“Microphone check, one, two, what is this?” The unsung yet essential element of Michael Rapaport’s new documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is the collaborative animation of James Blagden and Phillip Niemeyer (of design and film studio Double Triple) along with Christopher Isenberg (of apparel, art and media company No Mas). This ragtag animation crew was born after an unlikely meeting between Isenberg and Rapaport at a T-shirt tradeshow. At some point after seeing the 2009 animated documentary short Doc Ellis & the LSD No-No, produced by Isenberg and drawn and animated by Blagden, Rapaport felt that Blagden’s artistic style would also be a good fit for the Beats, Rhymes & Life documentary.
Once on board with the project, Blagden wanted to work with an animation method that was even more raw and unpolished than what he did for Doc Ellis. It was important to Blagden to have a human touch to the animation, which was in keeping with the spirit of the film. Having met previously through the proximity of their working studios, Blagden called on Niemeyer’s expertise in traditional stop-motion animation to achieve the desired effect.
In determining the grammar and working color palette for the animation project, Blagden and Niemeyer were inspired by the Tom Tom Club’s “Pleasure of Love” video. This ultimately led to images of A Tribe Called Quest’s members and the St. Albans landmarks of their youth appearing on a solid black background outlined in glowing hot colors that pulse to the beat of the soundtrack and give a constant boost to the film’s flow and energy. In doing so, they were careful to be authentic and not stray far from A Tribe Called Quest’s existing aesthetic. For example, when incorporating the iconic “Check the Rhime” video’s concert scene atop Linden Boulevard’s Nu-Clear Cleaners into the animation, they wanted to get the details right. To do that, Blagden visited many St. Albans locations to take photos and video so that his drawings would be an accurate representation of the Queens, New York, neighborhood.
Almost everything in the animation project was laboriously done by hand. Niemeyer relied on his stop-motion technique for the appearance of movement and rarely used digital animation or tweening in After Effects while Blagden hand drew each image. They used Photoshop sparingly and even then only to clean up images. This method gave their animation the gritty feel they were seeking. Clearly, Beats, Rhymes & Life is about A Tribe Called Quest’s contribution to the hip-hop genre, but it also has a strong human element that transcends the music, which Blagden, Niemeyer and Isenberg successfully convey.
The film will be released in Los Angeles and New York on July 8 and will screen at other locations shortly thereafter. “Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram.”