Image Courtesy of Netflix

‘The Get Down’ Is a Reminder That the Origins of Hip-Hop Were Always Weird

Baz Luhrmann’s new Netflix show puts sensitive, artsy guys (as opposed to tough ones) at the heart of the hip-hop narrative.

On September 11, 2007, something truly revolutionary occurred. In a head-to-head battle for the #1 spot on Billboard, Kanye West’s third album Graduation outsold 50 Cent’s Curtis (his third solo release, as well) by a landslide. At the time, the results didn’t surprise many — Kanye had been on a rapid upward trajectory since College Dropout, and already, his single “Stronger” had reached the top spot — but it signaled a wide change for what hip-hop would come to represent in a modern, mainstream cultural landscape. It was no longer just a game for the Tough Guy, but one in which the sensitive guy could thrive.

Yet despite the success of artists like Kanye West, Drake, Chance the Rapper and Nicki Minaj, hip-hop is still largely defined by a very specific brand of machismo and overbearing masculinity. It’s for this very reason that we’ve taken to sub-categorizing anything that doesn’t fit within that rigid structure. Labels like “emo” rap, “queer” rap, and even “female” rap aren’t specialized signifiers as much as they are gentle reminders to the wider public that, at its core, this is not what hip-hop was supposed to be about. But with just one furtive glance at today’s Billboard chart — where Drake, a rapper who drunkenly calls exes in the middle of the night because he misses them, occupies three spaces in the top 15 — you can glean that maybe all of these subgenres are what hip-hop is about after all. And according to The Get Down, the hip-hop origin story directed by Baz Lurhmann for Netflix, this is what hip-hop has always been about.

Growing up in the South Bronx of the late 1970s, the crew of friends at the series’s center have more in common with the artists who have triggered the need for hip-hop subgenres than with the hyper-masculine figures with whom the genre is more closely associated. Consider the protagonist Zeke (or “MC Books,” as he will later be called). From the moment he appears on screen, writing a poem for a girl who has captured his heart, he plays the part of the hopeless romantic. “Mylene, Mylene, my butterscotch queen / This summer, would you be my girl and I could be your king?” The romantiche sentiment instantly sets up Zeke’s character as counter to the idea of the tough guy: sensitive, in touch with his emotions, and comfortable using his words to express himself.

Rounding out his crew — known as the Fantastic Four Plus One (or the Get Down Brothers) — are Marcus “Dizzee” Kipling (played by Jaden Smith in the most Jaden Smith role ever), Ra-Ra, Boo-Boo and Shaolin Fantastic. Dizzee is a graffiti artist who tags as Rumi — the name for an alien he invented “who always looks like he’s going to the opera, but never gets there” — talks in circles about just wanting to feel free, and, as we find out in one of The Get Down’s final scenes, is possibly gay (or, at least, not exclusively straight). Ra-Ra and Boo-Boo both certainly try to feign an air of masculinity, but the show makes it clear that neither one of them is supposed to be particularly threatening. They’re ride-or-die members of their crew, but they can’t offer too much in the way of real protection.

Even Shaolin Fantastic, who at first seems to embody hip-hop’s macho side, later proves himself to be something more. He deals drugs and exploits his sexuality to save up to buy more records for his fledgling DJ career, a fairly typical rags-to-rapper story, but his tough-guy narrative is undercut by his sensitivity. You can see it in the way that he cowers when he’s forced to kill to prove his allegiance to the Bronx’s drug kingpin Fat Annie, and in the compassion he shows Zeke when Zeke talks about his love for Mylene. Shaolin is also a famed graffiti artist — he had a fan in Dizzee before they even met — and a comic-book collector.

Taken as a whole, this group of antiheroes is more artsy than traditionally macho. Their dynamic as friends mirrors that of the lovable nerds on Stranger Things — another bingeable recent Netflix period piece — more closely than it does archetypal hip-hop groups. While the boys of Stranger Things overcome bullying to battle paranormal forces in their 1980s Midwestern town (in between games of Dungeons & Dragons, of course), the guys of The Get Down overcome bullying to take on the all-too-normal forces of poverty and urban crime. Instead of Dungeons & Dragons, they bond over Eastern imagery presented to them by Grandmaster Flash, one of hip-hop’s original DJs and the underground patron saint of the Get Down Brothers’ neighborhood.

The sensei-like teacher (who in real life is an associate producer on the show) zips in and out of rooms without being noticed, makes references to zazen (a form of Buddhist meditation) and speaks cryptically about “Universal DJ Rules” — chief among them, to “not underestimate the [purple] crayon” (which turns out to be a secret to his Quick Mix DJing theory). This all makes for an alluring character, but it’s even more significant to see one of the fathers of hip-hop portrayed as something like a guru of Eastern spirituality, more Deepak Chopra than Dr. Dre.

The Get Down challenges the traditional hip-hop narrative and reclaims the genre for the weirdos, the outcasts, the uncool kids. It even gives hip-hop a queer narrative by highlighting the direct link between disco, a genre that the show mentions was completely run by “the homosexuals,” and hip-hop, a genre that repurposed “the get down” part of disco beats. We see this most vividly in the show’s most energetic scene. During a make-or-break moment in a DJ battle between the Fantastic Four Plus One and the Notorious Three (the reigning Bronx DJ/MC crew champions), Shaolin throws on “Set Me Free,” a cathartic gospel-disco single recorded by Zeke’s love, Mylene. Since their speaker system is louder, the Notorious Three have an advantage for a majority of the battle, but as soon as Shaolin puts on “Set Me Free,” a song embraced by the LGBT community at the time, the entire crowd goes loose. It is clear that Zeke and his crew have won the battle. Even though the show is fiction, it’s still grand to see a seminal moment in hip-hop history being tethered to one that embraces queer representation.

To look at this specific retelling of the history of hip-hop, it’s interesting to think about what the genre has gone on to represent. The hip-hop origin story that places the smart, sensitive poet who writes lyrics about his “butterscotch queen” at its center has been marginalized by one laced with violence, misogyny and homophobia. The Get Down effectively gives a voice back to this oft ignored alternative telling.

While the show doesn’t wipe hip-hop’s slate clean, The Get Down does serve to legitimize the sounds and careers of hip-hop’s new vanguard. Sensitive rappers like Drake and Sad Boys’ Yung Lean might see themselves in Zeke’s romantic poetry, while outsider artists like Young Thug, Lil Yachty and even Kid Cudi might see in Shaolin’s comic book fanaticism that hip-hop belongs to them too. Even openly queer rappers like Le1f, Cakes Da Killa and Mykki Blanco could look to Dizzee’s kiss with his graffiti artist crush — a boy who tags by the name of Thor — to see that the genre hasn’t always been as heteronormative as it may seem. If nothing else, The Get Down shows the core of hip-hop has always been, not just the tough guy, but the sensitive poet who is unashamed of love and the bi-curious head-in-the-clouds artist who just “wants to feel free.”

Michael Cuby is a freelance writer in New York.

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