How hip-hop began

Semi-biographical drama The Get Down tells the origin story of hip-hop in New York's South Bronx in the 1970s

According to the streaming service Spotify, hip-hop is the most listened-to music genre today.

But few know the origin story of what has become a multi-billiondollar industry and global cultural phenomenon.

This lack of awareness has long troubled director Baz Luhrmann, who felt the tale of the birthplace of hip-hop - New York's impoverished South Bronx neighbourhood in the 1970s - was a missing page of cultural history begging to be told onscreen.

 

The Australian film-maker's latest music-and-dance extravaganza, The Get Down, finally tells it.

The ambitious Netflix drama premieres worldwide on Friday, having already generated headlines for its US$120-million (S$162-million) budget, which makes it one of the most expensive television shows produced.

Some Chinese friends of mine think it (hip-hop) was a Korean thing... but, you know, South Bronx and South Korea are quite a distance apart.

THE GET DOWN DIRECTOR BAZ LUHRMANN on a perception in South-east Asia and China that hip-hop was from South Korea

"No one's really told this story," says Luhrmann, who spoke to The Straits Times in a one-on-one chat in Los Angeles recently.

"I'll tell you what has been done - the 1980s and the 1990s. A lot of people confuse the feel and the look (of this) with that, which is completely different," he says, referring to films such as last year's Oscarnominated drama Straight Outta Compton, which charts the rise of the hip-hop group N.W.A. in the 1980s and 1990s.

"By then, hip-hop was something, as opposed to being a thing in a borough that the city and the world had forgotten," says the 53-year-old, who became intrigued by this 10 years ago, when he saw a photo of a boy in a hip-hop stance and realised it was taken not in the 1980s, but in 1977, when disco still ruled the airwaves.

The curiosity this sparked led him to create The Get Down, a semibiographical musical drama that follows a group of Bronx boys - Ezekiel "Books" Figuero (Justice Smith), Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore) and their graffiti-artist friends, the Kipling brothers - as they discover this electrifying new sound.

The show also features characters based on real hip-hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie), who teaches the boys how to become artists themselves. Shaolin Fantastic learns to manually mix beats from different tracks using two turntables and a stack of cheap vinyl records, and Books raps his poetry and rhymes over the music.

Luhrmann - who directed The Great Gatsby (2013) and Romeo + Juliet (1996) - seems both bemused and aggrieved that most hip-hop enthusiasts have no idea this is how it began.

"I'm in South-east Asia and China quite a bit and one of the things I am mindful of is that, in that part of the world, there is a perception that it was borne out of South Korea.

"Some Chinese friends of mine think it was a Korean thing... but, you know, South Bronx and South Korea are quite a distance apart," he says, chuckling.

As these stirrings have never been chronicled onscreen and little footage of those pioneering artists exists, most American fans are in the dark too.

"The truth is many people don't know about it. An African American woman got up at the Tribeca Film Festival and said, 'How come no one's told this bit of the story before?'"

Luhrmann was keenly aware that he did not live through this era and thus sought the help of those who did, including Grandmaster Flash himself and The Furious Five, who together formed a hip-hop group in 1970s.

"This is living history, so I started collaborating with the people whose story it was, like Flash and Raheem from The Furious Five, who contributed lyrics and helped our boys become their own characters."

The film-maker also worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis to co-create the series and engaged another iconic hip-hop artist, Nas, to write Books' rhymes.

 

Grandmaster Flash - whose real name is Joseph Saddler - did not take much convincing to get on board.

Speaking at a press conference for the show, the 58-year-old says: "If hip-hop were a cake, then I cannot tell you how many people took a slice off that cake, be it producers, fans, artists and the like.

"But I can tell you about the recipe - the flour, the milk, the eggs, the vanilla and the secret ingredients - because I am one of the bakers, along with Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa."

Another collaborator was Nelson George, a former music journalist and hip-hop historian, who is one of the writers and producers on the show.

Understanding the genesis of the genre may help explain its continued success and why it has spread so far and wide, with fans and artists everywhere from Europe and Asia to the Arab world, he says.

The key is that hip-hop culture is "multi-faceted", says George, 58. "You can dance to it and the dance evolves, the music evolves, the language evolves - which is very important. So it's something that's constantly updating itself as soon as it gets old.

"I remember when I was covering it in the 1980s - I felt like it changed course every two years."

Youth and rebellion

Luhrmann agrees and says another factor is that this is music "born with no prejudice - you could take a German record and a Japanese beat and put them together and make something new".

"So by the very nature of what it is, it's always transforming for it to be good and fresh."

At its core, hip-hop is always about youthful rebellion too, says George. "It's like with trap music today. You have old-school hip-hop guys who say this is not hip-hop. And they sound just like the old people in our show.

"So it's about young people. Young people take it, it goes for five or six years, they grow up and another generation comes along and goes, 'I'm not doing that s**t.'"

The series will also explore the idea of the music as an avenue of protest and self-expression for young African Americans dealing with poverty and social injustice.

Luhrmann says: "When we get to 1977 to 1978, (the characters) are still kids, but you have a moment when a young man is being told to get an internship downtown at the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, essentially in the white world. And another young guy goes, 'No, let's be kings of this thing we invented in the streets.'

"That tension and those choices, that's a big drama as we head into the later episodes. Books has an awakening about who controls his world."

The film-maker - who has a daughter, 12, and son, 10, with wife Catherine Martin, the 51-year-old Oscar-winning costume and production designer of Moulin Rouge! (2001) and The Great Gatsby - believes this is a universal story that youth anywhere can relate to.

"I keep saying I'm an outsider because I didn't live in the South Bronx, but this show is no good unless you can relate to it no matter who you are. Any youth should be able to relate to it."

Even one who, like Luhrmann, grew up in a small Australian town in the middle of nowhere.

Asked how he managed to escape that and become a successful artist, he turns pensive for a moment, then jokes that talking to reporters about the show has been a "vast therapy session" that has helped him see the parallels with his own life.

"I've come to the conclusion that although my family was not poor - we had a gas station and a farm - we were very isolated and had very little access to the outside world, except through film and TV.

"So I was forced to use my imagination to build worlds and characters with my brother. I didn't come up with hip-hop, but we were certainly inventing (ways of) storytelling and film-making."

In his work and art, Luhrmann believes he is "really a child of the hip-hop generation" and that is why "I think I've tried to help get a musical made that celebrates the birth of this form".

"I'm probably at the older end of it, but the biggest, freshest and most astounding influence in my life would've been the whole thing of taking two records and putting a poem over it and being able to make mash-ups."

This is why his films, such as his breakout hit Strictly Ballroom (1992), have typically blended different music and visual styles.

"It's quite collage-y. Flash saw it and said, 'You're like a deejay when you make movies', and I think he meant I was taking two beats and making something different out of them.

"So I'm thankful that these young people, however it came about, lived their imaginations."

•The Get Down premieres worldwide on Friday on Netflix. The second half of the series debuts next year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline 'How hip-hop began'. Print Edition | Subscribe