With his first documentary attempt Michael Rapaport proves he can still school just about anybody when it comes to the hip-hop game.
by Kristie Bertucci Photography by Chad Griffith
The L.A.-based, N.Y.C.-born Michael Rapaport will always be a New Yorker at heart but doesn’t mind the ridiculous weather in the City of Angels. As an unbiased inhabitant of both coasts, the actor/director/hip-hop aficionado provides us some insight into some of his favorite things in each city, as well as some info on his thoughts on hip-hop and recent directorial debut, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, a documentary that pays homage to the hip-hop legends.
YRB: As a self-proclaimed hip-hop head, do you still think there’s a huge difference between East Coast versus West Coast hip-hop?
Michael: Honestly, I think hip-hop has changed so much that I can’t even comment on that. I’ll tell you one thing that’s lacking in hip-hop in general is there isn’t a dominant NY emcee. And throughout history, there’s always been a dominant one. Obviously, Jay-Z is the king, but he’s so big that he’s iconic now. There isn’t this young MC that I know of. I’m not that much of a huge follower anymore, but at one point I could say that I knew the ins and outs of hip-hop. In the history, there’s been Rakim, Doug E. Fresh, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Nas, Biggie, Jay-Z… I’m waiting for the next MC from NY who is speaking for the people and the way those past dudes did it who told stories.
I have no clue about who’s currently reppin’ for the West, either. I’m a huge fan of Tyler, The Creator and think he’s speaking on a West Coast stance, but it’s also very youthful, so it wouldn’t be just West Coast stuff. He’s definitely reppin’ Los Angeles hard, though.
YRB: Ultimate hip-hop question: Biggie or Pac and why?
Michael: Hmmm…that’s tough. It’s hard to pick one over the other. Both of their styles are so different; they both came from a different point of view. I think Biggie was more of storyteller and Pac’s music was more of an expression of his emotions. I can’t pick one, shit. I’ll get in trouble picking one, so I have to say I love them both and miss them both!
YRB: So when was it that you fell in love with hip-hop?
Michael: I fell in love with hip-hop in 1979 when my father (who worked at a NY radio station) brought home a promotional copy of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” It was like seeing a rocket ship land right in front of you. I was nine and had never heard anything like it before – just what they were talking about: the beat, the language… It was like being taken to space and then dropped off. It changed my life and had a big impact on my life.
YRB: Would you say that impact is what led you to want to make Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest?
Michael: Yup, and their music was very influential to me. They were part of the first generation of hip-hop and can be looked at like The Beatles, Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin in terms of their influence on the culture. I always watched documentaries about great rock and roll groups and found them fascinating and entertaining and wanted to treat A Tribe Called Quest in the same way
YRB: How long did it take to create the documentary?
Michael: I approached them about the idea initially in 2006 and then started shooting in August of 2008. It was about two years of a lot of hard work, but I had a great team with me that did it for practically nothing and just for their love of the group.
YRB: As your directorial debut, what did you want to capture in the documentary when the idea originally came up?
Michael: It’s definitely better than what I envisioned. What I wanted to capture initially was to talk about the time and golden era of hip-hop, which is considered ’86 to ’93. I wanted to capture what was so special about it, specifically growing up in NYC and how hip-hop affected and excited people like myself, as well as to tell a story of A Tribe Called Quest and their accomplishments.
The one question I also wanted to address throughout the documentary was if they would make more music together. The end result was all that and more because it opened up this personal story not only about the group, but showed how these guys are human and their struggles. All great things must come to an end sometimes, and as precious as they were to their fans, they needed to move on – and I explored some of those reasons in the film.
YRB: There’s been news that there were a lot of obstacles in making the documentary. Is there truth in that?
Michael: There were many. Making an independently financed documentary is a struggle. Clearing the music was so much of a fucking obstacle that it could have been a movie itself. As far as the tension with Q-Tip, at the end of the day, no one expected this movie to become as emotionally sensitive as it is. It showcases a lot of emotionally raw stuff. When those things were exposed to me as a director in the editing room, I had to go with that. If I didn’t put that stuff in, it wouldn’t have been anywhere as good as it is now. A lot of stuff was expressed, and it really shows a lot of the reasons why they broke up in 1998.
YRB: Was there any hostility toward you or the film while shooting?
Michael: No, the only hostility and frustration came toward me when I showed Q-Tip the first cut of the movie; that’s when things got more complicated. Right now we are cool. I’ll always respect Q-Tip as an artist; he’s a good dude and we were friends before this film. Do I think I’ll do business with him anymore? Probably not. I’m sure at some point we will move forward entirely. We are lukewarm at the moment. Right now he’s okay with it since he’s been publically supporting it.
YRB: What kind of feedback are you getting from fans?
Michael: I couldn’t be more flattered or thrilled from the great responses I’ve gotten from fans. The fact that a documentary about hip-hop in the ’90s is featured in theaters nationwide and is getting such great reviews is really a big deal. I’m proud to have something to do with that.
YRB: What’s your favorite part in the film and why?
Michael: Good question… It’s amazing when you’re shooting something and you get back a moment that’s so unexpected. I still get the goosebumps when Q-Tip walks us through the making of “Can I Kick It,” and he’s just talking about how it was made and all that. In general, the biggest surprise – or what I’m most proud of is – the humor in the film. It’s pretty unexpected how funny the movie plays to an audience…wasn’t expecting that at all.
YRB: As an actor first, was it totally different being behind the camera?
Michael: The difference between the two is that if you’re an actor, you’re only in control of what you are doing and your performance. But as a director, you’re responsible and in control for everything, and you need to answer everybody’s questions. At the end of the day, you have to go inside of yourself and trust your instincts in terms of what’s good for the film. For me, that was the biggest difference. I had a great team around me, but I still had to call the shots and make decisions that would impact the film in either a good or negative way. Coming up with those answers and being responsible for it all is quite a challenge.
YRB: Who else would you like to do a documentary on?
Michael: Eric B. & Rakim would be dope. De La Soul would be really, really fun.
YRB: Would you ever give up acting to take up directing full-time?
Michael: No, I’ll never give up acting. I love it and it gives me a feeling within my stomach that I don’t get from many things in my life. It’s my first love and I want to still do it as long as I can.
YRB: Are you currently working on anything else?
Michael: I’m in a movie that’s scheduled for a summer/fall release, as well as starting on a new directorial project where I’ll be behind the lens for a narrative film later this fall. I want to still act while still growing as a director. That’s my ultimate goal.