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‘The Get Down’ Is the Origin Myth That Hip-hop Deserves

The new Netflix show is over the top — and that’s the point

Netflix
Netflix

The Get Down (the first six episodes of which premiere today on Netflix) is the most fun I’ve had watching a TV show since the first season of Empire. I worry that you’ll hate it.

The show’s got problems. It’s got excesses. It’s got Jimmy Smits dressing and acting like a lesser Bond villain in an off-Broadway musical adaptation of License to Kill. And on top of that, the first episode is 90 minutes. It’s a lot, especially when that initial hour-plus, and then every subsequent episode, begins and ends with Nas doing voice-over work as a Greek chorus. He also raps as a protagonist — played in a recurring flash-forward concert sequence by Hamilton actor Daveed Diggs, who looks and sounds distressingly unlike the legendary Queens rapper. Brace yourselves.

It’s all a bizarre history lesson. The Get Down, whose story begins in 1977, is director Baz Luhrmann’s dramatized history of hip-hop’s origins in the Bronx — though I’d say the show is as much about the death of disco as it is about the birth of rap. Luhrmann’s vision is bigger, more historically ambitious, and at turns more amorphous than its sales pitch implies. The lead characters aren’t all enamored of hip-hop, but they are tied to musical performance, nightlife, and the record business. The variety of character styles and aspirations means they’re often talking passionately about the power of their respective crafts — spinning, rapping, poetry, prose, disco, and hip-hop — in their own lives, and in American life.

Luhrmann’s story plants young, original characters — the fledgling hip-hop DJ Shaolin Fantastic (played by Shameik Moore, the lead from the 2015 movie Dope); the prodigious rapper Ezekiel; and the budding disco contender Mylene Cruz, among several others — in the shadow of real hip-hop DJ pioneers Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and the recently scandalized Afrika Bambaataa. These men all consulted with Luhrmann during production of the series, and it shows, even though they aren’t playing themselves on camera. In the second episode, there’s an especially poetic sequence in which Grandmaster Flash, a popular but mysterious sensei played by Mamoudou Athie, teaches the young Shaolin Fantastic and his group, the Fantastic Four Plus One, to beat-match on turntables but gives no explicit directions or clues; he just gives them a purple crayon and a 24-hour deadline. It’s a true test of character that brings the best out of the gang. In this sense, The Get Down isn’t pure hagiography of hip-hop’s earliest pioneers; it’s a story about the countless city kids that the genre’s founders inspired.

Netflix
Netflix

The Get Down has more in common with Empire and R. Kelly’s hip-hopera, Trapped in the Closet, than it has in common with anything else, including Vinyl, a show with a late-’70s rap plotline that means nothing to me. In fact, The Get Down very much strikes me as a post-Empire series, one that has appropriated the hip-hop soap opera’s early, distinguishing strengths — sleek musical set pieces, massive tonal fluctuation, bold characters — and turned the volume up to 11. The results are “over the top,” as critics will doubtlessly describe The Get Down once and again. They’re not wrong. But that’s exactly the series’ strength: elevating careful genre history into great mythmaking.

The kids in the Bronx are all running from someone. Local gangs and slumlords have put the borough into a state of upheaval. There’s a record store heist, a nightclub siege, a tragic explosion: the stuff of great foot chases. These big events send our teen protagonists scrambling up, down, and around high-rise housing projects as the ground sinks beneath them. The South Bronx boss Francisco Cruz, played hysterically by the aforementioned Smits, conspires to burn the neighborhood down and build it anew; in the meantime, the area is depicted as having disintegrated into a lawlessness that Luhrmann romanticizes just short of suggesting that urban decay is paradise. The Get Down, whose timeline begins two years after New York nearly went bankrupt, breathes life (and death) into a dog-eat-dog social order. In broad daylight and vacant lots, vigilantes flash snub-nosed revolvers at one another, and rarely do we hear the sound of the police.

In line with the recent glut of ’70s nostalgia, The Get Down is exquisitely costumed, highly stylized, and surreal. It’s so fanciful, in fact, that it dares you to bother with the humorless work of spotting anachronisms. Instead, we’re meant to revel in colorful spectacle, as hammy as Smits wants to be, as loud and ludicrous as the music gets. Luhrmann’s Bronx is larger than life, and his massive exaggeration of drama, comedy, action, and music here is a feature, not a bug.

The Get Down debuts in a decade when hip-hop has finally become its own sort of classic rock. How else would you explain the popularity of Hamilton? Meanwhile, Public Enemy and N.W.A have both snuck into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now there’s even an ecosystem of podcasts — The Combat Jack Show, Juan Epstein, Drink Champs, Rap Radar Podcast — where senior hosts interview senior rappers about the good ol’ days. In January 2017, VH1 will give us The Breaks, a full-series follow-up to the successful TV movie of the same name, which premiered early this year and is based on the author Dan Charnas’s massive hip-hop industry overview, The Big Payback. For posterity’s sake, The Get Down is part of a much larger historical project to confirm and preserve hip-hop’s influence as the lingua franca of popular culture.

But The Get Down isn’t journalism, even if it does include bits of authorized biography from Flash, Herc, and Bambaataa. Instead, The Get Down is the fantastical origin story that hip-hop deserves: a TV series for, and informed by, those old heads who were truly there but also for those of us who can only imagine.