Ras Olugbenga

Hip-Hop History (according to Netflix)

Ras Olugbenga
 Hip-Hop History (according to Netflix)

The Get Down season 1 is a masterpiece. And I was admittedly shocked when I heard rumors that season 2 was not in the works. However, I was grateful when I heard the show’s producer and creator Baz Luhrman deny the cancellation rumors. What’s even crazier is that when I was speaking to friends about the show, I got a bevy of mixed reviews. 

For those of you living under a rock for the past few months, The Get Down is a Netflix original series that chronicles the origins of Hip-Hop. Weaving together historically sound information with a dramatized narrative of Bronx, NY teenagers in the 70’s, The Get Down is (as) enthralling as it is enlightening. Hip-Hop is the final frontier (it seems) incorporating elements from gospel, jazz,  blues, pop, bop, rock, soul R&B, country, classical - you name it, Hip-Hop employs it. So telling the origins accurately needs an interdisciplinary and interwoven type of story. As an ode to this tapestry of “awesome sauce”, I have compiled why I think The Get Down is fresh, tight, informative and a host of other positive adjectives.


Rumi Influence

For those unfamiliar, Rumi (pronounced Roo-me) was a Persian Sufi poet from the 13th century. If you ever want perspective on life or want to impress a love interest with a poem, go and get you some Rumi . I am personally a huge fan of Rumi’s work and The Get Down artfully incorporates Rumi’s work into the episode titles as well as character development. Jaden Smith’s character “Dizzee” is a graffiti artist or “tagger” whose signature tag is “RUMI 411”. Dizzee is also an eclectic black boy (like me) who drops philosophical jewels on his peers, often inspired by Rumi quotables.


Basquiat Homage

Speaking of Jaden Smith’s character, I thought it was dope how the writers incorporated the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Recently Basquiat’s work has increased in popularity partially due to Jay-Z and Ricky Rozay’s mentions of him in their songs. But Basquiat’s role in the early proliferation of hip-hop culture is often understated. Music movements need corresponding visual elements to crystallize the audible elements. Most people don’t know that Basquiat was a graffiti artist whose tag was “SAMO”, a structure similar to “RUMI” (note the consonant/vowel placement). Basquiat was an eccentric artiste, and he was also known for a nebulous sexual preference, so it was great to see Jaden Smith do a great job with his role.


Role of Queer & Disco Culture

Basquiat references weren’t the only nod to the sexually “liberated” origins of Hip-Hop. Another fact that was illumined for me was the importance of disco music in the birth of Hip-Hop. Disco culture is commonly associated with drugs and sex, but many of the most popular disco DJ’s identified as same-sex loving individuals. Additionally, in 1977, it was the disco DJ’s who had the power to popularize certain records; all of this can be succinctly explained as gay disco DJ’s were the musical tastemakers of the time period. How does this relate to Hip-Hop? Well, Hip-Hop was developed by looping the “breaks” in the beats in popular disco songs of the time. If not for the gay DJ’s,  we may have different beats we associate with classical Hip-Hop. Not to say that the DJ’s being gay is significant, but it’s important to note since Hip-Hop is commonly thought to be a hostile community for homosexual artists.


Origins & Science of Hip-Hop DJ’s  

The Get Down does a great job of detailing the importance of Hip-Hop DJ’s. Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, and Grandmaster Flash were names I knew but had no context of their differentiation. TGD did a great historical service by delineating the contributions of these 3 icons. To boot, it showed how and why the DJ was the original main attraction at local parties in the Bronx. The DJ’s job was much more technical than the MC (master of ceremony or mic controller). To rhyme on time is difficult, especially in a way to move crowds (another MC acronym), but to keep the timing and rhythm of 2 identical records with seamless transitions for hours on end is mentally taxing, physically draining, and requires hours of practice.  


Black & Brown Saviors (not White) 

Papa Fuente and the black female teacher who identified Ezekiel’s potential was refreshing because we often see in films or shows how minority youth cast white people as their mentors and saviors and role models. Staying true to the times when integrated neighborhoods and schools was a relatively new phenomenon, the Boricuas and Blacks of NYC were a tight-knit community. Scenes of the children eating at the same table as fictive (family) and extended kin was reminiscent of a golden era within Black and Boricua communities. Black dada (fathers) and uncles were around and influential.


Martial Arts & Hip-Hop

The last and one of the most overlooked yet authentic points of The Get Down is the prevalence of martial arts culture in what could be dubbed as “proto-hip-hop” culture. Shaolin Fantastic’s name  (played by Shamiek Moore) is a nod to the Shaolin temples where kung fu originated. Additionally, during the late 70’s Bruce Lee films were popular as Bruce represented an alternative to the white male-dominated cinema. Bruce Lee represented a virtuous hero, that fought for the underdogs and the oppressed. Another important martial arts reference that most don’t acknowledge (the hip-hop) is that Grandmaster Flash’s name is martial arts influenced. A Grandmaster denotes one who has developed a new style or technique of martial arts. Grandmaster Flash was a pioneering DJ who was instrumental in popularizing mixing and scratching records. This revelation even led me to think that maybe the battle elements of hip-hop or the “style wars” is another product of martial arts culture’s effect on hip-hop culture.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed The Get Down, can’t wait for part II of season 1.