Grandmaster Flash produces hip-hop TV
A monk views political cartoons by over 100 Myanmar cartoonists during a three-day exhibition focusing on a message of peace in Yangon’s Mahabandoola Park on August 12. Not shown? The Pokemon Go-ers behind him. HIP-HOP today permeates global sounds and fashions but the art form was born far from the spotlight in the tumult of the 1970s Bronx, then a no-go zone for many outsiders.
The Get Down, a new television series by Australian director Baz Luhrmann, aims to fill a void in historical memory as he recreates the sense of cultural wonder – and the danger that was never far away – when youths in the poorest New York City borough created the formula for hip-hop.
The series, whose first six episodes came out worldwide Friday on Netflix, captures The Bronx in the frenetic stylistic eye of Luhrmann, with a lightningpaced plot set to a hard-charging soundtrack interspersed with dramatic slow-motion effects.
Luhrmann – whose films include modern takes on The Great Gatsby and Romeo + Juliet, both starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and Moulin Rouge! – said he was pulled to The Bronx after hearing hip-hop in a Paris cafe and wondering where the spark originated.
“At a time when there was so little, how did a bunch of young kids who just wanted to do something go on and change the world?” Luhrmann told AFP at the premiere of The Get Down on August 11, pointedly held in The Bronx.
“The simpleness of that is such an extraordinary story,” he said. “The ’80s have been told but no one told where it came from.”
To piece together the story, Luhrmann enlisted hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash, who said the director consulted him exhaustively on details, down to mastering dance moves of the time.
Flash, the first hip-hop artist to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said that too many people believed hip-hop began in the 1980s when rappers first won mainstream US audiences.
“This era now becomes a topic of conversation. When we was kids, we didn’t record it, we didn’t film it, we didn’t do anything, so there was nothing for you guys to reference to,” Flash said.
“After watching The Get Down, some viewers may say ‘I want hip-hop the way I’ve been doing it,’ or some may say, ‘Wait a minute, I just learned something.’”
Grandmaster Flash appears in the series, played by a younger actor, showing the discovery of “the get down”, the drum-break that would excite the crowds on his tracks such as “Apache”.
Performing long before online music, Grandmaster Flash’s sole tools were two turntables, on which he would play duplicate records, and a simple mixer.
Yet The Get Down is no biopic. The central character is The Bronx itself, plagued by violence and arson but also bound by a vibrant neighborhood life.
The series opens in 1977, a terrible year for New York City which had just escaped filing for bankruptcy and was hit in July by a blackout that triggered widespread looting – including, for aspiring hip-hop artists, of equipment.
The Get Down traces the fictional Ezekiel Figuero, a bookish teenager with a love of poetry but little family direction, as he pursues Mylene Cruz, an aspiring singer desperate to escape her overbearing preacher father.
Adding a mystical dimension to hip-hop’s creation story, another key character is Shaolin Fantastic, an elusive neighborhood martial arts master and artist who sprints through The Bronx on missions for Grandmaster Flash.
The Get Down comes six months after another show on 1970s music culture in New York, Vinyl, premiered on HBO.
The epicenter of Vinyl was Manhattan, with the series focused heavily on the sex and drugs lifestyle in the rock industry. Despite counting Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese among executive producers, Vinyl flopped and HBO scrapped plans for a second season.
Vinyl presented a seedy glamour and roped in celebrity appearances, with Jagger’s son James in a role. The Get Down relies on little-known actors and intentionally stops the story before Grandmaster Flash wins fame.
Mamoudou Athie, a recent graduate of Yale Drama School who plays Flash, shadowed the hip-hop pioneer to learn how to spin. He believed The Get Down could help elevate attention to the genre’s origins to the level of pop.
“I find it absurd that it’s not as widely recognised,” he said of hip-hop history. “I think that’s going to change soon.”