Hip-hop, don’t stop: inside The Get Down

A new generation bigs up the first days of hip-hop in Baz Luhrmann and co.’s Bronx musical.

Ashley Clark

Web exclusive

Justice Smith, Skylan Brooks, Shameik Moore, Jaden Smith and Tremaine Brown Jr. as The Get Down Brothers

Justice Smith, Skylan Brooks, Shameik Moore, Jaden Smith and Tremaine Brown Jr. as The Get Down Brothers

Jaden Smith, one of the stars of Netflix’s new 12-episode musical drama The Get Down – an ambitious, audacious reimagining of hip-hop’s birth in the South Bronx – wants the roots of the phenomenon to have their day in the sun. “The reason I’m doing this,” he says, “is because hip-hop has become the most popular culture in the world. If you’re a hipster or a hippy, if you’re a skater or a surfer, or if you just work in an office or a drugstore, the majority of the time people are just bumping crazy hip-hop songs.”

Jaden’s father Will, of course, played a crucial role in bringing hip-hop to the mainstream, scoring monster successes alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff with hits like Summertime and Boom Shake the Room in the early 1990s. Yet despite the vast popularity of the culture today, the fascinating story of the scene’s birth has been curiously under-explored in mainstream film and television, perhaps because its origins are relatively unglamorous.

It’s true that the 1980s saw a minor explosion of hip-hop films, including Wild Style (1983), Beat Street (1984), Krush Groove (1985) and the fabulous PBS documentary Style Wars (1984), which blended an appreciation of the genre’s central pillars – DJ-ing, MC-ing, graffiti and breakdancing – with warm portraits of the black and Latino kids who made the movement tick. Yet even these evocative artefacts arrived a decade or more after DJ Kool Herc laid down the first building block of hip-hop in 1973 when, while hosting a party in the community room of his abode at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, he reportedly pioneered the dual arts of scratching and MC-ing.

Mamoudou Athie as Grandmaster Flash and Shameik Moore as Shaolin Fantastic

Mamoudou Athie as Grandmaster Flash and Shameik Moore as Shaolin Fantastic

Into the gap flamboyantly struts The Get Down, conceived by filmmaker Baz Luhrmann. Years in the making, it’s Netflix’s most expensive series to date: as reported by Variety, it spilled over its original budget of about $7.5 million per episode and wound up costing at least $120 million overall, alarming Sony Pictures Television, who produce the show. It’s safe to say that Sony and Netflix, which has spent approximately $6 billion on original programming in 2016 alone, will be praying for a runaway success.

The show’s narrative begins in 1977 – a few years after Kool Herc’s eureka moment – and tracks the coming of age of a group of artistic, ambitious and fictional teenagers living in the rubble-riddled South Bronx, where ornately-costumed gangs maraud and sinister, hip-swivelling gangsters haunt the disco clubs. Luhrmann serves as executive producer and a writer (among many), and also directs the colourful feature-length pilot episode which swiftly establishes a rumbustious, operatic tone redolent of his earlier hit Moulin Rouge. (2001).

He’s not one for dramatic understatement: his pilot squeezes in the introductions of a vast ensemble cast, a rooftop chase sequence, a nightclub shootout, a volcanic family argument and various political shenanigans. He also, slightly clumsily and distractingly frequently, integrates gritty period archive footage to counterbalance the fantasia of his historical fiction. (Luhrmann relinquishes directorial duties after the first episode, and it thankfully settles into a more measured storytelling groove.)

The Get Down (2016)

The Get Down is Luhrmann’s baby – he developed the idea for over a decade – but, as an outsider from Australia, he relied on a network of bona fide contributors for knowledge and experience. The impressive roster includes rapper Nas, on board as a producer and writer of the rhymes delivered by the show’s narrator (Daveed Diggs, from Broadway hit Hamilton); DJ legend Grandmaster Flash (portrayed in the show by Mamoudou Athie) and Rahiem of pioneering rap group The Furious Five; break dance instructors Samo and Floor Phantom; and New York graffiti legends Lady Pink (the ‘first lady of graffiti’), CRASH and DAZE.

The graffiti artists were key figures when it came to making the sets look convincing. The production was originally based in Los Angeles, but relocated to a sprawling network of offices and cavernous sound stages in bucolic Glendale, Queens, a traditionally middle-class district some 14 miles south-east and a hop over the East River from the South Bronx. A portion of The Get Down was shot on location in the contemporary Bronx, but, like large swathes of Manhattan and Brooklyn, much of it has been swept up in a wave of gentrification, making it unrecognisable from even its recent past.

 

Superheroes in their world

It was in a boxy back room of the Queens location that I spoke to members of the cast. Jaden Smith, 18, who portrays aspiring graffiti writer Marcus ‘Dizzee’ Kipling, cites the presence of these scene legends as critical to his immersion into the show’s universe: “We got information that we needed to hear directly from sources that were there, and lived it. Those are the things that give us the most profound experiences.”

Meanwhile, the bank of hired expertise was particularly crucial for cast members who weren’t so well-schooled on hip-hop history, like 21-year-old Justice Smith, who plays the sensitive, majestically afro’d would-be MC Ezekiel ‘Books’ Figuero, and, in her first screen role, Herizen Guardiola, 19, who plays Mylene Cruz, a putative disco diva whose dreams appear thwarted by her intensely religious father (Giancarlo Esposito, almost as terrifying here as he was as Breaking Bad’s villain Gus Fring).

Herizen F. Guardiola as Mylene Cruz

Herizen F. Guardiola as Mylene Cruz

The pair, whose chemistry is palpable, bonded on set over a shared love of folk artists Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel. Guardiola says her mother prohibited her from listening to hip-hop when she was being home-schooled: “I was raised on classic rock, classical music, reggae, and a lot of chanting. My mum’s a Buddhist, and we’d listen to chanting in the car.” Guardiola had earlier attended private Catholic school where, she sighs, “you’re not even allowed to paint your nails, much less go listen to hip-hop music.”

“The whole thing was kind of new”, continues Justice Smith, “but it was awesome because as the characters were learning about this new medium called hip-hop, so were we. We never felt like we were floating at sea, we always felt like we were doing right by the period, and the environment.”

Another major player in The Get Down’s development was Hip Hop America author and native New Yorker Nelson George, who joined the production’s writer’s room in Los Angeles in summer 2014. George, a supervising producer who worked closely with Luhrmann on story detail, approves of the show’s epic scale. “I wanted to see the black and Latin roots of all this celebrated in a larger-than-life way,” he says via email. “Everyone back then, whether they were a disco diva or a kid from the Bronx, was seeking to rise above reality and be as bold and bad as their imaginations. The show’s mission is to present them as they saw themselves: as superheroes in their world.”

Shameik Moore as Shaolin Fantastic

Shameik Moore as Shaolin Fantastic

The Get Down’s biggest superhero is young Shaolin Fantastic (Dope star Shameik Moore), a Scarlet Pimpernel-style graffiti-writer by day and low-level coke dealer by night – his character even has his own Bruce Lee-style musical motif. Moore, 21, is a standout in a fine young ensemble that reflects the ethnic make-up of the milieu it depicts, a fact that’s truly refreshing to behold, but perhaps shouldn’t be in 2016. Luhrmann and casting director Ronna Cress commendably avoid a common pitfall of historical film and TV focusing on non-white stories: the introduction of a white lead character to help it ‘cross over’ – see the LGBT historical drama Stonewall (2015) for a particularly egregious recent example. Its insulting fabrication of a muscly caucasian to hurl the first brick in the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969 did nothing to save it from commercial and critical oblivion.

 

Dancified, musified

Justice Smith (MC Ezekiel ‘Books’ Figuero) with The Get Down’s co-creator Baz Luhrmann

Justice Smith (MC Ezekiel ‘Books’ Figuero) with The Get Down’s co-creator Baz Luhrmann

The Get Down also impresses in its constantly balletic sensibility, whether expressed in the movement of the characters around the richly-detailed sets – in this respect, one can’t help but think of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) – or its large-scale dance numbers, many of which take place at lavish, debauched nightclub Les Inferno, which was crafted on the Queens set in the image of real-life, short-lived Bronx hangout Club 371. This is largely down to the show’s choreographers, and secret stars, Rich and Tone Talauega, Samoan-American brothers who were first plucked from obscurity in the 1990s by Michael Jackson’s choreographer while free-styling at a club in Oakland, CA. “This show would not exist without Rich and Tone,” says Nelson George. “They were integral to the show.”

When I visited the Queens set, I spoke to Rich and Tone in a production office, and asked them how they first got involved. “Baz sent us an email, inviting us to New York,” explains Tone with a broad smile. “The whole process was surreal ’cos we didn’t believe it was Baz Luhrmann saying that. It said ‘We want you guys to work with us on this project,’ and we were like ‘Get the fuck outta here!’”

“When we arrived, he sat us down like an old griot and gave us the story of hip-hop and 1970s New York, and he showed us a video [about the era]. We knew about 70-80 per cent of it already. Then we saw a clip from something that we produced, a 2005 dance documentary about Krumping called Rize, directed by David LaChappelle. We looked at each other. We looked at him. He looked at us. He was like, ‘That’s why you guys are here.’ Rich chimes in: “Me and my brother were just sitting in his office like, ‘Oh my God. This was meant to be.’”

And how would they describe their role on the show? “We ‘musified’ it and we ‘dancified’ it,” says Tone. “Those two layers are prominent ways of telling a story. With those two, you can actually tell five-to-ten pages of dialogue in one scene – it’s like pintographs on a cave from a long time ago.” Rich and Tone leaned on Grandmaster Flash and Raheim for advice on era-authentic lyricism and showmanship, for which the Jackson Five recurred as a key reference point.

Justice Smith (MC Ezekiel ‘Books’ Figuero) rehearses with The Get Down’s composer Elliott Wheeler, supervising producer Nelson George and producer Kurtis Blow

Justice Smith (MC Ezekiel ‘Books’ Figuero) rehearses with The Get Down’s composer Elliott Wheeler, supervising producer Nelson George and producer Kurtis Blow

And despite being a generation older than the show’s young stars, the pair weren’t immune from getting starstruck. “You’re in a rehearsal and somebody comes in, and it’s Grandmaster Flash?”, says Tone. “I mean, come on, dude! You’re talking about two kids who lived hip-hop growing up, and all you’d see was Grandmaster Flash on TV. We’re groupies, but we had to keep our cool and be reserved.” It didn’t matter that the brothers were raised on the West Coast, such was the reach and influence of 1970s and 80s New York. “We grew up in the ghetto in North Richmond, California, but man, all that was playing was The Message by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, The Mo-ther-fuck-in’-Mess-age” – Tone bangs his fist on table to accentuate each syllable. “That song was synonymous with all the hoods of America because the ghetto is the ghetto, everybody went through the same stuff.”

Working on the show wasn’t all fun and games for Rich and Tone, however. One of the biggest challenges they faced was ensuring that their young charges didn’t slip into contemporary dance styles when they were filming breakdancing and disco routines. “A lot of these kids are stuck on what’s going on now, like the ‘Whip/Nae Nae’ and so on,” laments Tone. “They did not move like that back then, so we had to be really, really strict. That went on every day in rehearsal. It was hard.”

Rich agrees: “The kids had that youthful energy. You’re dealing with cellphones, social media… When we started rehearsal we had to ban phones. ‘Why are you on Snapchat?’”, he sighs wearing a part-wry grin and part-pained expression.

Grandmaster Flash meets the young cast (left to right): Stefanée Martin, Herizen F. Guardiola, Shyrley Rodriguez, Justice Smith, Shameik Moorea and Skylan Brooks

Grandmaster Flash meets the young cast (left to right): Stefanée Martin, Herizen F. Guardiola, Shyrley Rodriguez, Justice Smith, Shameik Moorea and Skylan Brooks

George describes Rich and Tone as “leaders and mentors to the cast”, and when I ask Herizen and Justice about the pair, they erupt into a spontaneous, rapid dialogue that sounds scripted, but can’t be. (Herizen speaks first):

“Amazing.”

“They are the best.”

“They’re like my uncles.”

“They’re so hype, so much fun, yet professional.”

“They’ll kick your ass if you mess around.”

“Don’t fuck around with them.”

“Just don’t.”

“But then on your down-time they’re so chill.”

“They’re so funny, I love them,” says Herizen, and the dialogue stops. “I got yelled at by Rich a lot. Rich is the bad cop. Tone is more serious, but he’s more mellow, and I feel he kinda tells Rich and Rich gets the vibe. Then he’s like, ‘now y’all need to pay attention!’”

Tone confirms that tempers frayed: “It got to the point where our frustration overcame us, and we had to separate ourselves from the kids one time. We had to tell them, ‘Well, if you think you know what you’re doing, then you put it together.’ We walked away. Of course, an hour went by, they didn’t do anything, we came back, and they were like, ‘OK, we’re sorry, we’re sorry.’” Rich picks up the thread: “We gave them some tough love. But we did acknowledge them like: ‘If you do this shit, it’s gonna live forever. And just remember that kids your age are going to be watching this. They’re going to look up to you.’”

The pair’s enthusiasm has clearly rubbed off on The Get Down’s young stars, who all seem quietly confident that, in plumbing an inspirational, near-mythical past, they’ve created a work of art that will resonate now and in the future. “I think people are going to refer back to The Get Down a lot,” says Jaden Smith, shortly before our time runs out. “They have the database to tap into, to look at. They can live the Bronx when they watch our show.”

 

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.