Longtime music and cultural critic, author, and filmmaker Nelson George (“A Ballerina’s Tale”) recently teamed up with iconic filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge,” “Strictly Ballroom”) to create Netflix sensation, “The Get Down.” The series, which co-stars Will Smith scion Jaden Smith, is a fictional depiction the lives of a group of talented teens in the Bronx of the seventies, who end up making history by creating the music which came to be known as hip-hop. Daveed Diggs from “Hamilton” cameos throughout as the grown-up rap star version of the main character, Ezekiel played by newcomer Justice Smith. George shared some of his experiences and observations about that era as well as some insight into the making of the film with the AFRO.
(L to R) Tremaine Brown Jr., Shameik Moore and Jaden Smith star in Netflix’s ‘The Get Down’ (Courtesy photo)
From the humblest roots, hip-hop has grown into a global culture and a multi-billion dollar business. It is also a young enough phenomenon that most Americans over the age of, say, thirty can spot any glaring inaccuracies in a show that purports to trace its roots. It is not surprising then that many would be watching the Netflix series closely for authenticity.
Jeff Chang, author of his own seminal work on the genesis of hip-hop, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” and head of Stanford University’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts said, “The story of how youths in the Bronx and other Black neighborhoods in New York City created a culture that is now in its fifth decade of moving people around the world is an epic one. Hip-hop is about choosing life and living it to the fullest, and at its best, the series captures some of that energy. But I think ‘The Get Down’ captures the exuberance at the birth of hip-hop better than the gravity of the conditions that surrounded it.”
It can be argued that the show reflects a certain level of sophistication in understanding that there existed a diversity of experiences within a community segregated based on ethnicity, race, and class. When asked about the decision of the filmmakers to focus more on the teens and their friendships and families, George said, “The show is told from the point view of young people who find an outlet for their creativity and dreams. It’s an optimistic vision of young people who live in a very poor neighborhood in a city that has basically written them off. We know that some of these people will become legends and what they’ll create will change the world.”
Gabriel “Kwikstep” Dionisio was one of those kids growing up during the early days of hip-hop. He eventually became a world renowned breakdancer and has also seen the Netflix series. “What’s great about the show is that it ties everybody to a memory of what once was and what it has become, and what it has been transformed into.”
The series also does an excellent job of showing how hip-hop began to grow and thrive during the dying days of disco. Disco didn’t die silently but experienced aggressive backlash. The dawn of hip-hop parallelled a steady increase in popularity of rock and heavy metal in the White community. Ironically disco, with its encouragement of social integration, was perhaps subconsciously viewed as more subversive and threatening to the status quo than either rap or metal. Each of these genres of music reinforced segregation in a way that disco did not. Asked about this, George said, “As we illustrate in the show, hip-hop grew out of disco, out of the culture of the DJ as king. What the pioneers did was find different records and a different aesthetic than what was happening in disco. If there was opposition it was more generational than a conscious rejection of disco. Many hip-hop DJs played disco records that fit their set. As the hip-hop grew up they began moving into the adult clubs, the stage and record business hip-hop would grow as a force throughout the ’80s.”