Hip Hop is one of the weirdest cultural movements once you sit down to think about it. An eclectic mix of funk, spoken word, comic books, political rebellion and martial arts imagery that just downright embodies African American culture. It feels almost impossible and once you know how much of it was fueled by sheer happenstance and randomness (hip hop wouldn’t be what it is today without the ’77 blackout, let’s be honest) it really makes sense why it stands apart from other musical movements.
Hip Hop in its current form is not really like that, of course. As every art form, it has evolved into a different beast entirely, one that is quite hard to pinpoint these days. This isn’t a dig, of course, but simply an observation: current hip hop doesn’t feel as driven by a community so much as individual artists and their vision. You have Kanye trying to create gospel rap and Desiigner taking trap in a more gangsta, flow-heavy form. The Get Down definitely believes in the understanding of Hip Hop being exclusively a product of Harlem and the Bronx as a community that was being oppressed by real estate moguls and the City’s neglect. And it makes a very convincing case for that understanding and that vision in the first six hours and a half of its first season.
The show follows the story of the Get Down Brothers and Mylene Cruz & The Soul Madonnas, two parallel musical acts in 1977, as popular music is on the verge of changing from disco and funk to hip hop. The Get Down Brothers are led by DJ Shaolin Fantastic, a retired graffiti artist chasing his DJ dreams while being mentored by Grandmaster Flash and Ezekiel/MC Books, a writer who’s unsure of his future but who flows through lyrics like water through rocks. Together, alongside Boo, Dizz and Ra Kipling three siblings who are Ezekiel’s friends and are eventually convinced to pick up the mic, they try to carve out a place for themselves in the music gang war in between Kool Herc, Africa and Flash.
Parallel to this, is Mylene Cruz’s pursuing a singing career while being held down by her dad and propped up by her uncle. Mylene and her two friends, Yolanda and Regina, eventually find a record producer and create an amazing demo that starts to set the underground music world ablaze. While doing so, however, they find themselves patroned by adults that are constantly lying about their place in the music industry and failing to turn Mylene into a mainstream success.
It’s rather fitting because both Mylene and Ezekiel are constantly struggling with the simple fact that adults don’t see much in them other than their own personal goals and how to use their gifts to obtain them. Granted, these goals aren’t often unsympathetic. Ezekiel is recruited by Mylene’s uncle to endorse and earn the favor of Mayor Ed Koch in order to obtain funding he intends to use to give housing to minorities in NYC. Problem is, of course, that the man behind Ed Koch, Herbert Gunns, has zero interest in the well being of minorities and instead chooses to use his position on the Federal Housing Commission to accrue more power. Similarly, of course, Mylene’s father only sees Mylene as a ticket to redemption for his sins and he’s willing to ring her down and abuse her until she toes the party line.
It is in that tension, between dreaming teens and cynical adults that the Get Down can get corny, were it not because its music is so damn convincing. Very few shows actually sit down and consider how frustrating can the creative process be vs how rewarding it is. The best example is easily when the earliest iteration of the Get Down Brothers decides to bring in its three adjacent members, the Kipling siblings as performers. Dizz and Boo pick it up rather quickly but Ra struggles. As he keeps practicing on and on, he fails and flails about. It’s only when he starts approaching rapping from another perspective and with Zeke’s help that he starts to become more confident on the mic. It’s a small scene/moment that speaks to a commitment to show that these kids are not natural talents, but rather skilled artists who are learning and improving on a growing art form.
This is what makes the difference in between most stories about generational gaps. In many such stories, the vilified generations (older or younger) are not shown much sympathy. Remember how Men, Women and Children, made a case for how shitty the internet generation was mostly by showing a bunch of self righteous adults misunderstand their children’s needs and how to grow up in a rapidly evolving world? Or how so many shows about teens and kids cast adults as unforgiving, cruel dictators with a pathological inability to dream? But when the show approaches both generations, it does with empathy and by trying to bridge the gap in between them with the common ground that comes from living in an impoverished neighborhood that’s trying to survive every day by creating beautiful music or maybe simply, just carving a space for yourself and your friends, where you can invite others to see your best self.
There are times when the show can go full on Baz Luhrmann and be less than thrilling to watch. Its first episode is a tough watch that doesn’t come together for at least 45 minutes (and makes a really good case fo ditching 2 hour long premieres of anything for fucking ever, if you ask me). Ezekiel and Mylene’s relationship is particularly hard to enjoy and get yourself invested in because it can feel manipulative and immature most of the time. And while the teens perform with such joie-de-vivre that it can convert even the biggest skeptic into a lifelong hip hop fan, the adults feel like caricatures. And it’s decidedly inaccurate, to the point that it can be outright jarring to see Zeke and others rhyme with flows more reminiscent of Jay and Nas.
But most of the time, it taps into the fierce energy of hip hop with relative ease. Sure it’s astoundingly inaccurate, not very true to the birth of hip hop but it is really true to the spirit of hip hop: raucous, violent, improvised and honest to a fault.