This excellent and at times sad documentary about one of the most influential crews in the history of hiphop boils down to a split and the long (and yet to be resolved) struggle between two rappers, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. To understand this deep split, we must briefly turn to Michel Foucault, the theorist of power relations. Foucault believed there was no such thing as power with a capital "P," but only very precise, micro maneuvers and interactions—power with a small "p." The relationship between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg—a power relationship that was structured and reinforced, since they were kids, by their personalities (Phife, a man of action; Tip, a man of the mind)—was evidently exploded by the pressures of fame.
Q-Tip is clearly the one who has power over Phife Dawg. There are two reasons for this: One, Q-Tip was the group's musical director—he selected the samples, produced the beats, and invented the sound that made Quest unique. Two, he wanted to be a rapper/producer from the very beginning. Phife Dawg, on the other hand, came into the art by accident. His heart was not in hiphop, but in sports. Yet, without his contributions, a good deal of what made Quest great would be missing. Indeed, it's nearly impossible to imagine a Quest without a Phife Dawg. And this is precisely his dilemma—he knows his worth, but he feels Q-Tip does not recognize it fully.
Early in Beats, Rhymes & Life, we are informed that it was on the second album, The Low End Theory, that Phife Dawg finally took rapping seriously—on the debut, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, he was rapping only part-time. By the third album, Midnight Marauders, Phife Dawg was an established artist, but his resentment at playing second fiddle to Q-Tip had become toxic, and Q-Tip's seeming indifference to Phife Dawg's resentment increased the toxic levels. Phife Dawg wanted more recognition; Q-Tip believed he was giving too much recognition already. Q-Tip is, of course, a diva, but as the local producer OC Notes recently pointed out, he deserved to be proud of his achievements. He made the beats, he changed the course of hiphop, his heart was in it from the beginning.
At the end of the day, however, the bitter struggle between the two rappers is meaningless. What is important is that A Tribe Called Quest made not only three brilliant albums but that they gave the world a wonderful, beautiful, sensitive, playful, erotic, intelligent mode of being in the world. It was not just the music, but presenting our imaginations with a whole new way of living and thinking. Public Enemy were about changing society, the world outside; Quest were about changing/reinventing/creating yourself. They even taught us the importance of caring for the self: "I don't eat no ham 'n' eggs, 'cause they're high in cholesterol." The Quest mode is now a permanent part of being hiphop. And all of Q-Tip/Phife Dawg's troubles could never take that away from us.