Words by: Khari Clarke
From The Source Magazine Issue #269 | 2016
With the advent of series like The Get Down and The Breaks, we take a look at the history of Hip Hop on the small screen.
During Hip Hop’s genesis in the 1970s, the genre encompassed several facets of New York City street culture, passionately referred to as the Four Elements: MC-ing, DJ-ing, graffiti and break dancing. Their combined effect on the Big Apple was far-reaching and immediate.
Boom boxes blared break beats as sampled by DJ Kool Herc and his peers and the catchy, socially conscious raps of acts like Sugar Hill Gang. Trains were canvases for spray-painted tags from rival graffiti factions. Cardboard cushioned the hands and knees of b-boys and b-girls performing dance moves similar to that of contortionists, and block parties became the nexus of these elements converging.
Hip Hop eventually found a home on the small screen in the form of several music video shows, beginning with Video Music Box in 1983. Created by Ralph McDaniels, Video Music Box marked the beginning of an era—a milestone that brought Hip Hop from the streets and subways of the city to inside the homes of its residents. For years, Hip Hop had only been a live experience, passed by word-of-mouth. With VMB, viewers had access to not only the music but also videos featuring luminaries in the then-budding culture. The New York-exclusive program became a right of passage for rising artists soon after its inception.
It’s important to note that during the VMB-era, Hip Hop wasn’t as attractive as it is today, to degrees nearly unfathomable to younger generations. This is why VMB remained only a regional success, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. With Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson and Madonna dominating the charts, Hip Hop hadn’t proved itself as a viable genre yet, at least in the eyes of the powers in control. “Yeah, we approached [MTV] in 1986,” McDaniels recalled in a 2013 interview with HipHopDX. “And they said, ‘Mainstream TV’s not ready for Hip Hop.’ I said, ‘Did you ever go to the Fresh Fest? You play Run-DMC! All kids are wearing Run-DMC gear and listening to the music.’” Fresh Fest was the first Hip Hop tour, boasting a weighty roster including Run DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J, Fat Boys, Grandmaster Flash, and more in 1985, airing exclusively on VMB.
Eventually MTV got hip and Yo! MTV Raps was born in 1988. Yo! MTV Raps deepened Hip Hop’s imprint in ways VMB couldn’t. Extending its reach from New York City, Yo! introduced the artists on a national scale during a time when exposure meant everything. Not only did Yo! have an unprecedented array of guests, it featured some of the culture’s most memorable moments: from 2Pac’s incriminating confession of assaulting directors Allen and Albert Hughes, to Leaders Of The New School’s disbanding during a live broadcast. Fab 5 Freddy, and later the tumultuous tandem of Ed Lover and Doctor Dre, became touchstones for Hip Hop hosts to come.
Yo! MTV Raps created the blueprint that spawned a new generation of impactful television shows such as Rap City: Tha Basement, which similarly played music videos, had interviews and freestyles from the most revered artists of 90’s and early 2000’s. 106 & Park also borrowed the idea, adding on a viewer request aspect—much like MTV’s longstanding TRL—allowing members of the at-home and in-studio audience to vote videos into positions on their top 10 countdown.
VH1’s Flavor of Love introduced a new dimension to the Hip Hop experience. The show was a spin-off of Public Enemy’s eccentric hypeman Flavor Flav’s show Strange Love, following his failed relationship with actress Bridgette Nielsen. Flavor of Love was one of the first Hip Hop reality shows, the success of which bred dozens more and blew a breath of life into the reality television genre.
Reality shows like Flavor of Love provided viewers with a level of intimacy not seen before, going beyond artists’ onstage personas and immersing the audience into the lives of their favorite celebrities. While many have called into question the credibility of the scenarios presented (it’s widely known many of these shows are scripted) the unmatched access has continued to be a fruitful experience for viewers.
This year will mark yet another landmark for Hip Hop culture, in the form of two new shows encapsulating the culture from its infancy. While reality and viewer access shows have been plentiful in years past, these two shows will take place in the crucial decades that made it all possible.
Created by Baz Luhrmann and Shawn Ryan, The Get Down will be set in the birthplace of Hip Hop, the South Bronx during the late 70s. The show, now 10 years in the making, will air exclusively on Netflix this summer and will follow a group of South Bronx misfits who traverse the then-decrepit Bronx tenements and inadvertently create the foundation of Hip Hop culture.
The show’s cast is a diverse group of newcomers and established actors and actresses, including Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) and Jaden Smith (After Earth). Adding to the show’s legitimacy is Grandmaster Flash, recruited by Luhrmann as an associate producer and adviser. Flash will also be portrayed in the show by newcomer Mamoudou Athie. Famed journalist and Hip Hop historian Nelson George, part of The Get Down‘s writing team, says “Grandmaster Flash is one of the trilogy of Bronx DJs whose innovative approach to music in the 1970s moved dance music from disco into the break beat-oriented style that came to be known as Hip Hop … Flash’s innovations, developed in his Bronx apartment bedroom, are the bedrock of club spinning, even in the age of [vinyl emulation program] Serato.” Luhrmann adds, “I can’t tell you just how much joy and great spirit we’re getting from working with some of the founding fathers of the form. Not only in music, dance and graffiti but the culture of the time in general. The whole team is absolutely thrilled to have Grandmaster Flash on board.” Flash is only one of several historical Hip Hop figures the cast will encounter within the show.
The Get Down isn’t just another money making venture for Luhrmann, who’s directorial and screenwriting credits include celebrated films such as Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge! (2001) and The Great Gatsby (2013). Luhrmann instead is invested in displaying how remarkable it is that “a city in its lowest moment, forgotten and half-destroyed, could give birth to such creativity and originality in music, art and culture,” he told Variety last year. The Get Down is set to debut on August 12.
VH1’s The Breaks is an original television movie, serving as a backdoor pilot for a potential series. Set a few decades after The Get Down, The Breaks depicts the blossomed Hip Hop scene during what’s affectionately considered its “Golden Era” during the early 90s. Inspired by The Big Payback from author and inaugural writer at The Source, Dan Charnas, the film follows three friends, played by Mack Wilds, David Call, and Afton Williamson, vying for positions in the capricious music industry.
The Breaks’ characters mirror many magnates and influencers of the 90s that fortified the genre during its transition to mainstream. Mack Wilds’ character DeeVee, for example, is based on a young DJ Premier—who served as an executive music producer for the film as well as composed the score. Wood Harris’ character Barry Fouray, founder of fictitious Hip Hop company Fouray Entertainment, bares similarities to label moguls like Russell Simmons, Sean “Puffy” Combs and Damon Dash.
The film received on-screen and behind-the-scenes help from notable Hip Hop artists like Clifford “Method Man” Smith, who joined the cast as DeeVee’s stolid father (ironically) scoffing at his son’s incredulous dream of breaking into the music industry. Former Little Brother wordsmith and current Foreign Exchange frontman, Phonte Coleman, provided coaching and lent his pen skills, writing rhymes for main character Ahm Harris, played by newcomer Antoine Harris, and writing every rapping sequence in the film. Coleman also makes a cameo in the film as Imam Ali, a militant Afrocentric rapper, during the film’s battle rap scene.
The Breaks did huge numbers when it aired on January 4, delivering 2.6 million total viewers between its debut and encore. As well, the show was the number two trending topic on social media during its first air. Due to the film’s resounding numbers and the open-ended nature of the film’s conclusion, there’s also speculation it will return as a series.
With streaming services proving the infinite potential of their original programming, and the exceptional talent behind The Get Down, there’s no doubt it will be met with as much acclaim as The Breaks. Throw in Vinyl—HBO’s self-described “ride through the sex and drug-addled music business at the dawn of punk, disco and rap,” debuting February 14—and 2016’s undoubtedly a watershed year for Hip Hop on the tube.