A Brief History of Rhyme: How Did 'The Get Down' Re-Create a Seminal Moment in New York Hip-Hop Mythology?

Jackson 5 realness (don’t ask which one’s Jermaine)EXPAND
Jackson 5 realness (don’t ask which one’s Jermaine)
Courtesy Netflix

At one point in the feature-length pilot episode of The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann's epic tone poem about the creation myths of hip-hop and the black and Latino teenagers who forged the style in the fires of a burning Bronx, all paths converge at a disco dance-off on the last day of school, 1977. High-schooler Mylene Cruz, bearing a demo tape she hopes will make her the next Donna Summer, sneaks out of her parents' house and schemes her way into a nightclub called Les Inferno; there, she hopes to get the cassette into the hands of Malibu, a cocaine-addled DJ with connections in the music world. Her friend Ezekiel Figuero, fearing that Mylene will fall into the clutches of Cadillac, the undefeated winner of previous dance-offs — and son of the club's owner, Fat Annie, a drug-dealing Ma Rainey type — also finds his way to the dancefloor. At the appointed hour, the other boogying patrons clear the floor. The needle drops; Zeke and Mylene start to move, and their delicate hips-and-dips-positive duet bends all the light in the room toward them.

In that one moment, Luhrmann is focusing our attention on a crucial moment in music history: Beyond the walls of this nightclub in the South Bronx, hip-hop has begun to emerge from the turmoil of late-1970s New York, soon to become the art form that defines its generation. What we're seeing is disco's last stand.

The Get Down, which will be released on Netflix on August 12, is brimming with moments like this one — moments that bring to life the songs, dance numbers, and cultural microgestures of a bygone era, all rendered with an exquisite faithfulness by actors whose parents are barely old enough to remember those days. Herizen Guardiola, who plays Mylene, is just 19 years old. Justice Smith, who plays Zeke, is 21. At 21, Shameik Moore is one of the oldest central cast members; his character, Shaolin Fantastic, is Zeke's judo-flipping, record-scratching B-boy Mr. Miyagi. Moore's own interest in hip-hop, he told the Voice, only goes back as far as middle school: "When I was twelve," he said, recalling his introduction to the genre, "I saw the movie You Got Served," a film about dance crews battling one another for the chance to appear in a Lil' Kim music video. The year? 2004.

That was also around the time that Luhrmann conceived of a feature depicting the devastation of the 1970s Bronx as experienced by the kids growing up amid the rubble. It took a decade for The Get Down to make its way out of Luhrmann's mind and onto a production soundstage in Glendale, Queens, where the Voice met with members of the cast and crew last month. The place was crawling with the statesmen of hip-hop, brought together by Luhrmann to give a little history lesson to the cast: New York graffiti artists LADY PINK and CRASH; Nelson George, author of the seminal cultural history Hip Hop America; and Rahiem of the Furious Five all consulted on the project. And Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc, who compete for the title of Inventor of Hip-Hop, helped make sure the soundtrack stayed true to reality.

Going into production, the old heads had their work cut out for them. "As the characters were learning about this new medium called hip-hop," Smith noted, "so were we." Some of the cast were more familiar with Simon and Garfunkel than with the Sugarhill Gang. ("My mom's a Buddhist," Guardiola told the Voice. "We'd listen to chanting in the car.") Then again, the musical scene blossoming in the Bronx in the 1970s was uncharted territory to those who lived through it, too.

Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola) takes us to church.EXPAND
Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola) takes us to church.
Courtesy Netflix

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In order to tell hip-hop's origin story, Luhrmann had to transform The Get Down's headliners into believable narrators, and no expense was spared in the training. (A recent report in Variety suggested that it was this devotion to authenticity — in keeping with Luhrmann's trademark operatic meticulousness — that drove production costs to $7.5 million in overruns per episode, making The Get Down the most expensive production in Netflix history.) The cast learned, in no particular order, how to spray-paint with proper technique, how to wear their gym socks stretched to just the right height, how to do the hustle. George constructed playlists for Luhrmann, took the directors on tours of the Bronx — including a stop at George's sister's home — and taught the actors the body language and slang they needed to get in touch with the mythology they were presenting. ("Watching them learn to do the hustle or the bus stop in period clothes," George said, "was trippy.")

All told, it took two months and an entire in-house faculty to prepare them for filming. And because dance plays such an important role in the show — this is a Baz Luhrmann production, after all — much of the responsibility for verisimilitude fell to Rich and Tone Talauega, choreographers (and brothers) who'd blocked music videos and concert tours for Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, and Michael Jackson. The Talauegas weren't exactly veterans of the 1970s Bronx scene themselves — they were born in that decade and grew up in California (they were discovered in the 1990s when Jackson's choreographer spotted their freestyle set at a club in Oakland). So when Luhrmann brought them on, he "sat us down like an old griot and gave us the story of hip-hop and Seventies New York," Tone recalled. "Then he showed us a little video, a bit of a montage of the world that this was going to be. We saw a scene in there of a clip that was something that we produced, which is a documentary called Rize — David LaChapelle directed it. We looked at each other. We looked at him. He looked at us. He was like, 'That's why you guys are here.' "

Tone described his and his brother's role as adding layers of storytelling to the show by "musifying" and "dancifying" it, and they built their curriculum for the cast — a steady diet of Jackson Five steps and lessons in showmanship styles of the time — alongside Grandmaster Flash and the rest of the elders.

On a set dominated by raucous college-age kids, the brothers also served as taskmasters, whipping an unruly cast into shape. "They'll kick your ass if you mess around," Guardiola said. Rich and Tone confirmed as much: "It was hard, man. First of all, being able to corral kids, teenagers," Tone said. "You have that youthful energy.... What do you call that, when you can't fuckin' focus?" He reached for the word. "ADHD. When we started rehearsal, you have to tell kids to get off they phones. 'Why are you on Snapchat?' "

Beyond keeping modern technology at bay, one of the biggest challenges Rich and Tone faced was ensuring that their young charges didn't slip into artistic anachronisms. "A lot of these kids are stuck on what's going on, like the 'nae nae,' the 'whip,' and so on," Tone said. Eighteen-year-old Jaden Smith, who plays subway-car tagger Dizzee Kipling, agreed. "The hardest thing to do," he said, "is not say contemporary words, [do] contemporary dance moves. When you feel the music, you feel the music."

And feeling the music is, after all, sort of the point. The Get Down is about paying respect to that youthful energy exploding into something bigger than itself. In the Seventies, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Flash were all kids hoping to rescue their dying neighborhoods, making music that Chuck D of Public Enemy once called "the CNN of the ghetto" — rap was then, as it is now, the oral history of its place and time. They didn't know what the block parties and freestyle battles would become; they didn't know they were changing the course of music history. They just wanted to be the protagonists of their own lives. As George put it, "Everyone back then, whether they were a disco diva or a kid from the Bronx, was seeking to rise above reality and be as bold and bad as their imaginations. The show's mission is to present them as they saw themselves: as superheroes in their world."

*A previous version of this article misstated Shameik Moore's age. The Voice regrets the error.


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