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Inside ‘The Get Down’: How Baz Luhrmann Recreated the Birth of Hip-Hop

Australian filmmaker and producer Nelson George on going back to the old-school sources for a brand new way of retelling hip-hop’s origin story.

Australian filmmaker and producer Nelson George on going back to the old-school sources for a brand new way of retelling hip-hop's origin story.

Baz Luhrmann’s resplendent, hyperactive Netflix series The Get Down documents hip-hop in the days before it was truly documented. A colourful, graffiti-strewn 1977 Bronx tableau about a gifted, lovesick poet named Ezekiel (Justice Smith) who finds himself drawn into the burgeoning culture exploding at block parties, the series sets the action years before docudramas like Wild Style, Kurtis Blow’s performance of “The Breaks” on Soul Train and rap was etched to vinyl — even before landmark pieces like Robert Ford Jr.’s Billboard breakdown “Jive Talking N.Y. DJs” started letting folks outside of the five boroughs know that something major was happening in New York City.

So how, exactly, did a white man from a tiny township in Southwest Australia — someone best known for turning Romeo and Juliet into a two-hour MTV video and making 19th-century dandies dance to Nirvana songs — end up telling the most luxurious, detail-packed version of American hip-hop’s origin?

“How did I get into it?” says Luhrmann, tucked into a baby blue BRONX sweatshirt in the show’s Queens production office. “To answer your question … I do get to a critical mass point where I’m just actually living it, you know? I’ve come to realize that part of my attraction in doing worlds … [is] partially because I came from a place that wasn’t much of a world.” The director describes his hometown of Herons Creek, South Wales as “a few houses,” and says that the appeal of any project he takes on is getting immersed in another time and place. “I feel like I could live the research and never make a show. I like that part of it so much. I live it.”

Luhrmann started pondering a hip-hop origin tale somewhere around 2006, after asking an assistant to make a hip-hop vs. disco playlist. He soon began absorbing information like a sponge, and reckons he has “the biggest collection of illegal tapes” bootlegged from hip-hop’s live throwdown days as well as every book on the era. Surrounded by “a lot of Swedish backpackers,” Luhrmann stealthily went on the famed Hush Hip Hop Bus & Walking Tour led by one of the old school’s greatest lyrical artists, Grandmaster Caz, and did research in Bronx’s Andrew Freedman Complex, the former retirement home built by the director of New York’s original subway system. But it feels like the real work didn’t begin until the filmmaker hooked up with iconic journalist and Get Down supervising producer Nelson George, who introduced him to firsthand to the ground zero of hip-hop culture.

“I mean, I’d been to the Bronx,” says Luhrmann, “but I hadn’t been to the Bronx with Nelson.

“One of the observations that’s actually very manifest in the actual visuals of the show is the geography of the area,” says George. “Because I think one of the first observations that we’d made was the fact that the Bronx is very hilly, unlike most of New York.”

“Where else in New York could you shoot that scene,” interrupts Luhrmann, “you know, where the lovers are on the steps? Like, that looks like they’re in Paris. Alright? That part of the Bronx looks like Europe. Where else in New York could you shoot gargantuan steps like that? Nowhere!”

“[We had to] take them to school on how to be Seventies. We’re shooting a club scene and all of a sudden we see somebody doing the ‘watch me whip, watch me nae nae.’ Oh hell no! Cut! Cut!”
-Rahiem of the Furious Five

Together, Luhrmann and George imbue The Get Down with obscene amounts of period detail and historical accuracy, amplifying the fantastic tale of fictional teenage rhymer Ezekiel, his partner DJ Shaolin Fantastic (Dope‘s Shameik Moore) and their party-rocking, graffiti-spraying, breakdancing crew, the Get Down Brothers.

“I mean, for me, some of the best things in the show are things that are throwaways,” says George. “At one point Shaolin meets [future Get Down Brothers] cohort Ra-Ra and goes, ‘Yeah, I got my shoes from A.J. Lester.’ That’s a line that only means something to about 5,000 people in New York who grew up in Harlem and know A.J. Lester’s was a store on 125th Street where all the ballers went. But to have that in our show means that, for a core group of people who really know, it’s ‘Oh, this guy’s really paying attention.'”

The Get Down‘s staff is buttressed with the knowledge and anecdotes of people who were on the frontlines of the hip-hop revolution. Grandmaster Flash, the most important human to ever touch turntables, is an executive producer along with hip-hop star and historian Nas. Consultants include Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Rahiem of the Furious Five, hip-hop’s first national recording star Kurtis Blow, Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa and even Kool Herc, the bedrock figure who invented hip-hop in a South Bronx rec room in 1972. Additional consultants include Willie “Marine Boy” Estrada of uprocking pioneers the Rock Masters, and graffiti icons John “Crash” Matos and Chris “Daze” Ellis  

“I sat down with Nelson George, and we had great talks about it,” says Nas, who also wrote many of the show’s rhymes. “Grandmaster Flash, talked with him — it was all about New York City and the culture during that time period, what was happening politically, what was happening in Hollywood. Baz had a chart in the office of historical things that happened [in 1977].”

Rahiem was brought on board to write rhymes, teach vintage slang, guide the actors and, as he says, “take them to school on how to be Seventies. We had to do that for the extras as well. There were times where we’re shooting a club scene and then the extras, they’re in the club dancing and all of a sudden we see somebody doing the ‘watch me whip, watch me nae nae.’ Oh hell no! Cut! Cut!

“They actually took a few of [my] stories and did a slight remix on ’em and regurgitated them, so now they are part of The Get Down,” he continues. “There’s a scene that happens in a later episode in which a guy comes in the club and sells angel dust to everybody, and basically everybody goes to sleep. Well, that actually happened at one of our jams back in the day!

“Baz and all of the crew were sticklers for staying period to a certain extent,” Bahiem continues. “They needed to know how the angel dust was packaged, what color the bags were, what the bags looked like when they were filled. Back in the days when it was a popular drug and people went to buy it, you would know if the dust was good because the bag would be slightly wet — the wetness would be from the formaldehyde. So, the first time that they started assembling the angel dust packages, it didn’t look the way it looked when it was actually going on in the Bronx. No one would have ever bought that because it doesn’t look right.”

Luhrmann and George’s deep research also provided an opportunity to tell stories and reveal truths that the history books don’t show. Having a half-Puerto Rican protagonist pays credence to the heavy Latino participation in the invention of hip-hop often forgotten or ignored. The salon owned by the Kipling family fights the assumption that the entire borough was a burned-out wasteland.

“Everyone, and I hate this, goes ‘The South Bronx. The South Bronx is burning,'” says George. “Number one, all those shots of the burning buildings were really in the middle of the Bronx. But even more importantly in terms of musical history, Bambataa is waaaayy over here in the East; Herc is waaayy over here in the West. They’re not even close to each other — they’re many, many neighborhoods away. So the idea that hip-hop was born in the South Bronx is a cliché.”

“One night I was up at Freedman House with Herc and his sister,” says Luhrmann. “They eventually got me alone and they were like, ‘We want to show you … the secret.’ Herc said Mom and Dad would make, like, hot dogs and stuff for these parties. Because the idea was he was encouraging him to do music to get kids off the street. Some open-minded Jamaican dad went, ‘We’ll cater, you kids can do what you want.’ No one wants to hear that because it might seem a little less than cool. But it’s true, and kind of beautiful I think.”

Originally, Luhrmann, who had never worked in TV, had planned to let the process run itself, but soon found that filming demanded a more hands-on approach.

“We have no precedent for making a show like this,” he says. “There’s a machine out there that can make genre shows: cop show, conceptual show, medical drama, all that. But a sprawling epic that tells the story of New York in the late Seventies — not only about a variety of music, but through music and told from the point of view of unidentified African-American, Latino youth? There’s just no machine for that.”

“What all was really clear to me was that, if hip-hop is anything, it’s collage without prejudice. The question is, Does it actually express the truth?”
-filmmaker Baz Luhrmann

The animated Luhrmann positions himself at the end of the couch to elaborate. “The key moment I realised this was when a scene where Flash is teaching the boys how to actually identify the break. … [The director shot it] without the music. The idea of having the music on [during shooting] is not normal. Like, for me, it is. But like, pounding on so that the actors can react? Anyway, the footage came back, and Flash is like, ‘Baz, everything is alright, you did everything I said, but … no one’s ever going to believe that.”

So Luhrmann took the reigns and started blasting music at his cast. “What I do is I teach the entire floor — that’s with 200 extras — ‘the switch,'” he explains. “Which is, I get the music going and then I yell on the mic, ‘Switch!’ And if I see a single change in the energy, I stop and say that we’re going to go at it again. Like you’ve go to learn to keep the music in your head.”

The purest triumph of The Get Down is its use of music. Like a six-episode DJ set (the first season will be extended by six or seven more episodes in 2017), songs fade into each other or undergo a hard, beat-matched edit. Disco diva Donna Summer slams into krautrockers Can; a contemporary protest lament from retro-soul star Michael Kiwanuka crosses paths with a classic Rufus Thomas breakbeat. Grandmaster Flash recorded a DJ set and the actors performed it like a radio play before it was filmed so they could ensure the dialogue was correctly timed to the music cues. (“It’s called ‘musicalisation,'” explains Luhrmann. “I didn’t even know it was a word.”) Original songs are made from vintage material, like a Jackson 5 album cut turned into a new song featuring Janelle Monaé — a smart choice since no self-respecting artist would approve of the non-breakbeat sections of their classic song being called “the wack part.”

In fact, the dizzying collage of music is a perfect match for Luhrmann’s pastiche-oriented filmmaking. Parts of The Get Down mirror Blaxploitation films, epic Hollywood musicals, the grainy melancholy of stock footage, and the “clash between reality and fantasy” in Seventies dramas like Saturday Night Fever. And while hip-hop MCs and graffiti writers concocted their own mythos from comic book superheroes and sci-fi imagery, the appeal of grindhouse kung-fu flicks seem to loom largest.

To cement the sonic and visual vocabulary of the film, Luhrmann created a sizzle reel — or in his parlance, “an internal music vision reel” — that crowded together a cluster of film and music. Thanks to its brash flaunting of copyright law, it will probably never see the light of day, but it provides insight into how they approached the show: John Travolta walking, but with “Staying Alive” replaced by the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You”; footage of Bronx-decimating city planner Robert Moses and films like Sergio Leone’s sprawling Once Upon a Time in America, which George says was “an essential text for the show” echoed in at least one plot point in the show itself.

“What all was really clear to me was that, if hip-hop is anything,” says Luhrmann, “it’s collage without prejudice. That’s the kind of filmmaking that I’ve grown up in. So, when I made this reel … there’s no prejudice as to whether something might have been perceived as cheesy or it’s the coolest thing in the world. The question is, Does it actually express the truth?”