“The Get Down”: A Continuing Exercise In Constantly Settling For Mediocrity While Compromising The Integrity Of Our Culture
Black & Latino inner city youth cultures matter…
I’ve been openly wondering what it would take to have a film or a series that centered Hip Hop culture like ones I’ve seen my entire life with Rock for years now. I fully remember noticing how corny and erroneous supposed Hip Hop films like “Breakin’”, “Beat Street” and “Rappin’” were even at a young age, and I wanted Hip Hop to get the same level of respect in terms of making the project authentic and true to the culture for a change. When I saw that Baz Luhrmann of all people was going to make a series based on the early days of Hip Hop, I immediately winced.
Luhrmann plays fast and loose with history and is notorious for anachronisms in his films. This would be the polar opposite of what we’d want to see in “The Get Down”. However, our worst fears were supposed to be assuaged when it was revealed music journalist and historian Nelson George would be overseeing the project alongside Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow among others. I was still skeptical, and here’s why…
In the process of adaptation, something will always get lost. What happens next is a compromise between the parts you end up discarding and the events and people that either only get mentioned in passing or not mentioned at all. Sometimes you have to take certain individuals and create amalgamated counterparts of them or their actions because quite honestly, you have limited time and can’t fit in everything. Now, this is the case even before you make a conscious decision to center or elevate certain individuals in your project’s narrative.
In this particular case, Nelson George was going to make sure to center and elevate both Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc within the context of the Hip Hop world circa The Bronx of Summer 1977. What we also have to keep in mind is Grandmaster Flash was also involved with the creation of “The Get Down,” so if there were people Flash had grudges with or didn’t want to give shine to because it would go counter to elevating him, they’d more than likely go missing from the story entirely. Forget that while the South Bronx is considered the home of Hip Hop, Grandmaster Flash & The 3 MC’s, Kool Herc & The Herculords, Afrika Bambaataa & The Zulu Nation, The L Brothers (Mean Gene, Cordie-O & Grand Wizard Theodore, The Brothers Disco (DJ Breakout & DJ Baron) and DJ Disco Wiz & DJ Casanova Fly are were from and active in different parts of The Bronx. Not to mention all of the Hip Hop pioneers in Brooklyn, Queens & Harlem that are completely missing from the equation…
In any telling of a story, you instantly need to identify the key players and key events you’ll want to touch on. Next, you’ll have to pare that down to make it fit within the confines of however long the film, show or episode is. The same way when audio is compressed to become a CD that is then mass produced, commoditized and sold to the masses, something is lost. This is unavoidable, but the aim is to make sure that as much of the cultural elements are preserved as possible so it rings as authentic to not only those who know, but to those who are seeing these things for the first time onscreen. This seems like a lot to ask, but it really isn’t.
In the case of “The Get Down”, I experienced something I’ve experienced far too often in the case of Hip Hop related media: being told to not say anything negative about it, because we finally were thrown a bone, and we should be grateful for what we got at all. This pisses me off, because what it’s saying is that we should settle for mediocre depictions of our culture and not hold out for greatness. You’re telling us to be satisfied with the same half ass shit we’ve always had to endure. Hip Hop has been in existence since 1973, first broke nationally back in 1981 then went global and mainstream in 1984. You mean to tell me in the time between then and now we haven’t earned the right to see an accurate depiction of our culture in media? Let’s get into specifics now.
I keep getting told I’m too critical, and I need to allow for some mistakes or omissions. Trust me, as a historian and a writer I’m well aware, so this only makes me hyperaware of things that prevent me from suspending belief and just enjoying the show. First off, “The Get Down” opens in 1996 at a Rap concert from the main character who is apparently telling the story through flashbacks to The Bronx in 1977 and his early introduction to the Rap game. I immediately take issue. Why is this set in 1996? Judging by the size of the venue and the production value, it would make more sense if the show took place in 1998, post Rap becoming the #1 selling musical genre and the Hard Knock Life Tour opening up big venues for Rap shows again. I decide to overlook it and just watch the damb episode.
The approach of framing certain key characters as Kung Fu and comic book superheroes made perfect sense to me. Growing up in the culture of Hip Hop, I was heavily influenced by old Kung Fu films and comic books. I viewed my favorite graf writers, B-Boys, DJ’s and emcees as just that: superheroes. I didn’t even necessary know what they even looked like but I loved what they did. My favorite graf writers were anonymous legends and, until a TV special aired in July 1981, I never saw what a New York B-Boy even looked like in action. I guarantee you that by the beginning of the 1981–82 school year, the yard was now full of B-Boys. However, the problem lies in the fact so many cats whose names you heard and saw on cassettes were nowhere to be found or mentioned within the world of The Bronx in 1977, when you knew they were around at the time.
Shaolin Fantastic looks up to Grandmaster Flash, who he reveres like a sifu/sensei in the martial arts films we grew up watching. Grandmaster Flash tells Shao that Universal DJ Rule No. 17 is “In order to fly, a DJ must trust his wings”. This is odd, seeing as later on in the episode all you see is Keith Cowboy (the original Keith Keith) and none of HIS wings. My knowledge of the era tells me that this would include E-Z Mike, Disco Bee and the rest of the 3 MC’s, namely the Glover Brothers, Kid Creole and Melle Mel. Oddly enough, they are nowhere to be found. Also not mentioned or shown anywhere are the L Brothers, including Flash’s former partner Mean Gene, his protégé Grand Wizard Theodore and his older brother Cordie-O. Let me further explain why their omissions are so problematic.
Grand Wizard Theodore was the record boy for Flash (in the series Shao claims he also had this role) & Mean Gene, who created the scratch by mistake practicing on Gene & Flash’s equipment, which was kept at the Livingston’s home (The L in L Brothers stood for Livingston). When his mom told him to turn down the music or turn it off, while pulling the record back, he discovered the sound it made. Theodore then practiced this method and began to scratch to the beat. Before this? Flash would rub the record until it was time to let it go, but the audience never heard the sound of the record rub, only Flash did in his headphones. Theodore intended for the audience to hear the scratch sound.
In addition, while Flash had developed his mathematical method of determining where the break was by marking it off by marker, crayon or where on the record label the beginning of the break lined up, the young padawan Theodore could tell where the get down part in a record was by merely looking at it. Flash dubbed this “the needle drop” and wanted Theodore to play during his and Gene’s sets. Soon Grandwizard Theodore’s star was on the rise. Flash was able to then incorporate the scratch Theodore pioneered and improve on it. His scratch and cut innovations amazed audiences and allowed him to pack venues that held thousands, alongside The 3 MC’s, who were the crew responsible for making emcees increasingly more important from 1977 on. All of these pioneers have been erased from the story in one fell swoop to instead introduce fictional characters that center Grandmaster Flash.
Up until 1976, B-Boying in the Bronx was largely a Black thing. Around that time, many of the active B-Boys began to age out of it or quit, aside from a few that were down with Kool Herc. It was actually Puerto Rican B-Boys circa 1977 that brought B-Boying back to prominence and began going to the floor more. Before that, B-Boys mostly uprocked and avoided going to the floor, because they didn’t want to scuff their kicks or get their gear dirty at the jam. I didn’t see that historical distinction made in “The Get Down”. Further troubling is there is no mention of either DJ Disco Wiz or DJ Charlie Chase made in “The Get Down”, either. Disco Wiz was the first Latino Hip Hop DJ to play breaks during sets and he was soon followed by Charlie Chase. Charlie frequented the Bronx parties thrown by Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash then also entered the DJ fray himself.
We don’t see any effort made to show Latino B-Boys prominent in the culture at the time, there’s no mention of or shine given to prominent Latino DJ’s, and the main protagonists are supposed to be Latinos but actually aren’t in real life. I don’t know about you, but I’d take issue with that. What makes things all the more infuriating is Mylene’s father is played by Giancarlo Esposito, and her uncle is played by Jimmy Smits. While Jimmy Smits is actually a Brooklyn raised Afrolatino, Mylene’s friend Regina, her mother and Ezekiel’s aunt are both actually played by Latinas, but those are minor supporting roles by comparison.
If I’m expected to look the other way and accept some things because I should be grateful they exist at all, that removes my right to ask Nelson George why he did an interview with Latina Magazine that goes counter to the product I actually saw onscreen? Politics shouldn’t take precedence over an accurate depiction of the culture that was thriving in The Bronx or existed outside of it. We were supposed to be satiated by the mere mentions of often overlooked pioneers such as Grandmaster Flowers and Disco King Mario? Just for the sake of argument, let’s review some of the numerous times throughout the series that prevented some of us from just suspending relief and enjoying the series.
The entire purpose of “The Get Down” is to frame everything within the confines of The Bronx in the Summer of 1977. That being the case, the writers and the production staff are tasked with making sure the viewer doesn’t get taken out of the mindset of this era. Both the writers and the production staff failed miserably at both throughout the series, depending on your level of knowledge of the era. Knowing there were relatively simple fixes and remedies to these issues, these things never should’ve occurred, especially given the budget they were working with.
For example, records have labels that don’t fit the era. I understand that may not have been a priority given with how small the audience that would’ve noticed that is. Records that weren’t from the era being visible in shots? Inexcusable. Not touching on DJ’s altering labels or soaking them off to prevent other people from figuring out what records they were playing? I feel like this should’ve been touched on, but I can overlook it. Mylene signing Machine’s 1979 hit “There But For The Grace Of God Go I” in the church was problematic because that is one of the greatest Dance records ever made, a Disco staple and everyone knows it was NOT from 1977. This song choice illustrates just how little Baz Luhrmann cares about keeping things accurate within the framework of what was happening in The Bronx circa 1977, which is an indictment on the entire series itself. You might argue that these are tiny mistakes that should be overlooked given the scope of the project, but I counter with that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In the 5th episode of “The Get Down”, Ezekiel visits a White family and has dinner in their home where the teenage daughter professes her love for Punk which Ezekiel knows nothing about. She continues on by bringing up The Ramones and her mom then asks Ezekiel “You never heard “I Wanna Be Sedated?”. Problem being is in July 1977 NO ONE had heard that song because The Ramones hadn’t even finished writing it yet. A simple fix would’ve been for the daughter to rattle off the names of prominent Punk groups of the era like The Ramones, Blondie & Television then ask Ezekiel if he’d ever been to or heard of CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City. It would’ve taken no time to do, but I guess having an $120 million dollar budget doesn’t buy you common sense.
I’m asked to let it slide when Shaolin Fantastic names Ezekiel “MC Books” in an era where emcees had names like Keith Keith, Melle Mel, Kid Creole, Kool Kyle, etc. when Zeke Love would’ve made perfect sense. I’m asked to look past a scene where Cadillac plays an Atari 2600 with a joystick it didn’t have until the early 80’s instead of a paddle with a fire button on the side. I’ve already let it slide he’s playing a game Atari didn’t even release in 1977 because of licensing issues. FINE.
I’m expected to let it go that DJ Malibu, a stand in for DJ Hollywood gets killed in the first episode to advance the story, thus erasing another pioneer from the narrative? I’m also asked to let it slide that cats are rapping over “Big Beat”, a record that didn’t exist until 1980 because they played Can’s “Vitamin C” and the Jackson 5ive’s “Hum Along & Dance” in other scenes. I’m supposed to overlook all of these oversights because the Harlem store A.J. Lester was namedropped when I visibly saw a record from 1992 (from the “Juice” OST) in a crate of records The Get Down Brothers were digging in after the Blackout Of 1977? Am I somehow supposed to believe that clubgoers were actually voguing back in 1977 as well? I’m supposed to look the other way that they chose to have Kool Herc still throwing parties in the function room of 1520 Sedgwick Ave in Summer 1977 when its widely known he had moved to the PAL on Webster Ave. by then? I don’t think so! Exactly how many blatant errors and inconsistencies am I supposed to eat because Nelson George says I shouldn’t critique it so harshly anyways?
In addition to Nelson George, we have Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Rahiem (formerly of The Funky Four and Furious Five), Kurtis Blow and Nas as executive producers and consultants. This doesn’t prevent things like having someone tell a member of his crew to rap his lines from a routine “double time” to get them out. In 1977, there was no “double time” rapping, there was Kid Creole and his younger brother Melle Mel who pioneered both the innovations of “nonstop/continuous rapping” and going back and forth in routines as part of The 3 MC’s with hypeman and party rocker extraordinaire Keith Cowboy.
It’s disturbing to see this all emerge from The Get Down Bros. in their battle with Herc protégés The Notorious 3 as the Glover brothers and their innovations, which changed the art of emceeing from 1977 on, are pretty much erased thanks to Nelson George and his haste to center and elevate Grandmaster Flash. Another question: are The Notorious 3 amalgamations or counterparts of real life Herculords Clark Kent, Timmy Tim & Coke La Rock? Also, pieces of this battle story are taken from an actual battle that DJ Disco Wiz & DJ Casanova Fly had in 1977 (but neither are to be found in the world of “The Get Down”). We see Kool Herc but his “wings” seem to get no mention, either. I get it, some names have been changed. For instance, the infamous Casanovas are now the Caesars. It would help if at any point Nelson George or the executive producers of the series laid out who, if any people, were given counterparts with different names or amalgamated into other characters a la the nonexistent Bro. Baines in Spike Lee’s film adaptation of Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography Of Malcolm X”.
All throughout the 6 episode arc of “The Get Down” I’m faced with constant dilemmas. The extra long opening episode tried to incorporate elements of Blaxploitation films, Kung Fu films, musicals like “Saturday Night Fever” and “Thank God It’s Friday” with comic books. This approach was within reason, considering these were all things we saw circa 1977, but the problem lies in the fact it wasn’t executed well. The episode seemed to lack consistency, and the shootout in Les Inferno played against Fat Annie and Disco Godfather Cadillac made me wonder if I was watching an extended cut of Wyclef Jean & The Refugee All Stars video “We Trying To Stay Alive” or not?
Is “The Get Down” entertaining overall? Sure. Problem is, for all the things it does well, it takes two steps back every time it makes either a mistake or a flat out error in judgment that causes viewer to fail to suspend belief. I loved seeing Latinos as the protagonists in a story about the early days of Hip Hop. Unfortunately, their were so many Latino pioneers & contributors excluded from the series. I loved seeing Grandmaster Flash & Kool Herc actually get depicted in a mainstream series dedicated to Hip Hop, unfortunately it came at the expense of several other pioneers. I loved seeing early depictions of B-Boys, I just wish there was more focus placed on them. Maybe cats like Spy or Jojo could’ve gotten namedropped or depicted. I loved seeing the Writer’s Bench and the graf culture get shine, but even then it fell short by having Jaden Smith in the role of RUMI.
Trying to seamlessly blend musical elements into the storytelling were hit and miss. When it worked, it worked. When it didn’t, you just ended up asking a bunch of questions about why they tried to intertwine all of these stories together all at once rather than letting them each play out individually. The desired effect is to draw the viewer in, but oftentimes you just feel like the filmmakers/writers/directors are doing too much. For all of the things that worked in “The Get Down”, you could point to several things that either could’ve or should’ve been better. Rather than just be happy “The Get Down” exists at all, I’d prefer for the final product to be excellent.
I enjoyed seeing OJ’s featured prominently in “The Get Down”, I appreciate attempting to incorporate the danger of The Bronx via gang culture and the underworld, but those ended up being my least favorite parts of the series overall. Fat Annie, Cadillac and everyone at Les Inferno could barely hold my attention. For all the focus on the scene where Grandmaster Flash demonstrates his tricks for Shaolin Fantastic, it just echoed when I saw Omar Epps fake DJ in “Juice” onscreen back in 1992. The series is ambitious, and as much as I hoped I’d see Hip Hop culture get this kind of big budget treatment one day, the half finished project just falls short.
We are pretty much told as Hip Hop fans our culture just doesn’t have the value that Rock history does. For that reason we are expected to accept whatever scraps we’re offered. We’re expected to be thankful to see any representation of Hip Hop culture in mainstream media whatsoever. I personally don’t subscribe to that belief. Two years ago I asked the question “Why Doesn’t Hip Hop Have A “High Fidelity” Or An “Almost Famous” Yet?”. Back in February, I attempted to answer the question “How Close Are We To Hip Hop’s “High Fidelity” Or “Almost Famous” Finally Being Made?” and I felt like 2017 would finally be the year it got off the ground.
Seeing as how we’re expected to settle for mediocrity by compromising the integrity of Hip Hop culture to make it palatable for mainstream audiences, I don’t know how we’ll get there. First, we have to get it in our heads that our culture matters enough that we deserve nothing less than excellence. Next, we have to fight for an accurate and fair depiction of our culture, its pioneers, key contributors and participants. Next, we have to make sure that whomever is in charge of overseeing this project isn’t playing favorites and needlessly erasing people from the narrative to elevate and center others. Just because you’re not drawing a check doesn’t mean you should feel excluded from the narrative.
Thing is, even with all my issues with “The Get Down” I encourage everyone to see it. I want to make sure it generates enough revenue that one day soon I might get the opportunity to do the culture justice in a film or television series myself. This is the sad situation we’re stuck with allowing, someone with deep pockets and a global reach but little regard for accuracy like Baz Luhrmann to tell our stories for us…
Dart Adams is a Bostonian who is not for the bullshit. Never has been. Never will be. Salute Lower Roxbury/South End.