Over-The-Top Superhero Melodrama The Get Down Gets Early Rap So Wrong And So Right
“You love to hear the story, again and again, of how it all got started way back when.” That was MC Shan on “The Bridge” in 1985, when rap, as a recorded form of music, was barely a half-decade old. Shan was rapping about the early hip-hop parties in Queensbridge, and it’s the line that sent KRS-One into a tizzy of rage. KRS responded with Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx,” an incensed history lesson that doubled as the first real thrown gauntlet from rap’s first great high-profile feud.
Even when rap music was still becoming itself, it was concerned with preserving its own myths, with assigning credit where it belonged. It was, of course, a history worth protecting. The beginnings of hip-hop — kids in a burnt-out borough scavenging their landscape and culture, making an art out of it, and seeing that art transform into a globe-dominating pop-cultural force — have been retold over and over, in every possible medium and forum, and they’re still unbelievable. Do you ever look up at the night sky and think about all the things that had to happen for you to exist? The accidents of planetary alignment and genetic development, the precise balances of temperature and atmosphere, the hundreds of millions of years of evolution? Your very ability to look at your phone and read these words is some grand and vastly improbable quirk in the space-time continuum. On a smaller scale, that’s rap music, too. It was never supposed to exist, and the conditions that nurtured it could never be replicated. And yet here we are.
The retelling of that myth is now something of a cottage industry. Think about all the books about the sudden emergence of hip-hop, the documentaries, the new podcast subgenre of old rap heads recounting their beginnings. And that, too, is the subject of The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann’s fantastical new Netflix show. It’s a perilous subject. We all have our own variations on this creation myth in our heads, and any fictionalized version is going to have to compete with it, the same way superhero movies have to compete with decades of comic-book lore. But this is also recorded historical reality. Most of the people who created hip-hop are still alive and well. Grandmaster Flash, who’s both an executive producer on the show and a character, practically looks young enough to play himself, though it’s probably better that he didn’t.
And The Get Down fucks things up again and again. I have to wonder if Luhrmann had any idea what he was getting himself into, if he knew how nitpicky rap fans are by nature. Case in point: The beginning of every episode is the stupidest thing I’ve ever fucking seen. We’re told the setting is New York in 1996, and we see Daveed Diggs, of clipping. and Hamilton, lip-syncing the voice of Nas. Diggs and Nas are somehow combining to play the older version of Zeke, the show’s hero, a fresh-faced teenager in its main 1977 narrative. In these flash-forwards, Zeke is now a huge star, with an excited crowd jumping up and down to hear Zeke’s muttered memories about his beginnings. This is plainly ridiculous. In 1996, audiences weren’t excited to hear old guys recount their dusty recollections. None of the stars of rap’s early days were still thriving in 1996. Back then, we didn’t have a single active rap star over the age of 30. (As Sean Fennessey points out in this piece, LL Cool J, the closest thing we would’ve had to a Zeke equivalent, was 28 in 1996, and he was mostly rapping about sex.) The audience would not have been there for this bullshit, especially if it was somnambulantly murmured over the most generically ’90s rap beat you can possibly imagine. On top of that, you have to accept the vision of Nas’ voice coming out of Diggs’ mouth, which seems like a physical impossibility. It’s all really, really stupid.
And the show asks you to accept so much more stupid bullshit. As the wizardly old teacher, Flash shows kids how to DJ by dispensing kung-fu teacher opacities, not by just telling them how to work the fucking fader. The lyrics from rap’s earliest pioneers were party-starting gibberish, not the peer-into-your-own-soul poetics that Zeke mostly gives us. Kevin Corrigan’s coke-addled disco-producer character is such a lazy music-biz parasite character that it’s like he wandered in from an episode of Vinyl. We’re asked to accept the proposition that Flash pays gangs of roving hard-rocks to interrupt parties just in case anyone happens to be ripping off his routines. Jaden Smith’s acting is so catastrophically shitty that it drags down what’s otherwise a fine cast. And on and on it goes. I’m only halfway done with the first season right now, and I am fully confident that my grievances will keep piling up.
And yet The Get Down is a blast, a fun and compulsively watchable show. While it has these huge, gaping problems, it also has so much going right for it, including subtle little things that it could get wrong so easily. There’s the way DJs were so much more important than rappers in the early rap ecosystem. There’s the maddening, painstaking process of isolating the break on a soul record. (We see Shaolin Fantastic, the show’s novice DJ character, spending an entire episode finding the break from Lyn Collins’ “Think,” which is one of the all-time breaks, the basis for the entire genre of Baltimore club music.) There’s the cast, almost entirely black and Latin and young and thus true to the genre’s origins. There’s the way early rap and disco coexisted and fed off of each other. There’s the sense of danger that pervaded the atmosphere early on there, that gave everything stakes. When a story gets this much right, it’s easy to forgive all those blunders.
But the real great thing about The Get Down is the feel of it. Years ago, I went to a New York screening of Wild Style, the 1983 cult movie that served as the first real fictional onscreen presentation of rap music. Charlie Ahearn, the movie’s director, gave an unannounced Q&A after it ended, and he talked about how he’d envisioned it as a kung fu movie, as an unreal comic-book adventure. That’s the same sensibility that Luhrmann brings to The Get Down, and he has an exponentially higher budget to make it really pop. Luhrmann knows that his characters are more archetype than living, breathing human being, and he plays into that. He gives us dramatic entrances and Western stand-offs and foot chases that end when someone jumps from one rooftop to the next. He gives us the Savage Warlords, who look like a gang from The Warriors, mostly because the gangs of the Bronx in the ’70s really did look like gangs from The Warriors. And he extends that fantastical, overblown silliness to all the show’s characters, not just its hip-hoppers. The villainous blaxploitation gangster boss Cadillac gets to do some beautifully fluid dancing to Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” and the best of the musical numbers that I’ve seen so far is a disco throwdown during a church service — set, in a blindingly obvious musical cue, to Machine’s “There But For The Grace Of God Go I.”
Those on-the-nose musical cues are a trademark of Luhrmann, whose Moulin Rouge is one of two movies that I’ve ever walked out of after paying for a ticket. (The other is Ivan Reitman’s 2001 alien comedy Evolution, and I probably wouldn’t trust Reitman with an origins-of-rap musical, either.) I fully expected to hate The Get Down, since Luhrmann’s vivid, flashy, gimmick-driven direction style has always, always grated on me. But that same style, combined with this genuinely mythic story, makes for an unexpectedly great pairing. Luhrmann floods his frame with color, and then he contrasts that with the grainy footage of the actual New York in 1977. The difference is obvious and intentional. We aren’t watching the real world here. We’re watching something brighter and dizzier. We’re watching something exploding out of nothingness. And that should be a miracle.
Lurhmann might make dumb decision after dumb decision, but he gets the fundamental truth at the heart of this story. It’s not the best version of this story that I’ve seen; that would still be Jeff Chang’s essential book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. And it’s not the best thing on Netflix right now, either; this is, after all, the summer that gave us Stranger Things and the third season of BoJack Horseman. But it’s something, and I fully expected it to be nothing.
I love rap music for so many reasons. But one of the main reasons that I love writing about it is that rappers, at least in the ways that they present themselves to the world, are some of the closest things we have to real-life superheroes. (That’s also a huge part of why I love writing about pro wrestlers and action movie stars.) The Get Down has about a million problems, and in plenty of ways, it’s a tremendous mess. It’s also got a budget that somehow inflated past the nine-figure mark, which is strange to even think about. But it’s the first TV show I’ve seen that treats rap’s originators as superheroes — that leaves behind any concept of real life entirely. In all the ways that matter, The Get Down isn’t about history. It’s about wonder.
1. Rae Sremmurd – “Black Beatles” (Feat. Gucci Mane)
I haven’t written about SremmLife 2, but I still might; I’ve got a lot to say about it. The short version is this: It’s a very good sophomore album, one that doesn’t even try to recapture the electricity of the debut, which goes for something else. What Rae Sremmurd have gone for is hazy melody, with all these gloopy synth textures and these squeaky sung-hollered Swae Lee hooks that are almost always more compelling than the rapping. The greatest expression of that style is “Black Beatles.” Judging by the title, you might expect cheery apostasy. Instead, it’s gluey bittersweet synthpop with a beautifully dazed Swae hook and Gucci, who will hopefully make many more songs with these kids, talking about girls who “look like strippers in their real clothes.”
2. Cam & China – “Extravagant”
Another sibling duo who could be making chirpy pop-rap — like Rae Sremmurd, they’ve got a proven gift for it — but who, on their new release, have gone in a darker direction instead. On these Californian twins’ new EP, that means snarly, stony-faced West Coast tough talk, rendered with a real snap to it. This reminds me of that part in The Social Network where one Winklevoss snarls that nobody should fuck with him because he’s big and strong and there are two of him.
3. Roc Marciano – “All For It”
The same week that Ka, his closest peer, returns with the excellent new Honor Killed The Ceremony, here’s Roc Marci in peak guttural-monotone form, using an elegantly broken Alchemist beat to call himself the black Aristotle with a bottle, writing a novel with the gun nozzle — the Paul Castellano, but he’s the moreno model.
4. Isaiah Rashad – “Free Lunch”
Rashad has the strange, tourettic intonations of his TDE stablemate Kendrick Lamar, but he’s also got the Southern slickness of prime OutKast. That combination should really amount to something, and “Meal Ticket” is a powerful indication that Rashad will hopefully grow into something more than the sum of his parts. There’s an easy gracefulness to this that feels like the start of something new for Rashad. I hope it is — that he’s all done being really good and that he’s ready to be great.
5. E-40 – “Petty” (Feat. Kamaiyah)
Kamaiyah is from Oakland, which makes me think that maybe appearing on a song with E-40 is a bigger deal than appearing on a song with Drake was, and not just because she gets more to do on this song. Can we get someone to do a The Get Down-style series about E-40’s childhood, with 40 himself doing the “previously, on this show” rapped recaps? He’d be better at it than Nas.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Black Beatles in the city… pic.twitter.com/QRbYtwDNUI
— Black Kevin Arnold (@bnease) August 15, 2016