*Mild Spoilers Ahead*
I just finished the first half of The Get Down, Netflix’s new series that details the rise of hip-hop and fall of disco music in 1977 New York. Critically, the series has a mixed reception that leans more-so on the positive side than the negative. Audiences, on the other hand, seem to enjoy it more often than not. So let’s look at the good, the bad, and the funky of The Get Down.
Now, the series isn’t a literal history of hip-hop. Rather, it is a sort of neo-creationist myth of the art involving characters both historical (i.e., Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc) and fictional. This allows for more creative flexibility, which in turn helps the series explain the human condition while giving an extra dose of drama and/or comedy. It’s akin to Shakespeare writing of Macbeth and Henry V, both historical characters in very fictional settings, to explain the tragedies of humanity. Or better yet, Lin Manuel Miranda’s mega-uber-successful Broadway musical Hamilton, which casts Black and Brown people as a bunch of pasty wig-wearing White folks in order to convey certain themes regarding identity and nationhood. It’s not supposed to be real as much as it just supposed to deal with how we interpret reality.
The main characters are intriguing enough for the audience to be invested in their struggles. We get a sense of what drives both Zeke (Justice Smith) and Mylene (Herizen Guardiola). The former has a tragic background a both his parents killed at an early age, thus forcing him to live with his aunt and uncle. However, our hero has an amazing skillset as a wordsmith, which brings him into contact with the enigmatic Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) – a tagger who aspires to be DJ. With his group of renegades and outcasts, the newly formed Fantastic 4 + 1 attempts to find their place in this new cultural movement all while trying to survive the degradation of their community.
On the other side, Mylene is a singer who is dealing with her own issues. The challenges she faces is a result of the intersections between racism, classism, sexism, and religion. She deals with a hyper-religious pastor for a parent (played by Giancarlo Esposito) who dictates how she can express her womanhood within the context of conservative Christianity. She also harbors romantic feelings towards Zeke, while also being frustrated with how he refuses to be available to her. However, her desire to be free from the South Bronx ghetto takes precendant over everything. After all, South Bronx was collapsing under the weight of crony capitalism, de-industrialization, and the War on Drugs. As such, singing is her only means of not only to thrive but to survive in an otherwise chaotic world.
Both characters, who are in love with each other, have to travel different roads with different fates in store. Disco is near its death in the mainstream whereas hip-hop was a nascent art form just ready to emerge from the embryo of South Bronx. In other words, Zeke will be on the rise while Mylene will soon deal with the decline. Tragedy is bound to happen.
Also of note, both Zeke and Mylene characters are Afro-Latino. This makes perfect sense since the Latin community, particularly Puerto Ricans/Nuyoricans, were in part responsible for the birth of Hip-Hop. What folks forget to mention is that the majority of Boricuas were AFRO-Latino. Trust me when I say there’s a difference between the experiences of Black Latinos vs those who aren’t.
Now, as someone who identifies as an Afro-Latino, this is a welcome sight to see in the media. For the most part, characters from Latin America are usually portrayed with lighter skin, sometimes looking more akin to bronzed Italians than actual Mestizos, Mulattos, or otherwise who mostly populate the regions. This show (along with Hulu’s East Los High) breaks from that tradition and places darker boricuas front and center. Now, since I’m Black and Mexican (4th generation) from the West Coast, I have a very different conception of my Blackness and Latinidad – which is ultimately why I love getting a window into my Black Boricua brethren from the East Coast.
From a technical standpoint, I like how the series involves all the aspects of the art form (albeit not always equally). Historically, breakin’, taggin’, emceein’, and Deejayin’ were all equally integral parts of how the culture was born. Zeke is the MC, Shaolin is the DJ and Tagger, and Dizee Kipling (Jaden Smith) is the tagger and MC. It wasn’t just rapping that helped birth hip-hop. Black folks have been doing that since the 19th century. But all these forms were portrayed within the series as an extension of Black culture that mixed to create one of our greatest artistic movements in the 20th century.
The first episode, which was directed by Moulin Rouge‘s Baz Lurhmann, wasn’t that good of pilot. The pacing was set to Twista’s style of rhyming if he ingested caffeine and snorted coke. It’s difficult to follow a story without having to pause. Since he tried to fit in damn near everything else within the plot, Baz didn’t allow his characters to develop within the 90 minutes allotted. Granted, this is a trademark of Baz’s, which is why most of his projects are a mess when it comes to editing and character development. While the last five episodes had much better pacing to them, the disjointedness between the pilot and the rest of the season is glaring.
Yet, the rest of the episodes are plagued by shifts in tone. It goes from campy to dark (yes, even literally) within minutes. At times it can be magnetic with the get downs (the hip-hop gatherings) and the intricacies of the art. At other times, it will focus on absolutely uninteresting and clichéd story-lines such as Shaolin’s organized crime angle and the sappy teenage love drama between Zeke and Mylene.
Yup, DJ Shaolin is a hustler working for some cougar/sexual predator crime boss named Fat Annie. This would be somewhat interesting, but the crime boss characters are so over-the-top and campy that it fails to create any real sense of grit of organized crime unlike its contemporary peers such as Daredevil or Power. Fat Annie is a criminal nightclub owner, who unlike Ghost, has no redeeming qualities or cruelty. Her son, Cadillac, is a Superfly-reject gangsta cokehead who wears colorful clothing, dances to disco music, and spits wack game. Once could make a case that the show would be better off without these characters, who just distract from the overall narrative with their pitiful forays of ruling the New York Underworld.
Also, the love between Zeke and Mylene is plagued with clichés almost to the point of being uninteresting. Mylene wants attention and support. Zeke wants to do his own thing. It can be charming with the corny love poems to boring when Mylene chastises him for hanging out with his boys. Hell, they even rip off a scene from Boyz n the Hood, when Zeke finally cries in front of Mylene in the middle of the night with a background of chaos. And like Trey and Brandi, after our male protagonist expresses his sensitive side Mylene rewards him by giving up her virginity to him.
After this, I will cry in front of random women. I’ll let you know how that works out for me.
As for Nas, the executive producer of the series, it is very strange for his voice to be attached to the rhymes of the older Zeke (Daveed Diggs). Given that Nas is perhaps the greatest emcee to ever come out of Queens, and possibly NY, attaching his voice to a fictional South Bronx rapper seems odd. If anything, it would have made better sense for Diggs, an actual rapper, to just use his own voice and just spit Nas’s lyrics instead. After all, Nas is an icon and Zeke does not work well as a surrogate for him given the age differences between the two. Nas was 4 in 1977 and his lyricism emerged in some different contexts from Zeke: 1. there was the context of the Reagan era and its failure/unwillingness to aid Black people and 2. his rhythm structure was influenced by Rakim, whose album with Eric B Paid in Full changed the lyricism within the game.
In fact, the older Zeke is performing at a sold out concert in 1996! Because his character was in his teens in the 1970s, it would be unlikely for him to be a megastar nearing his 40’s. In a sort of Social Darwinist way, Hip-Hop is inherently biased towards young men, as it frequently reduces its elder statesmen to performing much audiences that could barely fill a coffee shop on any given night. Even the great emcees lose their pull after a decade or so in the game.
Speaking of the music, it’s actually really good. I always love listening to the disco grooves of the 70’s, always vibrant and kinetic to get a barely-any-rhythm-having-ass-brotha like myself to move to the beat. The early rap battles, while having Zeke spit an anachronistic Rakim-type flow, are entertaining even if they’re not technically appropriate for 1977. The original songs are written well enough to be convincing and all the actors can hold their own singing and rapping their pieces.
The set pieces are vibrant and colorful along with the clothing and lingo. Sometimes, this can be somewhat distracting since it exaggerates the time period. Other times, it’s pretty dope and corny in a humorous way.
Overall, I enjoyed the series. It wasn’t great television. It wasn’t anywhere near as compelling as some of Netflix’s other series or any other musical dramas within the past. It does get better as the show goes along, but not to point where it can be qualified as great. Yet, the strength of its cast, the quality of the music, and diversity of the show buoy it enough to be entertaining. I’ll write part two when the rest of the season follows in early 2017.