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The Get Down EPs Talk the Birth of Hip Hop and More 

The Get Down EPs Talk the Birth of Hip Hop and More
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix

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I’ve been hearing about The Get Down for a while now. Some of the news hasn’t been that great — serious cost overruns, multiple delays — but from what I’ve seen so far, this new Netflix series delivers. I mean, with any Baz Luhrmann creation we know we’re going to get a feast for the senses. The first episode had some issues, but I’m really excited to see where this story takes us.

The Get Down is a mythic saga of how New York at the brink of bankruptcy gave birth to a new art form. Set in New York in 1977, this music-driven drama series chronicles the rise of hip-hop and the last days of disco -– told through the lives, music, art and dance of the South Bronx kids who would change the world forever.

Meet the characters:

Photo Credit: Netflix
Photo Credit: Netflix

Shameik Moore plays Shaolin “Shao” Fantastic, the ultimate persona of cool, a one man wolf pack, a thrill seeker, a boundary breaker and swings towards the reckless.

Justice Smith is Ezekial “Books” Figuero. Known for his quick wit and love of books, Zeke can put together a beat and a rap at a moment’s notice. His boyish charm hides a philosophical thinker, a straight A student and a golden ticket to any ivy league of his choosing.

Jaden Smith is Dizzee Kipling, the eldest of the Kipling children. Often misunderstood, he operates on a different wavelength and his attention is a closely guarded resource.

Skylan Brooks is Ra-Ra Kipling, the middle son of the Kipling family and the voice of reason. Ra-Ra thinks before he speaks and is the sibling with his “head screwed on straight.”

Tremaine Brown Jr. is Boo Boo Kipling, the youngest of the Kipling clan. He’s the irrepressible tag-along little brother and the runt of the litter with a wisecracking wild bravado.

Herizen Guardiola is Mylene Cruz, the beautiful daughter of a respected Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx. Mylene’s one-of-a-kind voice can be heard every Sunday at church, but her real dream is to be the voice of a new musical era.

Stefanee Martin is Yolanda Kipling, the only daughter of the Kipling family. Her two best friends, Mylene and Regina, are more like sisters and she’s the voice of reason amongst her friends.

Shyrley Rodriquez is Regina Diaz, the tough talking Puerto Rican best friend of Mylene and Yolanda. She’s had a tough home life, which manifests itself in a tougher exterior than her friends.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is Cadillac, the princeling son of South Bronx heroin Queenpin Fat Annie, who also runs the famed nightclub Les Inferno. When he’s not on the dance floor demonstrating his latest moves, Cadillac fancies himself the rightful heir to Annie’s criminal organization.

Photo Credit: Netflix
Photo Credit: Netflix

Jimmy Smits is Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz, a natural born hustler who navigates the New York City political world through his position as the head of the Community Multi-Services Center representing the South Bronx. He believes in his community and isn’t afraid to pursue all possibilities in order to bring attention to his failing and struggling neighborhood.

Photo Credit: Netflix
Photo Credit: Netflix

Giancarlo Esposito is Pastor Cruz, the charismatic head of the local Pentecostal church. Followers flock to his fiery sermons and firm, steady leadership but his daughter Mylene has begun to rebel against their devoutly religious household.

Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix

Netflix got the cast and EPs together to talk about the series last week during the Summer 2016 TCAs. The cast didn’t get much time to talk, but the EPs thoughts on this story, the birth of hip hop and finding these young actors were both illuminating and entertaining.

On how to tell this story.

Baz Luhrmann: “It’s not my story. I feel like I just curated that story. In that process it was people like Nelson and Flash and maybe, Flash, you should talk about that.”

Grandmaster Flash: “I made some phone calls to a few people. I [say], ‘There’s this guy, Baz Luhrmann. He wants to do this story.’  He wasn’t really concerned with my record career and me becoming a star. He wanted to do the organic years. We met and I looked him in his eye, and I [say], ‘Baz, why? Why do you want to do this story?’ And he says to me, ‘I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.’

So for Baz to want to tell this story, I wanted to see the sincerity in his eyes and I did see that. And I seen the passion in his eyes. And then we took this 17 month journey, along with Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Nelson George. And we sort of kind of made it happen.”

Nelson George: “One of the things that was very attractive to me about talking with Baz about the beginnings of it is it wasn’t simply he wasn’t doing the birth of hip hop. He was doing New York City 1970s, with disco having equal weight, with the context in which young people existed, which was budget cuts, crime, bad education, strikes.

So for me, it was exciting not even though I go back and I was one of the early writers about hip hop, I also was very interested in the fact that disco was a huge part of the culture in 1977 and ’78 that had to be when people try and do these things with disco, like hip hop’s this isolated thing. No, it’s in dialogue with the other musical genres that were happening and dialogue with the city’s challenges.

I think one of the things I’m really proud about the show is the fact that we have it’s based on young people and it’s based on the optimism and the sense of ambition. I was 20 in 1977. And me and my friends weren’t going around talking about whether or not there was budget cuts or New York jobs. We were talking but ‘How do we get on? How do I get to be a writer? How do I get out of this? How do I move into the city? How do I make these things happen?’

And I think that energy of possibility is a huge part of what the show brings. I think one of the great things, that we have this incredible young cast. So when we look at it, you’re looking at the period you’re looking at the past, but you’re seeing youth. You’re seeing energy. You’re seeing optimism. You’re seeing-

Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: “Dreams.”

George: “And I think that’s what elevates the show, for me, is the dialogue between the past and present.”

On where hip hop began.

Flash: “Where did it begin? It began in the early ’70s. We didn’t have musical instruments. Our instruments was turntables, mixer and where can we find music that would be entertaining. Back then, in the search for the perfect beat, we went searching in record stores.

In every record there’s a drum solo and that drum solo was always too short. That annoyed me. So I came up with a system that allowed me to, by the movement of my hand, extract the drum break from, like, Michael Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Babe Ruth, the Incredible Bongo Band and manually edit these drum solos to the beat from one to the other to create a musical bed with no obstruction from the bridge or the chorus of a record. So in doing this, I had to come up with a way to take duplicate copies of this record and cut and paste one behind the other.”

George: “It’s evolved to the point where Flash was going to record stores and buying 99 cent records, what they call ‘cutout records,’ not 1.99 records, and searching around for a beat. Now a kid has one of these laptops like the ones in front of everyone here and has every sound that Flash ever thought is now in a digital file in front of him and or her.

The possibility and range of what music can be, what they have access to is so different. There’s a huge movement called ‘trap music,’ right, in hip hop? To me, it’s almost not hip hop. It’s almost its own thing because it’s so technological, it’s made in this world. Trap beats are made within this digital world. They exist as their own thing.

So hip hop has evolved to the point where you have people like Drake who’s ’emo rap,’ if you will. You have Kendrick Lamar, who is in the tradition of old school in a lot of ways, old school L.A. You have, obviously, Kanye. You have so many different forces, A$AP Rocky. So hip hop, whatever it is, it’s mutated about 20 times, maybe 30 times since Flash started it. So it’s hard to even call it ‘hip hop’ in a sense because it’s become its own genre. We allude to that by having the Nas character, who is a character who suggests the future.”

Luhrmann: “Played by Daveed Diggs. Nas writes all of those raps. That Madison Square Garden concert, which is set in the ’90s, he writes all of those raps and it’s his voice. So he is using the rhymes as a narration device all the way through it and Daveed plays the character.

Nelson, I’m just going to say this because you won’t say it. Right? Nelson just says, ‘There were these kids’ like, he says it like a narrative. But when I started working with Nelson and he took me — so generous, so intensely — down the road of research and absorption, took me to the Bronx to meet his sister and to walk and to live it, what Nelson isn’t saying is because I can tell you what I’ve learned, but Nelson, he’s a cadet journalist. What are those called?”

George: “I was an intern at the Amsterdam News. A black newspaper in New York. And, actually, how I heard about Flash and how I heard about Herc is a famous record store in a subway station called Downstairs Records on 42nd and 6th Avenue. Right?”

As a young writer, I went in there and the guy said, ‘Yeah, these kids want pound. They are coming in here, and they are buying all of these 1.99 records. They are cleaning me out. What are they doing with them?’ ‘I don’t know.’ So one day we got a flier and I went up to the South Bronx to a street off the Grand Concourse and there were a bunch of kids waiting. ‘What’s up? What’s up?’ And, eventually, a white van pulls up. This really tall, Jamaican guy gets out with his boys. They pull out these giant speakers. They bring out milk crates — do you remember milk crates? — full of records and plug it in. They unplug the bottom of the light speaker, pull it through-”

Flash: “Boom.”

George: “-and, boom, the get down is happening. And he didn’t call his ‘The Get Down.’ He called these ‘BB’s’ off ‘Bongo Rock.'”

Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix

Flash: “I called it a ‘get down party.'”

George: “It didn’t have a name. One thing I remember about the hip hop thing, it wasn’t called ‘hip hop,’ really, until ’80/’81. It was-”

Flash: “Well, we kind of were saying ‘hip hop-‘”

George: “But it wasn’t like everyone said this was what it was.”

Flash: “Right. It was just our culture. It was just our way of doing things against the status quo, which was disco which was the big monster at that time.”

On when the action moves beyond The Bronx.

Luhrmann: “Spoiler alert. Episode 4. Manhattan, big. Twin Towers, big. Right? Internship for one of our characters. The tension between the really good adult around our bright young man going, an internship downtown in the fiscal control committee with Mr. Gunns, a mythical crack character, this is a really great opportunity. His cultish, superhero-like friend, Shaolin Fantastic, the lady-killing romantic saying, ‘That’s not important. What’s really important is this thing we’ve got going on in the Bronx.’

There’s a young character down here who is going, ‘I’m going to be a disco star, and I’m going to be famous.’ And we know [Mylene’s] on the cultural Titanic. While this young character has been told, ‘Do an internship,’ this thing that he’s being introduced to, which these young people did not because they thought they were going to get rich, not because their graffiti was going to be in the Cartier Museum [or] be all over the walls. No.

They were doing it because the cities were saying, ‘You don’t exist.’ And when they did it, what was really clear to me was that they did it because they wanted to say ‘We exist.’ That is what has driven this show entirely.”

Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix

On how to tell this story.

Luhrmann: “It had to be from the kids’ point of view.”

George: “This show is not poverty porn. We are not diving in and saying how horrible it is for all of these poor black and Latino people. We are saying how much positivity and how much family and how much strength it took to pull yourself out of that.

One of the most important scenes in the whole episode for me is the family scene where everyone is having dinner and you get to see the Kipling family, and you get to see that because that was reality of the South Bronx and Brooklyn as well. The outside may have been tough, but families were together, they were strong and they raised up strong people out of the chaos.”

Flash: “At that particular time, the South Bronx for myself, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and the rest of us, it was like a blank canvas. Just go with the big thing. And we were basically doing our own thing with different genres of music. Music had no color. There was all there was negativity around, but we had a chance to create something that was joyful to us that was really important.”

On how they’re going to show the birth of hip hop on screen.

Flash: “I’m a strong believer in, in order to know where you are going, you should know where you come from. So, with this particular film, Baz and the rest of us, we give the viewer a chance to see this happen here is why it connects to this and to this and to this.”

George: “I remember I videotaped a conversation between Flash and Baz about time and about movement and about what happens inside a DJ’s earphones. And, literally, everything from that conversation is in the script. I think one of the things we should emphasize is that, literally, his discussions and when he took Shaolin about being a DJ, that comes directly out of his mouth into the script. Kool Herc who is one of the other founders, there’s a scene that takes place at his rec room that literally comes from Herc’s description of the place and what happened in the place.

I really want to emphasize is that where we could take actual information from the founders and put it in the script, it’s in the script. There’s not stuff any of that stuff there, that’s right out of their mouths.”

Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix
Photo Credit: Eric Charbonneau/Netflix

On Zeke’s nickname.

Justice Smith: “Books [is] emblematic of the character. It suits him. Growing up, I just wanted a nickname in general. So I’m just happy that I got something.”

Herizen Guardiola: “Books is a cool nickname.”

Smith: “It also speaks to his linguistic ability because, each of the characters have their own superpowers and Books’ is linguistics. So it all makes sense.”

Abdul Maten: “Hopefully once the show comes out, I’ll run into 30 or 40 kids that now call themselves Books or call their best friend Books because he’s so intellectual or because he has academic aspirations and things like that. I think we all know guys like Cadillac and we know some people who could, in a heartbeat, be a Shaolin Fantastic. I probably know about four or five Books, and they are all my best friends. Do you know what I mean? And but we could always use more Books.”

Luhrmann: “I want to just add something because time hasn’t allowed and I babble on, for the actors to speak, but I do want to just add something. This show could not get made unless there were, at the center of it, young actors, African American and Latino. And I took a very, very long time to find exactly the right actors.”

On putting the younger actors through a bootcamp.

Smits: “They went through this boot camp of choreography and just immersing themselves on every level, every part of rap and what disco was. I was so amazed when I when I sat down with them in terms of knowing coming from that world and knowing what they had what these actors were, whole hog, going into.”

George: “There was a spot that Baz called the Dojo, which was on the Queens set. And, literally, one of my favorite experiences ever creatively was walking in there in the afternoon. And this section would be Rich & Tone, our fabulous choreographers, working with Yahya and other actors on how to do The Hustle, right, from the ’70s? This part here would be a guy named Mamoudou, a young actor who was being trained very brutally by Flash in how to become a DJ. And, then, on this corner here, it would be Shameik and Floor Phantom and some right? Floor Phantom was your teacher?

Shameik Moore: “Yeah, he was one of them. Sam Mo was another one of them.”

George: “So there were several guys teaching him how to break dance. And this was like a boot camp on ’70s urban style that was happening for months before we started shooting.”

Flash: “How things operated during the ’70s needs to be seen so that you could understand the connection to where it is today, and that’s what this [series] totally does.”

Edited for space and content.

The first six episodes of The Get Down are available to stream on Friday, August 12th at 12:00 am PT on Netflix.

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