In the beginning it would be like the records spining.
"In the beginning it would be like the record's spining." Charles Mudede

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When I first heard about The Get Down on Netflix in 2016, as someone who teaches, writes and speaks about hiphop for a living I was definitely interested. Here was a dramatic series set in late-1970s South Bronx, New York, and primarily about a group of teenagers, the Get Down Brothers—performers at the epicenter of the formation of a global cultural earthquake that was the release of “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang in the fall of 1979. But my interest was shaded a bit by the thought that this concept could be a little too hiphop nerdy to appeal to a wider general audience. And maybe it was too nerdy—after the first season there were rumors that the series, which was reportedly Netflix’s most expensive to date, would not be renewed for a second season. I thought it was done.

The first season was good and featured some interesting story turns, like one of the Get Down crew playing a Grandmaster Flash mixtape at a party without authorization, and the consequences that spurred such a transgression. The burning desire for newer, more expensive equipment that could produce better quality sounds amid crushing poverty was also a recurring theme, as was the relationship between the main character Ezekiel (Justice Smith) and Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), the beautiful up-and-coming singing talent of South Bronx disco.

Then, all of a sudden, a new 5-episode season (billed as part two of the first season) premiered last Friday on Netflix. Unexpectedly, my interest in the show was sparked again.

It's a worthy follow-up. Right off the bat I was struck by the storyline’s juxtaposition of hiphop and disco as two cultural ships passing in the night—one headed for shine and attention, the other, with Mylene aboard, towards an iceberg.

SPOILER ALERT BEGINS HERE
Narrated by Ezekiel, the show goes out of its way to highlight several historic nuances of the culture that have either shifted or disappeared altogether—like the former and mostly forgotten prominence of the DJ, a figure who dominated the space of early hiphop. When one of Get Down’s MCs, Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks), asks why all the money the group earned wasn't divided equally, DJ Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) shoots back: “Since when is the MC equal to the DJ?”

Another interesting detail is the performance sequences of the Get Down Brothers. Vocally, there's a good deal of synchronized rhyming between the four MCs and live scratching underneath the vocals, something you almost never see/hear today. In terms of choreography, the intricate steps and dance moves they executed while delivering rhymes is a reminder of a time when many MCs were dual threats in terms of on-stage performance value. In Seattle, this was certainly the case with the Emerald Street Boys, the first local hiphop group to earn significant media attention and make a record. After opening a 1984 show at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall for the Treacherous Three—then arguably one of the biggest rap groups in the world and coming off their iconic appearance in the film Beat Street—a review of the concert in The Rocket noted the Emerald Street Boys' dancing superiority.

As was the case in the 1983 film Wild Style, often referred to as the first hiphop movie, The Get Down captures the incredible amount of urban decay that was so prevalent in the South Bronx during this period. Blocks and blocks of rubble strewn fields, broken down and abandoned buildings, and stripped down cars as far as the eye can see serve as characters in both stories. Ezekiel, aka Zeke, aka Books the Wordsmith, attempts to straddle two opposite worlds as he serves as an intern for a powerful Manhattan political figure while in the process of applying to Yale. Zeke, Shaolin, a true child of the streets, and the rest of the crew struggle with what it means to "make it" in hiphop, before anyone even really knew what it meant to do so.

Zeke narrates the story in rhyme, and I just love the way he expresses how his disgust at Shaolin’s drug dealing was overridden by the now seemingly lost bond between DJ and MC: “But the thing is, I’m Shao’s wordsmith and he’s my conductor, and I ain’t ready to rupture our structure.” These narrations are accompanied by flash-forwards as Zeke recites lyrics (voiced by Nas) based on his experiences on stage at a show in front of a crowd that looks much more like the modern day hiphop most are accustomed to.

Jaden Smith, son of hiphop pioneer The Fresh Prince, aka Will Smith, plays Dizzee, a Get Down member and graffiti bomber who tagged “Rumi 411.” In several animated sequences based on Dizzee’s art, Dizz depicts himself as an alien. This seems related to an apparent attraction to and eventual relationship with another bomber named Thor (Noah Le Gros), locked up for a time after he was arrested one night while painting subway cars with Dizz, who managed to escape. Dizz’s self-imagery speaks to the seldom discussed topic of gay/queer identity development amid the exaggerated macho attitudes, bravado and testosterone-laden environment that was, and still is, hiphop culture.

It concludes nine months before the release of “Rapper’s Delight.” Fat Annie (Lillias White), a character based at least in part on Sugar Hill Records executive and “Rapper’s Delight” producer Sylvia Robinson, is preparing to use the Get Down Brothers—who signed shady contracts, NWA/Jerry Heller style—to make the first rap record with a live band instead of a DJ. In response, real life hiphop DJ pioneers Kool Herc (Eric D. Hill Jr.), Afrika Bambaataa (Okieriete Onadowan), and Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) all unite with the Get Down Brothers to protect the integrity of the culture from Fat Annie the disco godmother and her gangster associates. Given the current landscape of hiphop, the question now might be whether enlisting Herc, Bam, and Flash today would be more about protection or restoration.