The Get Down is a new Netflix TV series that is an educational, informative and entertaining look at Hip Hop history, and a glorious championing and romantic look at life and pop culture that shaped the Hip Hop genre.
At the start the interview with preeminent Hip Hop historian Nelson George, who wrote The Get Down, and actor Jaden Smith, who plays a character in the series, there was an annoying interruption at the hotel room door just as the first question was asked.
Luckily, it’s Jaden’s dad, Will Smith, apologizing for barging in on us but, as he humbly explained, he’s just off a plane in London and wanted to hug his son.
Will bantered with his son for a minute, but was slipped a quick, informal question. Jaden ribbed his daddy for rocking a crop top many moons ago as the Fresh Prince, but in equal measures, was clearly as proud of his pops, and spoke about dealing with public life as Will’s son with grace.
Jaden: “He had a crop top in the Fresh Prince [Laughs]!’’
Will: “Yeah ok!” We had a lil bit of the conservation, about a half crop top….
Jaden: “My dad released his first record 30 years ago.’’
Will: “We lived it.” Jaden was calling me from the set. Kurtis [Blow] is here!!!’’
(Will leaves. Jaden explains the way he deals with internet trolls)
“I really don’t think about the public and media pressure,” Jaden says. “As you just saw, I have a normal dad that just walked in here. No one is perfect. I don’t think I’m living up to that much. I just do what I like to do. It’s things like this that make me proud of the things that I am doing, as this is going to affect culture for years and years to come. So the things that people say, it’s like, ‘I’m so glad you took time to write a lil’ message about me on the internet.’ I feel like anyone that takes time out of their life to talk about me is part of the Jaden Smith brand already, people who already say things about me are already my biggest supporters.’’
Great training from his pops, who was once upon a time the biggest actor on the planet in the ’80s. Have you noticed everything ’80s has been back for a minute and not letting up? Hi-Top hairstyles, rah rah skirts, leggings, vinyl records, cassette players, Adidas Gazelles—there’s not just a nostalgia for past fashion, but also ’80s Hip Hop stars and their stories—NWA, Hip Hop reunion tours by Bad Boy and every R&B act from Boyz II Men to Blackstreet.
Stories and films around the black communities historical experience have been numerous this past decade with biopic stories for Mandela, Selma, NWA, 12 Years a Slave, Roots and many more. These stories were often about specific people and focused on their stories of overcoming oppression. No wonder Snoop Dogg threw his toys out of the pram at yet another huge Hollywood remake of Roots.
This week, however, there’s a new kid in town and it goes by the name The Get Down and it’s one story Snoop’s sure to love. The series is a fictional saga of how New York, at the brink of bankruptcy, gave birth to Hip Hop.
It’s an exciting, panoramic look at the scene around the south Bronx, the onset of Hip Hop and its early characters—some real, some fictional. It’s a lightly fictionalized story of the time just before Hip Hop, a time when disco was the thing and how it segued into this thing we now know as rap.
George spoke about the storyline like a crew name and a much-coveted record had to be invented. “Shaolin and the Pucusa record doesn’t exist, so we used these fictional things that were actually based on real conversations. We sat with Kurtis Blow, Kool Moe Dee, Herc, Flash and a lot of breakers, graff artists, and out of their life experiences, we created this’.”
The show is named after an old funk term for the section of a record that makes people dance. “You don’t know what the fucking get down is?”So naturally, there is a lot of dancing and it’s infectious.
That dance that the kids do nowadays at all the parties is to the “Candy” song, or a basic electric slide style dance, by the soul funk band Cameo. You know the one. Its roots are entrenched in disco, a million other versions of the electric slide and two-step dances from back then, and the ’80s resurgence movement doesn’t just stop there. The second cornerstone pillar of the Hip Hop genre, graffiti, is hot again, too.
In the same way ’80s kids were brought up on Breakdance and Beatstreet films, The Get Down will resonate with youth today. Remember the scenes in Beatsteet where the graffiti artists will stay up all night spraying the trains, only to wait up all day the next day just for a glimpse of one passing by on a bridge with their name tag on it for their moment of euphoria? And the train would be cleaned and the artwork gone within hours. All that passion and work by the graff sprayers, knowing the train will be washed off with no longevity? Imagine today’s kids bothering with that? Put up and gone in a second.
The Get Down Director Baz Lurhmaan brings the hot, acrid, hostile, broken down and beaten up, violent, cash strapped, mind blowing scenes of the time to life with eye popped colors, swooping crane shots and stunts akin to kung fu movies. It’s like watching a music video on steroids, which is not totally surprising when you consider that, like many directors before him, Luhrmann came to movies via pop videos.
Baz brought huge, mesmerizing spectacles when he directed Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby and Romeo & Juliet— The Get Down also has all his traditional hallmarks. Apparently, Luhrmann first had the idea for the show 10 years ago, so a decade of love, research and passion has gone into this. The series is based around the summer of 1979 when “Rapper’s Delight” appeared. By the start of 1980, three Hip Hop records had reached the top 50. The rest of the story is told through the lives and music of the South Bronx kids who changed their city and the world forever.
The Get Down has scenes that include high-paced action, rip roaring comedy, matrix style martial arts juxtaposed with massive music tracks, and high school love story vibes. The episodes encompass every genre that you love to love.
Like many kids in the ’70s and ’80s who came up on Hip Hop culture, it wasn’t the rappers that drew us in first. Yes, we learned line-for-line lyrics from “Rappers Delight,” electro classics and more, but it was the breakdancing and DJs that initially caught our hearts. We learned to body pop and breakdance and everyone knew someone who was a DJ, break-dancer or graffiti artist.
Everyone in the ’80s was a Kung-Fu and superhero fan, and no one more so than Hip Hop music lovers. Kung-Fu films introduced a racially charged America to see beyond black and white. Rap stars and fans picked names that reflected this like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kool Herc, DJ Red Alert, and Wu Tang Clan.
As for B-boys and B-girls, so much of their quest for mastery, dedication to the battle, and strategy in combat was rooted in the martial arts, including the windmill, the Wu tang, the swipe, the battle uprock, freezes, air flares and more.
The Get Down characters are immediately engaging and accessible, all wearing the bright, lurid colors that were the fashion back then. The outfits are in your face spangle, lycra sequins, platforms, feather coats, disco fab works of art. The styles included Converse and Puma kicks with knee high socks, basic tee shirts and afros. In fact, the props master must’ve had a nearly impossible yet fun task of sourcing outfits.
The Get Down brings back all the nostalgia for Hip Hop lovers in the early days. For The Get Down series, name brands like Puma, Converse and Pro-Keds agreed to remanufacture the ’70s styles specifically for the show, some of the sneakers that costume designer Catherine Martin calls “the foundation of the era’s style.” The franchise is already making commercial gains, as the vintage-model sneakers will be re-released onto the general market later this year. For The Get Down, one of the most famous graffiti writers of the era, New York’s Lady Pink, personalized clothing for the characters.
Luhrmann says he wanted to approach the early days of Hip Hop through a group of characters, rather than following the biography of a single real-life participant. Most of the cast are unknown rising talent, plucked out of obscurity, which is beautiful, as nothing distracts from the narrative of the series, the story of Hip Hop or the rag tag group of teenagers running wild in the streets of the Bronx in the late ’70s.
Several founding fathers of Hip Hop are mentioned and played in the show by younger actors. In fact, at the screening, Grandmaster Flash played a set for us before we watched the first episode and told us that he and some of his early peers had served as advisors for the time, and their stories make it as authentic as you can get. He had us laughing as he recalled that they even had to school the actors on how they used and held the microphone back then, totally unlike the ’90s rappers.
Jaden co-signed this point by saying,‘‘ I learned so much more about Hip Hop during this experience. I learned about how people rapped back then. It’s one thing to think you know how to rap or spray, but then you rap and spray with Herc or Lady Pink so it’s a whole new experience. Working with Rahiem and Flash, learning about Kool Herc—with all these things you always hear just about New York, New York, but not specifically about the Bronx, and even then the south Bronx. I have a newfound respect for it, and awareness and an understanding. I don’t think today’s trap kids don’t not respect the movement, but they just don’t understand it.”
Jaden has been doing press rounds for the series. His part is by no means one of the main characters, but he jumped at the chance to be involved.
“What attracted me was the ensemble cast and the diversity that the show had and I knew it would impact culture in a crazy crazy way because of how visionary Baz is and with what he was trying to tackle was very important to me, as well,” he says. ” I wanted to be a part of it. It just sounded great—music, dance, art, the origins of Hip Hop, the death of disco. It sounded epic.”
Asked if he had to audition for the part, Jaden stutters, “I pretty much did audition for it, but it was over the phone and just a conversation with Baz to see how involved with it I could be and how passionate I was about it. It was like a passion audition.”
Grandmaster Flash is an associate producer, and if you’ve been in the industry long enough to hear the stories of how difficult he can be to work with, then you know he was only going to take part if his star and reputation as a founder in the genre was to be honored correctly.
At the London screening, he told us, “So many people only want to know about the cake, but no one wants to know about the ingredients.”
That quote says it all. He presumably speaks for most of his peers from the era. The founders who laid the path, but got no financial compensation for it, only for future generations to live the high-roller life while many of the forefathers today live modestly.
Nelson revealed, “When we first met with Baz, the main characters that came were Shaolin and Mylene, but as we met more people it developed. Dizzee’s character wasn’t in it at the start. Rah Rah and Boo-Boo was created to service the storyline of graffiti, almost all of the old school artists thought that their story should be the story, but the wisest decision Baz made, was to not make it about one character’s story because then you felt locked into their story, but its about scope. There was a lot going on.
The sound track for The Get Down is a mix of period hits and new tracks. Luhrmann enlisted Nas to write in the style of the time, and even many of the series’ disco “hits” are new.
Nelson is clear that hip-hop cultures impact on the planet has been vast.
“The most important thing is that when you look at hip hop has given to the world, rhyming, DJing, graff, breaking, you go anywhere in the world where you go where there are people that are young, angry and disenfranchised,” he says. ‘That could be in Prague, Brazil, Columbia, Tokyo, Korea; this form has been embraced by people all over the globe as a way to say the things that can’t get said otherwise, and so no mater what happens in The States as a commercial thing, as a folk expression, nothing’s like this. Any kid can get on the mic and rhyme, breakdance or paint graff, I’ve seen amazing pieces in Zurich and Rio.’’
It can’t be denied that Hip Hop has shown the world a lot—it exposed stories, built empires, and some say it even helped elect a black president. So then it brings about the question: with the reemergence of the #blacklivesmatter movement and the globalization of Hip Hop culture, a genre arguably founded upon the experiences of young, disenfranchised black men, why are black male lives still seemingly worthless?
“Hip Hop was created by more than just the African American, as well as Latinos and more, and that cannot be underestimated and that’s very important to say,” Nelson says. “There’s a part of Hip Hop, an ultra masculine, hyper bombastic depiction of life, that’s sometimes has got out of control, and then affects how people react to us. So there is an element of that in it. But what other vehicle has ever been there for a mass audience to hear the unbridled thoughts of these men and women?
“We have great literature like Toni Morrison, we have great filmmakers, but boom, here we have boom, a guy can go into a room and express himself, boom! it goes across the globe, that’s never been done and black people have never had that kind of access,” he adds. “I think there’s negativity in individual things about it, but I think overall its impact on the globe has been positive.”
With Netflix slowly taking over the world in more than 140 countries, this story is going to feed the current and past Hip Hop generations and squelch our appetite. We have eaten and continue to eat from the Hip Hop cake, and now we will know exactly what it took to make it.