing that. It was just perfect. You know, the Tribe’s artwork—and a lot of their stuff had a childlike feel to it. And James’ work is very sophisticated, but there’s something real genuine and childlike about it.

G: Yeah. That’s interesting. I think it has that effect—sort of like your consciousness on A Tribe Called Quest is represented by those sequences.

MR: Right. And he did an excellent job.

G: I think when you’re doing a music documentary, sort of the no-brainer is of course you’re gonna go to the concerts and of course you’ll have talking heads including the band members. Then there’s a sort of maybe questionable area of how—what else you’re gonna cover. So how did you decide where else you’d take your cameras, and was the band—you know, there’s some pretty cozy footage you get that wouldn’t look out of place in a 60 Minutes piece or Barbara Walters interview or something.

MR: Right.

G: Was it difficult to get that access or to arrange those scenes?

MR: You know, one of the easy things about making the movie was that access. Tribe gave me great access...I won’t say "full" but damn-near-full access, which made things easier—which makes the film more intimate. And I think you could feel it in the end result. And that’s a credit to them. I was just there shooting it, trying to be as invisible as possible. And in the editing room, to be as respectful and nonjudgmental as possible. And tell the story in the most informative, entertaining and story-driven way, which all, again, comes out of editing. The editing, it’s—you know, making a documentary in this style is really like a collage. You take a bunch of different elements and you put it together, and you try to make it the best story possible. And that’s what we did, and it’s a lot of time and a lot of patience. A lot of crying—a lot of everything in the editing room.

G: Now, in one of the interviews I read with you, you talked about that it’s very much the film that you wanted to make, but that it was sort of 98% of the kind of final cut you would have wanted to deliver.

MR: Yeah.

G: I’m just kind of curious about—not necessarily what’s in that 2%—but that must be the really difficult part. when it gets down to that sort of negotiation of "Am I doing the right thing leaving this out or should I stick to my guns?"

MR: I think it is hard, and I think that telling a story from four people’s point of view which spans over twenty years is hard. I never wanted to make a smear piece or a derogatory look at the group. You know, I think that—I’m happy with the end result of the film. I wouldn’t change anything about it. I think I’ll explore some different avenues in the director’s cut. It probably won’t be as good of a movie, but it could be a little more informative. I think it’ll be a little bit more long-winded. But the film that we release—the film that’s in theatres is exactly what I wanted and is the best film possible. You know, directors get director’s cuts, and most of the time they’re not as good as the original one. So my director’s cut will probably not be as good as the original one but it will have a lot more shit in it.

G: (Chuckles.) Right. Celebrities can be super-fans too. And you’ve had the opportunity to work with some of your idols—including, perhaps to some extent, with this film. You’ve worked with Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro.

MR: Mm-hm.

G: Obviously, you’re there to do your job when you work with those folks, but you had to be sort of observing them work with a little added interest, no?

MR: Absolutely. I mean, for me, I’ve worked with some of my biggest idols. Eddie Murphy, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Robert De Niro, Spike Lee, Woody Allen. And when you’re actually working with them, you can’t be oohhing and ahhhing. You have to be a professional. They’re not going to respect you or respond to you if you’re fawning over them. And, you know, you do that privately. Especially like De Niro, Stallone and Travolta. These guys influenced and impacted me and inspired me so much. But you’re never just like totally quite normal. You’re professional and you’re business-like, but there’s always, for me—like "What the fuck?" I can’t believe I’m, like, with those guys. Because it’s so much a part of my childhood, you know? You’re just like "How’d I get here?", you know? But you get over it and you take care of business, and I’m always there to do a job. And you know, when I was directing the film, I had the same thing because Tribe, I love them—and De La Soul and Pharrell and Questlove and all the people we got to interview—The Beastie Boys. I was definitely excited to be there and to be like "I can’t believe I’m making a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, and all three Beastie Boys are sitting in front of me like 'All right, what do you want to know? We’ll talk to you about whatever you want.'” You know, it’s exciting. But you just got to calm down and take deep breaths and just get the work done.

G: Right. Before I move on and, you know, back to the documentary, you mentioned De Niro, and you worked on a couple of De Niro films. He’s so seemingly cripplingly shy in terms of his public persona, but did you get to sort of observe his process as an actor?

MR: When I worked with Robert De Niro, you know, a lot of his process is private. A lot of what actors do is alone. But I definitely—I watched him like a hawk. And, you know, was checking him out and watching what he does. You know, he’s not perfect; he has a process like everybody, and he makes mistakes and flubs things and, you know, kind of gears up to speed just like all of us. But he’s Robert De Niro. When he gets it right, you’re just like [gasps]. And it was exciting working with him. And being around him. He was so nice and generous and very—he deals with the fawning as well as I think you can. Robert De Niro is beyond just—he impacts you emotionally, and he’s just like a god to actors. He’s literally that big of a deal to all of us. He’s like a fuckin’ god. When you’re there working with him, you know, it’s a trip for a little bit. There’s certain actors that—they’ve surpassed just "actor" or "star." They’re iconic in a way. Like De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington. There’s a handful of them that have gone beyond star quality. It’s some other thing that you’re attracted to. They impact you in a different way.

G: So with this documentary—you said before it’s kind of like you’re the luckiest fan around, in a sense, being able to do this. But there’s also maybe, possibly, a quality of ‘be careful what you wish for’, right? I wonder if making a film like this and spending so much time with them and watching over and over and over again might compromise your ability to enjoy their music?

G: Well, at the end of the day, I’m always going to be a tribe of a Fan—(laughs). A tribe of a Fan Called Quest—that’s what it’s done to me. At the end of the day, I’m always going to be a fan of A Tribe Called Quest. Obviously, I need to take a little hiatus. But I’m able to listen to the music now. Me and my editor, Lenny Mesina, were joking the other day like "You know what the best thing about the movie coming out and getting good reviews are?" I was like "What?" He was like "Being able to listen to Tribe again." I was like "I know. I know." Because for awhile it became so tedious. It was the last thing you wanted to hear outside of the editing room because we were listening to it, studying it, going over every single detail of it. But I love the music. I’m grateful they gave me this opportunity. I wouldn’t change anything about it despite the ups and downs and the turbulence along the way. It’s been a perfect scenario.

G: You got footage, if I understand correctly, pretty early on in production of the tiff between Q Tip and Phife.

MR: Mm-hm.

G: Did having that footage in hand complicate matters in going forward? Were there trust issues based on "What is he going to do with that footage?"

MR: Um, that’s a good question. As a filmmaker I was excited and glad that the film was taking more emotional turns. Yeah, I think there was a little bit of complications and concern on the group’s part that I was around during a very challenging period for the group during the Rock the Bells 2008 tour. But they let me go forward, and I kept going forward and kept shooting and ultimately it made for a better movie—not scandalous-wise, but if you can’t relate to it as audience member, if you can’t relate to what you’re seeing on an emotional level, I wouldn’t be sitting with you here. It would just be an extended press kit or a DVD extra. So I’m glad that I was exposed to that. I’m glad the guys let me even shoot everything I shot.

G: I guess there’s obviously been some controversy with—Phife has been wholly supportive of the film, the other three only to varying degrees. And Q Tip’s been pretty kind of nasty or sour in the press, I guess.

MR: Mm-hm.

G: What do you think is running through their heads? And where does it stand with those guys in the middle?

MR: Well, where it stands now is that we’ve all agreed to disagree about certain things. They’ve been really supportive since the movie opened up. Obviously, I would have liked them to be supportive of the whole process. And, you know, there’s plenty of opportunities that they’ve not taken and ways to support the film and further the brand of A Tribe Called Quest. You know, I can’t change anything about it. It happened. I’m glad that it happened, in a way—because it was supposed to happen. If anything good has come from that, it’s made people more curious about the film.

G: Right.

MR: Obviously, I’d have rather—the film—A Tribe Called Quest didn’t need any kind of scandal around them or back and forth between them and myself. But that’s the way it worked out.

G: Well, something that’s ironic about it, too, is—rap has this reputation for ego, puffing up and—

MR: Yeah.

G: But A Tribe Called Quest was sort of the anti-that. They were this sort of inclusive group, and now the way they’re playing—well the way Q Tip’s been playing the press almost comes off like—a cynic might say, "Oh, it’s a publicity ploy." It’s almost playing into the stereotypes.

MR: No, it’s not a publicity ploy. It’s—let me think. I was thinking about this earlier as something to say. You know, it’s a—what happened with me and the group, it’s happened before with other documentary directors and the subjects. It’s going to happen again. And the sort of combustible nature of what happens within A Tribe Called Quest has bled over into me. They haven’t recorded since ’98, and it’s not because they don’t have lucrative opportunities in front of them. You know, they have a dysfunctional relationship. So of course if we do a documentary about them, three of them are going to be there; one of them is not. Two of them are going to be there; two of them are not. This is not the way I would have liked it, but based on everything I know about the group and the dynamics of the group, this is not shocking. And nor should it be. Because when you see the film, and realize that that’s the reality of this group that musically is so doesn’t mean they’re full of shit because their music is totally genuine. But just like other groups, they have their ups and downs. They’re not perfect. The thing about the movie is that we show that. And it’s just a big dichotomy because the music is so positive and so uplifting in a way and so peaceful that to see them, like, bickering and to see them having their own internal strife and to see it fall off onto me—"What the hell’s going on? This is not from A Tribe Called Quest." You wouldn’t expect it. If I was doing a documentary about the Wu-Tang Clan or probably ninety-nine percent of other hip hop acts, no one would be surprised. But because it’s Tribe, it’s surprising. But based on everything I know about the group, it’s not surprising at all.

G: I wanted to ask you about Woody Allen as well. You know, actors always say he encourages freedom with his script, but they say the script is so good they're afraid to ad lib or they wouldn’t want to. But you strike me as a guy who might riff on it a little bit. Were you?

MR: You talking about Woody?

G: Yeah.

MR: Yeah. I, definitely, you know, played around with things with Woody. And the thing about when you’re working with Woody Allen is that if you riff, you need to be ready for him to hit it right back. Like, it’s not going to be like a one-way volley. He’s very quick. So if you’re going to throw something at him, he’s just going to throw it right back at you. And he was very encouraging with me to do so and very encouraging to me when I did it. So I had a great time working with Woody Allen, and I loved that he’s making movies at such a high level, and I loved the success and response of Midnight in Paris. And I’m happy, although I know he’s not, that he’s been sort of forced to tell stories outside of New York because I think it was getting a little bit old for everybody. And the fact that he’s telling stories in Paris and France and Italy and Spain: it’s inspired him and kind of reignited him. So it’s great; he’s a fuckin’—Woody Allen is like the Joe DiMaggio of filmmakers. Like that fifty-four-game winning streak. Woody Allen is the only person who has worked at that level for so long, and no one will ever do that again, just like no one will have that winning streak Joe DiMaggio had.

G: At the outset of your career, with Zebrahead, there’s a sort of thread of white culture meets black culture cropping up and interracial tensions, and it’s been a theme in some of your films and TV...

MR: Yeah. A lot of them.

G: Like Bamboozled and Higher Learning and Boston Public. I wonder if you feel like we’ve reached a point culturally where we’ve kind of gotten past that—you know, obviously black culture absorbs white culture and vice-versa, but there’s oftentimes been this backlash against white people who adopt elements of black culture.

MR: Yeah. Well, for me, I’m really happy that my career—I’ve been forced into doing projects like Zebrahead and Higher Learning, Bamboozled and some of the television stuff. Like, for me, race is a very, very important conversation to have. I don’t shy away from it. My father never shies away from it. He always talked to me about that growing up. Sometimes I think he was a little over the top. But as I got older, I understood what he meant. You know, I think it’s important [to] acknowledge stereotypes, misconceptions, prejudices in all of us; we all have them whether it’s about different races, culture, fat people, short people, tall people, handsome people, ugly people—they’re in us and I think it’s just—I like talking about them. I like that it’s an uncomfortable topic of conversation, because it’s uncomfortable for me. But I think the only way to educate ourselves, and to really be honest about it is to just have the conversation, as uncomfortable as it might be. And a lot of the ways I’ve had the conversation as a performer in those films has ignited great conversations. For me, other people—fans have told me different things that have come from some of those films. And I’ve always been comfortable with it. I’ve always been comfortable with the culture differences and understanding the sensitive nature of it, but have a strong point of view and have a strong sense of myself with the whole thing. And everybody’s experience and point of view on race and prejudices is different. I just try to speak my mind and share my mind and perform whenever it makes sense.

G: Your public image as a celebrity must be kind of a strange thing to—

MR: Scares the shit out of me.

G: To engage in. In doing my research, I looked at the shorts that are on YouTube that you’re in, and you’re kind of sly of playing off the kind of ways that people might caricature you as being hot-headed or a dummy or something like that. And I wonder if—or in late night interviews. Those are predicated on entertainment—

MR: Yeah.

G: So you’re kind of playing a character of you, almost, even there. Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to sort of decide who you are when you’re doing a public appearance?

MR: That’s a good question. I understand exactly what you’re saying. You know, for me—listen, nobody’s one way. I know that I’m a dichotomy of things. I’m comfortable with presenting and showing those dichotomies. For better or for worse, I’d probably be further along in my career if I presented myself in a nice red ribbon, as I know some of my actor friends do. And I see them, and I’m like ‘You are full of fucking shit, man. Who is this guy? Who is the guy I saw on Letterman?’

G: "I never met him."

MR: "I never met this guy on Charlie Rose that I saw the other night." But that’s their choices, and my choice has always been to be myself completely. I have no problem playing the dummy. I have no problem pretending—because those things are who I am. I’m very—I’m comfortable not knowing things. I’m comfortable acknowledging the things I don’t know. I take heed to the fact that I—the only bad question is the one you don’t ask. I still believe that. And I just try to be myself and have fun with the opportunities that are given to me. I don’t take myself seriously in that way. It’s been twenty-one years of—for me to be doing this for as long as I’ve been doing it is just great. And I just like to have fun, and I think out of that there’s an accessibility about me. And like I said, I probably could have chose—cleaned myself up—not be so revealing about who I am. Spruce up the way I speak and all that stuff. But it’s too late now, and I’m just happy that I’m still going. And I feel like the first twenty years is the learning experience for me, and now I really have some shit to say and have a real point of view and a trust in myself and a confidence as an actor and as a potential filmmaker.

G: Yeah. Well, I’d just say—obviously you’re very smart and one of the ways that it’s evident that you’re smart is how you’re managing your career, and you have to make it happen for yourself—

MR: Yeah.

G: You can’t just wait for the opportunities to come along. And you self-produced this film and funded it yourself.

MR: Yeah.

G: Now it’s opening up that opportunity for you to do things you’ve always wanted to do. I know you’ve wanted to direct a narrative feature. Is it looking good to do "Mr. Magnificent"?

MR: You know about that?

G: Yeah. It’s a comedy script you’ve kind of had your hands on.

MR: Yeah. I love that script, and hopefully we can get it done. I absolutely would love to get that film made. I think it’s a great script. I’d say the last sort of year, producing, directing and promoting this movie has been a full time job—which I cannot complain about. It’s been so enjoyable to travel around with the movie. Make the movie. Hear people’s points of view on it. And I’m definitely looking forward to directing a narrative film. And I’m always going to continue acting as long as it’s exciting for me.

G: That script deals with the king of all world-record holders, right?

MR: Right.

G: It sounds like a great character, and I just wonder if you have designs on playing that part as well.

MR: I actually would prefer to—there’s a smaller part I want to play in that film. I think that taking on starring in and directing a narrative feature right now is a little overwhelming for me; although it’s tempting, it’s a little much. When it’s done really well, like Duvall did it in The Apostle—I mean, different actors have done it. It’s not easy, though. The idea of directing a narrative film is, like, frightening to me, and doing both at the same time—I don’t think I would be able to—I’m not ready for that yet. I want to do it when I’m ready. I’m sure I’ll do it at some point. You know, as an actor you’ve got to be your biggest fan and your biggest critic. That’s why I think I’d be great at directing myself because I’d probably torture myself.

G: Alright. We’ve been talking to Michael Rapaport. I wish you only continued success.

MR: Thank you very much.

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