The Get Down is Hip Hop’s First Fable

Netflix series The Get Down and Stranger Things have very little in common, but they’re built on nostalgic leanings that attempt to propel the events of their stories. The respective eras of these shows – 1980s for Stranger Things, 1970s for The Get Down – suffuse every frame of these shows, and yet in Stranger Things it’s more window dressing than fuel. It is a sci-fi/monster story that happens to take place in the 1980s. The Get Down isn’t like that at all. It is a story that could not exist without the terra firma of 1977 Bronx life. Nothing about The Get Down happens to take place in 1977 – it simply is 1977, and it has the documentary rolls and effects budget to prove it – which is saying a lot for a show whose pilot is so rife with magical realism I thought Gabriel García Márquez wrote a few scenes. Stranger Things was handicapped by its slavish homage to its inspirations – Dungeons & Dragons, John Carpenter’s The Thing, every Steven Spielberg movie before 1984 – and the more of those influences you’re aware of, the more obvious the brushstrokes are. By comparison, The Get Down plays with history, remixes it, and amplifies that mix by plugging in unique characters left and right until the show explodes with richness and potential greatness. It is inspired by no small number of real-life developments and people in New York, but operates under no obligation to tell their truths. In these ways, and arguably others, The Get Down succeeds as a televised experience where Stranger Things failed, which is funny, considering one has a dimension hopping being that makes men tremble, and the other is Stranger Things.

Reviews of The Get Down have been mixed. Putting my cards on the table? The ones who fall on the “eh” side are wrong. Not differing in opinion, not subjective…they’re just wrong.

Much of what I’ve read about how people are interpreting The Get Down makes me wonder how much of what they like or dislike, what they understand, or what knocks them out of the reality of the story would be changed if I told them that it’s not a docudrama or a historical riff or a musical, but a fable? That’s where a lot of people are getting The Get Down wrong: in their approach. They’re coming to it with expectations that the show makes very clear early on it has no interest in bowing to. People are watching this like we didn’t just watch The Breaks or Dope. Despite its length it’s a fable, and for once the creators were given the time, budget, freedom, technology, and ready-made-audience to do it justice.

I present to you hip hop’s first cinematic fable.

We’re past the point where hip hop requires an initiation to understand. It’s the most influential musical form in the last 40 years and this reach is well documented.  If you want documentaries about the origins of hip hop, they exist. I imagine it’s the same material most reviewers consumed to build the foundation for their mixed criticisms. The Get Down isn’t any of those other things and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t care if this is the first time you ever saw hip hop on a screen. It assumes that if you’re inclined to hit play, you know enough about it that you don’t need the random white Everyman to come in and be your eyes on the ground. Regardless of what the creators said in their pitch meeting to make this series happen, The Get Down does not seem to care who its prepared audience is. It only seems to care about what audience it can free from the matrix of garbage masquerading as genius just because it was next in line and someone has to be on top. This is fitting, considering it’s a unique piece of art about a culture that has too long suffered from trying to attract all the wrong attention. Hip hop has always had its own value systems, levels, gods, and mythologies. The Get Down lets you in, but doesn’t hold your hand. It assumes you’re not completely ignorant, or that if you are, you’re a willing student. It even gives you a few characters to learn along with.

Again, it’s a fable. Once you call it that, all literal interpretations and assumptions should be stripped away. It is Homeric in more ways than one. Considering millions of people have been kissing Hamilton’s ass for almost two years now, I’m struggling to understand why the concept of an occasionally surreal coming of age fable about hip hop is so difficult to grasp.

Perhaps it’s because The Get Down has been touted as being about hip hop, which is only partially true. There are some instructive elements throughout, but almost out the gate the show reveals itself to be a fairly straightforward coming of age story. Zeke (Justice Smith) is basically an extremely gifted Sweathog, and despite his English teacher’s (Yolonda Ross) best efforts, there is no Mr. Kotter moment of redemption. But as it turns out, he’s not the only one coming of age. Shaolin Fantastic is an aptly named street polymath, and has redeemed actor Shameik Moore for me after Dope. Most of the magical moments come from his presence, and it could be argued that The Get Down is actually his journey. He’s already mastered two of the four pillars of hip hop (graffiti and breakin’) and when we meet him and you immediately begin to wonder if all of the trappings of The Get Down are just red herrings to Shaolin’s journey to become The One. It’s a suggestion floated by recurring references to Star Wars and Bruce Lee throughout, and with only six episodes aired to date, who knows? That his character flows between all circles of The Get Down world makes him initially come off as a guide, but there are things happening behind the scenes that he connects with – things he has lived, seen, and will do – that give him more of a Midsummer Night’s Dream Puck vibe. It’s not the only Shakespearean nod to be divined here (the scene in the DJ booth between Zeke and DJ Malibu in the first episode was my first rewind moment).

But just when I think it might be Shaolin’s show, the narrative flips back to Zeke or Myleena (Herizen F. Guardiola), the chanteuse ex machina here who introduces more compelling characters than she actually embodies. Myleena is lovingly portrayed, but there’s really no doubt about how things will turn out for her, so I was less invested in what was to become of her and more interested in who she might interact with next. She is an engine in numerous storylines, which is a web I hope they catch more flies in for her sake. There are a score of other characters that really work here, and given six episodes, everybody gets their time in the sun. Standouts include the eternally cool Jimmy Smits as Francisco Cruz, who vacillates between violence and tenderness even more widely than Shaolin, and Giancarlo Esposito putting in good work as Myleena’s father. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the perpetually high and menacing Cadillac is both a terror and a pleasure to watch. There isn’t a character on here that I don’t love or love to hate. At the end of the day it’s a pure ensemble piece.

Speaking of characters, extra attention must be afforded the newly crowned Black Family I Wish Would Adopt Me, the Kipling family. Four beautiful black children of varying personalities and intersecting strengths led by their parents Adele and Winston, two cosmically hip and stern-but-nurturing parents who own their own business, take in neighborhood kids without question, and whose love for community is clear and non-preachy. They’re the Sun-Ra Huxtables, vibrating with warmth and wise lessons, and who apparently cook for an army every time supper’s ready because you never know how many of the neighborhood kids had a bad day and need somewhere to go. To them, they don’t have four children; all children are their children. They are the Cosby Show I didn’t know I was missing, and that black-ish (which I like very much) can’t be because it’s playing strictly for laughs. The Kiplings are some Hall of Fame black family representation, and manage to suck you into wanting to see more of them after a couple of scenes.

A few notes on the technical aspects for my ceniphiles: The Get Down is a beautiful looking show, at once exposing blight and ruin at its most apocalyptic, while sharing enough life and culture left behind to show what everyone’s fighting for. There are scenes in this that look like Romare Bearden collages, Ezra Jack Keats books, Justin Bua paintings, and smoky Francis Ford Coppola reveals. It’s beautiful cinematography that doesn’t romanticize (although there’s a moment or two veering into fetish) and creates a genuine and rich world for these characters to live and breathe in. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, I remember when Hollywood was scrubbing the World Trade Center out of films because it didn’t want to trigger audiences. The Get Down puts its foot down on that note once and for all, showing shot after shot of the towers, embracing their majesty and representative power – and all of the attendant feelings that come with that – and saying, New York City, you are part of this. We are part of you. We scrub ourselves back onto you. The Get Down has hip hop’s boldness in a bottle, and its pouring that proto-swag all over you.

That the music slaps goes without saying, but I must point out how deftly this series weaves the transition between the impending death of disco and the birth of hip hop. It does this showing respect for both and, more importantly, how one informed the other, not only sonically but culturally. Myleena’s journey perhaps showcases this balance best, and the moments when the music bled from one genre to the next in the same song were genius. They may not be songs I bump in the ride, but they were one thousand percent in service to advancing the story and its many elements.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that this is the kind of series designed to attract someone like me. I was breakin’ in Monroe Alternative Middle School gym classes when I was 13. I was there when rap broke into the American zeitgeist. I formed or attempted to join no less than four rap groups before I got to college, and two after. Martial arts was the order of the day, and this was before the Great Ninja Craze of 1981. I tried to make nunchakus out of whatever two pieces of wood were handy around my mom’s house (homemade nunchakus are, in fact, the one thing missing from The Get Down I would quibble with). I bounced between two recreation centers – Barnett and Marion Franklin – and Pumas were high end property. The Warriors ruined my generation, and all of the things that look kind of funny in that film are displayed here in their more realistic, frightening prototypes.

I mention all of the above to highlight what is perhaps the greatest achievement of The Get Down: it is layered thick with touchstones that resonate more profoundly based on what each viewer brings to the table. I cannot overstate the amount of emotional payback this layering adds to the experience of watching The Get Down. If you’re young or know nothing about hip hop, you can watch this show and dig it on a surface level. Some of the aesthetic decisions of the pilot may throw you off, but if you stick with it, it normalizes for you after the pilot. If you like hip hop (or disco, I suppose. It’s as much a mindful eulogy for disco as it is a marriage announcement for hip hop and its many elements), you’ll dig this a little more. If you’re a serious hip hop head, there’s a lot to love here and I hope you’ve been exposed to enough types of media to appreciate the unflinching artistic treatment hip hop receives here. If you’re over 35, things start to get more serious: you get to see your older brothers and sisters darting about, reborn in painstaking detail, and can distinctly recall how barbershops used to smell and shaved ice used to taste. And if you’re over 40, this show feels like a warm bath, your favorite house party memories popping in the air around you.

In short, this is a show that is made so well and unapologetically that any problems you have with it may be the product of a self-accusing spirit.

3 thoughts on “The Get Down is Hip Hop’s First Fable

  1. Excellent write up! I feel you in every aspect of this show. Im 37, but I have always been attracted to Hip Hop Culture. I was a decent breaker and locker (Im from Long Beach) but I really got into emceeing. I had a real flashback moment when “The Get Down Brothers” were putting together their routine and one of the brothers had trouble catching the beat. I learned how to overcome my stuttering by speaking to a beat, thus making me a great freestyler. I cannot wait for the next 6 episodes and will be watching this over and over. I currently work at The Schomburg Center in Harlem, creating a Hip Hop History Curriculum and this show definitely hit a nerve. As for the critics who “just don’t get it”, i suggest that you do some research. To me Hip Hop is black Art Voltron. Forming itself from all of the approiated art forms created by the black community! Lastly big ups for recognizing the Kipling family. That is what RBL (real black love) looks like!

  2. good, positive article, so many seem to be mistaking that it should be a docu drama. The likening of it to a fable brought to mind, Jonathan Lethems “Fortress of solitude” set in the same era.

  3. Crap. Thanks to your review, I have another series to add to my ever-growing list of must-sees. My more local critics really like “Stranger Things,” so It’s still on my list. But, your blog still kicks! Reminds of what I’ve missed and my wish I had started in earlier on music/vids/art/whatever.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s