‘The Get Down’ Proves Hip-Hop Still Has a Story to Tell
The history and formation of hip-hop is found in The Get Down. Check out XXL's review of the show below.
Episode 1 - “Where There Is Ruin, There Is Hope for a Treasure”
Hip-hop heads, New York City historians and binge TV seekers can channel their collective enthusiasm at once with Netflix’s new show The Get Down, which debuted on Friday (Aug. 12). The show’s 90-minute pilot introduces creator Baz Luhrmann’s latest historic backdrop, the Bronx in the late 1970s, where the elements of hip-hop coalesced into a culture. Nas serves as executive producer for the episode, narrating the bookended flash forward scenes of a 1990s rapper performing to a sold-out crowd. If, in 20 years, hip-hop had traveled far, these are its sweaty, heartbreaking and dangerous first steps.
Graffiti, deejaying, emceeing and breakdancing are all present, though not entirely in the ways we understand them today. Zeke (played by Justice Smith) is a blasé student and a promising poet. His stanzas on love and loss aren’t changing the circumstances of his summer, though. Dizzee (played by Jaden Smith) is an aspiring graf writer in Zeke’s crew; he idolizes the mythical Shaolin Fantastic (played by Shameik Moore), a legendary writer whose red Pumas are as recognizable as his throw-ups. Shao though follows the word of Grandmaster Flash, one of the pioneering DJs in the borough.
“Grandmaster pinpoints the get down part,” Shao says as Flash spins at a late-night street party, pointing out that it may only be but a few seconds long. “He plays the same record on two decks. While the get down plays on one he cues the same part on two. Now I don’t know how he knows exactly when to do it, but when the moment one finishes, bam, he flips the mixer, it goes on and on. The beat goes on, the wordsmith can go on.”
Before getting to the destiny that awaits these key players, there are more personal matters to sort out, love and war rising with the summer heat. Though Zeke helps Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola), his love interest, record in her father’s church, and the two seem to have once been a thing, she denies his advances and sneaks to a Lower East Side disco club at night, dancing with a gangster who might be able to help kickstart her career. When the dance floor is shot up by a rival gang, Mylene returns home only to face the wrath of her disapproving father (Giancarlo Esposito), who vows that she will never sing disco or leave the house again. Her uncle, Francisco Cruz or Papa Cruz as he's called (Jimmy Smits), is more understanding, though he’s caught between funding his vision of a better Bronx and delivering votes to the mayor. The drama exists on a sliding scale, the frailty of Zeke’s words matching that of his city.
“Where There Is Ruin, There Is Hope for a Treasure,” contrasts the look and sound of disco with the emergence of something revolutionary. The crime and pain in the city create a catalyst for urgency, Zeke’s teacher tells him, “Our community is dying, and it’s going to take leaders to save it,” even as The Get Down allows the disco ball a few more rotations.
Unrequited love, turf wars, parents that won’t understand, The Get Down introduces themes that are familiar to any city-set drama, but the material is too rich, the cast too talented, to let the flash of the club lights or teenage tears keep the beat from playing on. As the sun rises and the first newly-tagged trains appear, the young dreamers see their names written on the side. There's a new day ahead.
Episode 2 - “Seek Those Who Fan Your Flames”
With a mission of mastering the art of deejaying, Grandmaster Flash tells Shaolin Fantastic to master one sound loop and it’s no wonder he picks “Think (About It)” by Lyn Collins, which would go on to be sampled for Rob Base’s “It Takes Two.” Throughout the episode, characters need to work in pairs to find their best musical selves, and pride, as Pastor Cruz reminds, can lead them astray.
Feeling spurned by Mylene, Zeke dives head first into his new friendship with Shaolin, sticking by his DJ even after the rest of his crew bails on a Grandmaster Flash puzzle (it involves a crayon) for dinner. That Zeke and Shao figure out Flash’s quick mix theory together only shows the power of their partnership. Once Shao develops hands nimble enough to perform the routine, the whole crew, going by The Fantastic Four Plus One --Shao, Zeke and the three Kipling brothers: Dizzee, Ra-Ra and Boo-Boo -- plan to throw a party and earn some quick cash. But when the Savage Warlords, the same gang that shot up the disco club last week, set Shao’s apartment building to flames, he’s ready to turn back to club owner Fat Annie for work in her underground enterprise. Zeke isn’t with the dirty money, and the two blow things up before they can even get off the ground.
“This ain't Disneyland, this shit is the fuckin' Bronx,” Shao says, getting some of the best lines of the episode once again. “You either be strong or be gone. All I find, all I keep. Either you beat the world or you get beat.”
Meanwhile, Mylene needs Zeke to help with a plan first hatched by her uncle Francisco. He’s reaches out to a music producer who owes him money and asks that he attend his brother’s service on Sunday, where Mylene, wearing a newly-made white dress, will sing her heart out and earn a deal. Zeke is resistant at first, disinterested in seeing his love if she only offers friendship, but after things erupt with Shaolin, he writes her the Ezekiel special she requests and shows up to play piano for her big moment. That she undermines her father in dress and song, and in front of his entire congregation no less, can’t bode well though for her situation at home.
“Seek Those Who Fan Your Flames” shows the good that can come of harmony and the issues friction can create. Cadillac, the gangster who attempted to woo Mylene last week, tries to get to the bottom of who paid the Warlords to shoot up his mother’s club. He and his henchman botch their shakedown of a couple foot soldiers however, creating more mess than before. Cadillac is at once smooth and bumbling, his motivations the least compelling, though he looms as an inevitable threat to Zeke, Mylene and Shaolin at this point.
Togetherness is paramount to breaking hip-hop ground, but just as quickly as the pieces come together, they fracture under the pressure to survive. The MC needs the DJ and the singer needs the pianist. Like the Grandmaster, we watch with a prior knowledge of time, the 1990s concert scene returning at the episode’s start, though how Zeke gets to that stage and who, if anyone, he’s joined by, is another riddle yet.
Episode 3 - “Darkness Is Your Candle”
The New York City blackout of 1977 was a result of multiple lightning strikes, when major transmission lines and connections were overloaded. There were other factors as well, but in this episode that shows the historic power failure, The Get Down also maxes out its own characters, Zeke’s leadership and resolve fading away as Mylene asks him that dark night if everything is okay.
It’s not, the day leading up to the outage is too much for Zeke to bear any longer. The Fantastic Four Plus One come upon a Grandmaster Flash tape while trying to buy some new equipment from the pawn shop. To get funds together, they decide to throw a party in the Kipling's vacant salon while Boo-Boo pretends to scratch using Flash's tape as everybody drinks and dances. Their secret party gets busted though, by truer members of the movement, who seize the cash made, wreck the salon and declare the young upstart group dead to Grandmaster Flash as soon as he hears news of what they've done. When Shao returns in better spirits, his relations with Fat Annie running deeper than ever before, Zeke can’t even enjoy the reunion fully, plagued by the guilt of his crew’s fakery, wanting to tell his DJ about what transpired in his absence.
As a unit, the boys are very much in over their heads, never more so then when they pop the trunk of a car Cadillac had given to Shao to dispose of, and find a dead Warlord from the prior week. The symbolism of a Cadillac sinking into the river as they vow to seek revenge on the gangster by the same name is a bit too on the nose, but as Zeke recalls the scene for Mylene, “its like that car just sank into darkness, this deep dark hole,” the control he displays in front of his friends washes away, so much so that Mylene takes him to the roof to kiss.
Zeke never exactly says what happened that night and neither does Mylene, who says her recording session with Jackie Moreno went great. With a cash surge courtesy of Francisco (who, with Mrs. Cruz here, leaves a lot unsaid as well), Moreno goes on a coke spree that ends with him trashing the studio and admitting to his own debts and poor reputation. Mylene too is sinking under a paranoia, casting doubts upon her singing ability.
“What we do here, it’s fuckin’ essential, its like oxygen when a true artist sings,” Moreno tells her, the two seated at a piano, candles lighting the room. “They hold back nothing. When you sing like that it raises the dead. The world’s dying a thousand heart attacks we heal them up 3 minutes at a time.”
“Darkness Is You Candle” features the city at its boiling point with temperatures reaching a record high. Dizzee’s famous acid punch isn’t necessary to see how some realities are melting away. Mrs. Cruz tells Francisco that her home is destroyed because of Mylene’s church number, just one week after Shao’s literally is. The blackout has left the city bankrupt, emotions frayed by episode’s end. The irony that Zeke gets Mylene, his initial everything, yet so much still hangs in the balance signals just how much will be at stake when the lines are restored.
Episode 4 - “Forget Safety, Be Notorious”
Francisco "Papa Fuerte" Cruz is paid a visit by two very different guests in “Forget Safety, Be Notorious,” but asks them, in very different ways, what amounts to the same question: Who are you? Fuerte screams it at mayor hopeful Ed Koch after following his insult, calling him a “poverty pimp,” and when Zeke turns down his offer of an internship, the Bronx’s well-meaning cash man poses it in less direct terms.
“There’s a whole lot of kids out there with no hope, and it’s contagious,” he says, the two looking out of Fuerte’s window at the scene in the street. “Crabs in a barrel, in the ghetto…That’s the reality of what you face, son. You’re afraid what you’re meant to be is going to take you away from what’s familiar.”
The Get Down forces its characters to decide who they are and how they’ll play it. Is Jackie Moreno a legitimate hit maker or a fraud and a junkie? Is Zeke more interested in being Books, the MC to Shaolin Fantastic, or Mylene’s boyfriend? Moreno, fresh off surviving an overdose, proves capable of no more than a few notes and for Zeke, as drawn to Mylene as he is, particularly since their rooftop kissing turned into much more, it’s the thrill of catching the Grandmaster Flash bootlegger that proves more alluring.
The leaders of the get down movement want to peg the crew as fakes, exposing their secret party to Shaolin in a backstreet showdown, but Ra-Ra decides, twice here, that he’s something more. He owns up to his parents about the party, and courageously meets Zeke and Shao on enemy territory to help them take down the bootlegger, what seems like the only measure to return the crew back into Flash’s good graces.
For the moment, Zeke looks to be playing both sides, taking the internship as Mylene wants and helping Shao catch the bootlegger, but with Mylene and Shao representing two different worlds and two separate ideals, he’ll be forced to make a choice. “What we do is in the street and in the street shit happens,” Shao tells him, embodying the sort of absolutism that Pastor Ramon displays when he discovers the money Francisco gave Mrs. Cruz last week, telling her she has to return it.
On the other hand, Dizzee understands exactly who he is, explaining to Thor, a new graffiti pal, the origins of his tag name, Rumi. And Zeke knows that cutting up the bootlegger as Shao suggests isn’t something he can stomach. “I just learned, sometimes you gotta take the bad with the good,” Mylene’s friend tells her, explaining her decision to stay in what looks like an abusive relationship. The crew, venturing into a DJ Herc anniversary show, is about to learn the same. They were noble in their pursuit of the bootlegger but are eventually caught where they don’t belong. “You must not know where you at,” a shadowy figure tells Boo-Boo, ending things on another question entirely.
Episode 5 - “You Have Wings, Learn to Fly”
Unity, authenticity and identity are many of the themes The Get Down has established thus far and come together for an episode that shows the Bronx teens stepping past their foolishness and naivety and into redemption.
Zeke slept through his meeting with Mr. Gunns and heads downtown to try and fix things but the World Trade Center secretary tells him he missed his window of opportunity. Afterward, he heads home and sits at the kitchen table to get lectured by his teacher, his aunt and her boyfriend, who pulls down a photo of Zeke’s mother. “She was preparing you to be a man,” he says, “to blaze your own path without anybody with you.”
For a character who only knows half of the story, the opportunity that Zeke has through Papa Fuerte, he only speaks a half truth. Zeke will undoubtedly be a trailblazer, but what we learn about the togetherness of The Get Down brothers throughout this episode proves that, for now, it’s got to be a team effort. Zeke’s rhymes do save their asses twice here, first at the Herc show as he recaps how his crew ended up in pursuit of the bootlegger and later in Shao’s abandoned mansion turned practice den, as he writes rhymes for each of the crew members to rap and coins a trademark couplet for Shao himself.
He too uses his gift of gab to earn a second chance with Mr. Gunns, spinning the situation the same way Jackie Moreno does with Pastor Cruz. Moreno resurrects Mylene’s career, and likely his own, by recasting her as a gospel-disco hybrid, convincing Pastor Cruz to let them record her single in his church. With Mylene returning home afterward, Mrs. Cruz naturally, talks of second chances.
No one though gets a greater opportunity at redemption than Shaolin, who gains a seat across from Grandmaster Flash after he caught the bootlegger and seized his equipment. “Music is the only reason. It’ll move you forward and open up doors that everyone says are shut, Shao. It’ll give you the whole fuckin’ world for free if you just love it and hold back nothing,” the Grandmaster says.
Shao’s practice and his willingness to trust the members of his crew, his wings as Flash would say, speaks as much to his dedication as the look he gives his mentor once he’s finally on the receiving end of his wisdom again. Whereas Zeke’s teacher asks him who he wants to be, Flash makes no bones about it here. Shao has to forget whatever he’s up to with Fat Annie and Cadillac and lead his crew to glory. His reputation and by turn Flash’s counts on it.
Disassociating with the mother-son crime duo doesn’t seem as easy as say, discovering a sleeping Napoleon, the Savage Warlord who fled Les Inferno earlier in the season, but if it were it wouldn’t be in any disservice to the show. With the music flowing, from Mylene, Zeke and Shao, and the battle with The Notorious 3 looming, it’s time to let the disco die. Papa Fuerte can’t keep his hands off of Mrs. Cruz, and it’s likely that Fat Annie won’t be able to with Shao either. With just a single episode left in the first part of season one however, it’s Shao’s own hands that matter more, even if Mylene and others don’t yet understand why.
Episode 6 - “Raise Your Word, Not Your Voice”
The Notorious 3 may have impressive sound and the capability to reach a higher wattage than The Get Down Brothers, but it’s power in this episode, titled “Raise Your Word, Not Your Voice,” that matters most. The power to change ones life and surroundings for the better. The power to rise up and become a spokesman, a singer or more.
As competing influences descend on the characters, they ultimately have to search for the power to be their truest selves. Mylene asks at the episode’s end if she and Zeke can continue to keep one foot in both worlds, to appease their elders and pursue their art, but what happens when they’re at odds with one another, like Zeke at the Koch rally listening to the mayor to-be rail against graffiti and vow he’ll lock vandals like Dizzee away? Zeke’s clever mind empowers him to find a solution, to speak in code to the crowd, to do right by Mylene, Fuerte and Koch without sacrificing himself.
And as Thor and Dizzee exit the tunnels, admiring their handiwork, the last piece seen is a scroll drawn by Rumi that waxes poetic on the “power of choice.” Jackie Moreno for one has no choice or power, his despicable behavior with a past intern ruining any chance of Mylene’s single “Set Me Free” entering a record pool. Does Shao have any power of choice as Fat Annie coaxes him to shoot Wolf, the traitorous henchman who ordered the hit on Annie, thinking her ambition would ruin them all?
Keeping one foot in each world seems precarious for Zeke and Shao at least, Zeke’s absence at the rap battle leaving his crew powerless to defend themselves. Shao tries to make his two world’s co-exist, using runners to distribute drugs at the battle, but Herc’s words last week of his party being a safe space for families echoed over the secret hand-to-hands. Flash overlooking the scene, nodding in approval at Shao’s victory, is unable to see the full picture.
“Could you leave your best friend behind? Could you take that initiative to advance yourself and your city before New York is left to the roaches?” Mr. Gunns asks Zeke. That there is a literal roach among them as they sit in Gunns’ library, surrounded by books, once again leaves the metaphors here a bit too literal but Zeke proves savvy enough to catch the bug and secure his internship with the fiscal control committee. Whether he decides there at Koch’s rally to join his Get Down Brothers or if he had always intended to run between the two isn’t all that clear but it’s the power of his comprehension and colloquialisms that allow him to pull it off.
The first half of season one ends with Zeke and Mylene a certified couple, “Set Me Free” a certified smash and the crew certified within the movement. As each character advances beyond the Bronx, further into their fields, it can have, like Dizzee at the secret Soho party, an intoxicating effect. Shao, Zeke and Mylene have found the power to make something of themselves. Keeping those selves intact however, has never been more difficult or important.
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