What “The Get Down” Meant To Me

On Friday August 12, Netflix debuted a new original series, “The Get Down” with six episodes. The remaining six episodes are expected to make their debut in 2017. I watched these episodes in a day and was left with a strong sense of deja vu. Over the course of viewing the series, I constantly kept getting that “feeling”. You know the one I’m talking about right? The feeling you got the first time you heard “Rockbox”, “Eric B is President”, or “Rebel Without A Pause”. In a way it is almost indescribable, yet perfectly embodied by the moment you heard the beat drop from any of these songs — you may not be exactly sure why but all of a sudden the hairs on the back of your neck or arm are standing up, and when that happens it is a good thing! “The Get Down” made me feel the way I used to the first time I heard my favorite hip-hop records.

The trailers for “The Get Down” may look like a mash-up of “The Warriors”, “Fame”, or “Sparkle” and some reviews have compared it to “Westside Story” and “Empire”. I think those comparisons are inaccurate. For me, “The Get Down” is more like “The Goonies” as this is a coming of age story, but I also found elements that reminded me of a Marvel superhero film, particularly their origin movies like “Iron Man” and “Captain America: First Avenger”. It may seem exaggerated, over-stylized, or at times come off like a fairy tale, but this series tells the story about the early days of HIP-HOP, so I found the storytelling mechanisms to be appropriate. There have been other movies or shows that contain a hip-hop element or two, but never something that has been able to take all the various themes, and weave them together to tell the story about what hip-hop culture was like at the onset. As more time marches forward and away from that era, those stories may sound like mythology, yet “The Get Down” manages to visually convey the tales that had only existed on vinyl or cassette and present them in a dramatized form.

“The Get Down” takes place in the South Bronx in the summer of 1977, set to the backdrop of disco, burning buildings, gang violence, a historic heat wave (which ultimately led to a citywide blackout), and a hotly contested NYC mayoral race. What makes “The Get Down” unique is that the story is told through the lens of HIP-HOP, tracing its roots of bringing people together to have fun in a safe environment while listening to music and dancing, to deejays being able to control the crowd through their musical selection via the ‘get down” — the part of the record which they loop using two of the same records on two different turntables, to the wordsmith or emcee reciting poetry over the get down section. Like I said earlier, to some this may look like a story you have seen before, but to the best of my knowledge, the story has never been told from this reference point. With the fashion, art, slang, and socio-political climate of New York City, these factors combined to yield what may be the most important youth culture the world had ever seen. This is what makes the main character of the series so compelling.

The secret sauce of “The Get Down” is that HIP HOP is the main character. The actors are avatars who represent certain aspects of the culture. Ezekiel (Justice Smith), is the “wordsmith”, too scared at the opening of the series to embrace the gift within him. Mylene (Herizen Guardiola) is a pastor’s daughter and singer who wants to be the biggest disco singer since Donna Summer and dreams of making it “across the East River”. Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), the “B-boy” extraordinaire: graffiti writer, dancer, aspiring DJ who is on a quest to find a rare record for its get down section, by chance crosses paths with Ezekiel, who happens to be looking for the same record albeit for very different reasons. It is through these characters along with some others that drive the plot, and make “The Get Down” one of the most unique television experiences in a long time.

The episodes usually open with a rap narration by Nas, one of the executive producers on the series. Nas’ rap narrations are done from the point of view of adult Ezekiel, and the series actually flashes back to Ezekiel’s teenage years, starting from the last day of sophomore year in high school, which is also the first day he meets Shaolin Fantastic. The title for each episode is written in graffiti alongside a passing subway. What looks to be stock footage of the Bronx from the seventies is also intertwined into each episode, but also at times there are scenes from the show with the actors in them that have that vintage look. These are just some of the stylized ways “The Get Down” is presented. The first episode, which is the only episode that was directed by the series showrunner Baz Lurhrmann, is about ninety minutes long. Look at this episode as a made for tv movie, and not a traditional television episode. It is long, but necessary as a lot of points need to be established. For me if the episode was broken up into two parts something would have been lost. Trust me though, the climax of this episode is worth the long run time. Subsequent episodes are shorter in length. I mentioned earlier that most of the characters in this series are fictionalized, but I should point out there are a few real characters that the show introduces, and presents them in a way that makes them come off like superheroes, which further reinforces my comparison of this series to a Marvel film.

*Mild Spoilers follow*

Grandmaster Flash, who is also an executive producer on the show, appears as a character (portrayed by an actor) on the show. He is Shaolin Fantastic’s mentor, who sends him out on the quest to find a rare record with the Get Down. The relationship between the two is presented as in the form of sensei and pupil. Shaolin aspires to be a DJ, while Flash provides anecdotes for his student to think about. Among those is learning to trust others, and it is through this that Flash requires Shaolin to find a “wordsmith” which once he does, only then will Shaolin be on the right path to becoming a DJ. I appreciated the relationship these two had and the way it was presented almost in the form of an old school martial arts flick. More than a handful of early hip-hoppers were fans of these types of movies as they played in Times Square during the seventies. I also felt this made Flash seem like a larger than life character and rightfully so. As one of the founding fathers of hip-hop, his role was treated with the type of reverence that is becoming of someone of his stature. The last bit of advice Flash gives Shaolin is, “If you want to be a true DJ conquer your street, conqueror your park, conqueror your neighborhood, conqueror your borough, conqueror your city, and the world is yours”. Prophetic words indeed!

Kool Herc is another character who is portrayed by an actor in the series, and while his character has not had as much screen time as Flash, his influence is talked about prior to actually meeting him, and when he is finally introduced he helps set in motion the climax of the sixth episode, which is the halfway mark of the series. Near the end of the first episode Shaolin Fantastic talks about the “3 Kingdoms”, and how the West has DJ Kool Herc who has the biggest sound in the Bronx, and right on cue the bass from a speaker system can be heard in the distance. The main cast does not meet Kool Herc until the end of episode four, and he literally appears in the form of a towering, afro silhouetted figure, after Ezekiel, Shaolin, and their crew crashes one of his parties. The start of the subsequent episode is when Kool Herc is properly introduced, and he talks about how he started doing these parties to keep the kids off the street and out of trouble, and how he is about peace, unity and respect. As Shaolin relayed earlier in the series, there is a reason why Kool Herc had a kingdom, and his time on-screen captures how magnetic his presence is. All eyes in the room are on him, and seeing how some of his people have beef with Ezekiel, and Shaolin’s crew, Herc orders them to settle their differences via a DJ Rumble: Herc’s crew The Notorious Three versus The Get Down Brothers using their system, their records, and their rhymes where the winner is determined by who can rock the crowd the most. I have to say this is one of those times during the series where I got the feeling. Hearing these stories told in song, is one thing, but there was something magical about seeing this play out on-screen. My words do not do it justice!

Of course there are other plot lines that take place throughout the series, each of them directly or indirectly playing their part in the formation of hip-hop in these formative years. I wanted to highlight the ones that really meant the most to me as someone who grew up discovering hip-hop at a young age, and is now an adult who still has love for the culture. “The Get Down” over the course of six episodes for me has earned its place as an instant hip-hop classic, for simply reminding me that I am not too old to experience the feeling one last time.

A photo of the subway (probably the 4 train) riding alongside Yankee Stadium circa the late 70’s from the family archives

Peace, Love & Unity

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