No open bar, no DJ, no popcorn. For a change, the main event of a recent preview at Soho’s Crosby Street Hotel screening room was the preview itself: episode seven of director Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down. (It’s the first episode of part two of season one, which arrives on Netflix April 7.) A small assembly of media reacquainted themselves with the great adventures of the Bronx-born Get Down Brothers rap crew, navigating 1977’s New York City in all its Koched-out glory. Associate producer Grandmaster Flash, supervising producer-writer Nelson George, choreographers Rich and Tone Talauega, and Luhrmann himself gathered onstage afterward for an exchange about inspirations — Bruce Lee; comic books; and hip-hop’s three kings, the founding fathers Flash, Kool Herc, and Afrika Bambaataa — as well as motivations.
What would motivate a fiftysomething director from rural Herons Creek, Australia, to take on the embryonic rap era of MC’ing, DJ’ing, graf, and B-boying in the South Bronx? “I’m an outsider,” Luhrmann admitted. “You couldn’t get more outside than a person growing up in a small country town in Australia. But I always wanted to know: How did a bunch of young kids with virtually nothing, where government programs for music were taken away from them . . .”
He started free-associating.
“You don’t have a piano. ‘Well, we’re on our own. What can we do with these two records?’ Or, ‘If I spray my name up on that train . . .’ But you risk your life to do that, and why do you do that? So, this desire for the youth to express themselves no matter what ‘the oldies’ do, that is what I wanted to know about: How did that go on to be what it was? The privilege has all been mine from my point of view, being taken on a journey by those who lived it.”
“A lot of people describe the show as ‘The Birth of Hip-hop show,’ ” Nelson George remarked, “and I always say: That’s not what the show is. The show is late-’70s New York City through the prism of the birth of hip-hop and disco. As you watch every episode, the disco thread is as big as the hip-hop thread. You couldn’t really deal with hip-hop without dealing with disco. Disco was the dominant thing. Later on, there’s the level of New York City itself, which is the fiscal crisis [subplot]. It’s really a New York City show.”
“And also a few light threads of punk coming into it,” Luhrmann added.
The series features hip-hop’s first DJs as actual characters in the narrative. Mamoudou Athie does an excellent outsize Grandmaster Flash; Eric D. Hill Jr. plays a believable Kool Herc; and part two finally introduces Okieriete Onaodowan as Afrika Bambaataa. But a young Dee Dee Ramone also makes an appearance, playing bass in a Chelsea Hotel jam session. References to Blondie, Sid Vicious, and CBGB get blended into the mix too—alongside Mayor Ed Koch’s war against graffiti, President Jimmy Carter brokering peace in the Middle East, Saturday Night Fever, Dog Day Afternoon, and more.
HBO took a stab at a similar ’70s reminiscence with Vinyl last year and failed, canceling the show just as season one ended. A stellar production team — Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger executive-produced the sprawling music-biz drama alongside Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter — couldn’t elevate the show past accusations of “leaden nostalgia.” What does The Get Down get right that Vinyl got wrong, or, what saves The Get Down from becoming The Letdown?
Maybe the story explains it all. The Get Down is a Bronx tale, a teenage love story between Ezekiel Figuero (a.k.a. Books when he’s MC’ing) and aspiring singer Mylene Cruz. By the middle of season one, Books has partnered with Shaolin Fantastic (DJ disciple of Grandmaster Flash) to form the Get Down Brothers, and Cruz has signed her own disco deal. Drama comes from the drug-dealing Fat Annie and her gangster son, Cadillac, over at Les Inferno nightclub. A romantic triangle also surfaces between Mylene’s Pentecostal preacher of a father (Giancarlo Esposito), her mother, and her politician uncle (Jimmy Smits). Eventually, Books needs to decide between a corporate internship at the Twin Towers that will lead to Yale, and the artistic pull of the corporate colossus to come: hip-hop music.
Luhrmann’s series mines unknown territory that Vinyl didn’t. “It was extremely difficult before The Get Down to explain to people that this art form was around ten years before the first rap record,” Grandmaster Flash rationalized. “I thank God that I’m here to witness this. I’m called a legend, I’m called a king, but a lot of times legends die really young. If you haven’t seen the first half, that was the innocent period. This second part is where things get intricate, slightly painful. There’s joy, there’s pain more substantial. They pulled off a period of time that I found so hard to explain to journalists.”
Months before The Get Down debuted last August, Netflix offered up the documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution, where rap pioneers Coke La Rock, Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel, and others traveled through largely unexplored terrain of hip-hop’s earliest days. Before that, starting in the late ’90s, books like Nelson George’s Hip-Hop America, The Vibe History of Hip-Hop, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, the Experience Music Project’s Yes Yes Y’all, and Fantagraphics’ illustrated series Hip Hop Family Tree served all the info anyone would ever want to know about stuff like the Sugarhill Gang biting Grandmaster Caz’s rhymes and the Mighty Mighty Sasquatch mobile sound system. Finally, film is catching up to literature through The Get Down, last year’s VH1’s 1990s hip-hop valentine The Breaks, and more on the horizon—20th Century Fox just announced Atlantis, a musical inspired by Pharrell Williams’s childhood in Virginia.
Hip-hop fans love to hear the story again and again, of how it all got started way back when. Now casual Netflix bingers can catch the dramatic wave, getting an education in the process that wasn’t previously possible without hitting Amazon for memoirs like Jay Z’s Decoded or The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats.
In its second half, The Get Down leaps ahead one year to 1978. “The biggest change from ’77 when [the Get Down Brothers] were kids to ’78 was, suddenly clubs said, ‘We’re gonna pay you money to be a club act,’ ” said Luhrmann. “And that brought the kids into a sphere where, one, they were performing; two, they were receiving money; and there was quite a lot of drug dealing going on as well. They weren’t being asked to perform at parks and rec rooms, they weren’t asked to Radio City Music Hall. It was an edgy club. We wanted the edge.”
Visually, the greatest difference between side A and side B (if you will) of The Get Down is animation. As much as Bruce Lee influenced B-boy battle stances and the angles of DJs’ arms, the bronze age of comic books held its own sway on hip-hop culture. That inspiration still stands, as one look at the new Raekwon album or illustrator A. L. Dré’s hip-hop-themed covers over at Marvel will tell you. When The Get Down dropped last year, Netflix got inundated with so much fan art that Luhrmann and company chose to include cartoony comic art in every episode of the season’s second half, courtesy of Jaden Smith’s gay graf artist–MC, Dizzee. At first, the animation’s inclusion makes you wonder if certain actors (Jaden, for example) couldn’t make it to set as much as the others. But you get used to it.
“We really were feeding off the audience,” Luhrmann said. “And it led to big creative choices. Flash will tell you how influenced he was by comics. It was really clear from the fan art that those relationships needed to be heightened and poetic. At first we were gonna do it for a bit, but [the animation] became way beyond what we ever expected and a great way of expressing that.”
The flip side to a rabid fan base is the fanboy phenomenon of hypercritical analysis, and The Get Down is hardly exempt. Episode six’s Pelican Brief–worthy fake out of a non-kiss between Dizzee and graf artist whiteboy Thor? Folks weren’t feeling the misdirection. (Once upon a time, Denzel Washington advised Will Smith against kissing another man for Six Degrees of Separation; what advice has Will given his own son?) Another minor criticism: MC Ra-Ra anachronistically flaunting a Das EFX lyrical flow decades before anyone ever rhymed like that.
Still, nearly fifty years after its creation, hip-hop finally has a drama worthy of its culture, one that overwhelmingly gets it right — all pre–“Rapper’s Delight.” God is in the details here, from Books’ Bronx address (400 Prospect Avenue) to the proto-Uber def OJs to the angel dust epidemic. Overzealous fanboys won’t be the only viewers waiting impatiently for season two. “Books says to Shaolin, ‘You made us believe in grandmasters and superheroes as if we’re in one of Dizzee’s comics. But it’s not true; it’s never gonna mean anything to anyone outside of the Bronx,’ ” Luhrmann said. “And we all know that’s not true. In fact, it went on to change not just the Bronx or New York, but the world.”