In an age in which cultural sensitivity is at an all-time high and self-dubbed “people of colour” (POC) cry foul over the whitewashing of Hollywood cinema, having Australian film director Baz Luhrmann tell the story of underprivileged black communities in ’70s South Bronx and the events surrounding the birth of hip-hop seems like a bad idea. When you have some of the most influential figures of the genre sign off on the final product, however, the dilemma seems to dissolve – at least, it did with the Netflix Originals series, The Get Down.
Interestingly, one such figure that Luhrmann had appointed Associate Producer of the show, hip-hop and DJ pioneer Grandmaster Flash, didn’t even know whom Luhrmann was when he was approached to consult on the musical drama. “He called my office, and he said he wanted to do a TV series and wanted my assistance on it. I didn’t really think about it,” recalls Flash. It wasn’t until elated reactions from his friends prompted him to do some research on Luhrmann’s work and realise that he was already a fan of the Australian director. “It turns out that he did one of my all-time favourite movies,” says Flash, confessing, “One is Animal House, and the other is The Great Gatsby. So I had to quickly tell my people to meet with him”.
Like the soundtrack to the 2013 cinematic reboot of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel, The Get Down exhibits Luhrmann’s infatuation with hip-hop and its associated culture – only this time, with characters and a setting fitting of the subject matter, along with a team of hip-hop luminaries producing on the series, including DJs/record producers Flash, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, and rappers Nas and Kurtis Blow. As with many of Luhrmann’s previous films,The Get Down is an audio-visual assault that floods the senses with bright colours, relentless music, and theatrics that, at times, border on caricature. However, according to Flash, Luhrmann really did his homework when it came down to the details to execute a faithful account.
Mamoudou Athie (left) and Shameik Moore (right) in The Get Down
“He took me to his house, and there was this huge wall that had timelines of people, places, and things from the ’70s to ’79. He said, ‘Flash, look at all of this and tell me if we’re in the ballpark. Can you help me align all this information and help me make this picture?’. From there, we gained a friendship and trust,” reminisces Flash on the moment he signed on as Associate Producer. While Luhrmann’s penchant for stage-like dramatics and romantic narrative may be at odds with South Bronx’s poverty-stricken reality at the time, Flash maintains that Luhrmann was the man to tell the story of the burning Bronx, and the hip-hop phoenix that rose from its ashes: “I wouldn’t have given the story to just anybody. I see the sincerity in his eyes, and he’s very detail-oriented. He’s a geek, just like me”. But not without a caveat: “I did tell him that I would only consider doing it if he went back and got Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc. So he did that, and we rolled for 17 months”.
While the figures Luhrmann enlisted behind the scenes speak to the narrative’s accuracy, perhaps one of the most shining examples of Luhrmann’s eye for on-screen detail is in the cast, specifically the choice of Mamoudou Athie to play the role of Flash. “He called me to the office and said, ‘There’s somebody I want you to meet,’ and I gotta tell you, I looked him up and down and I was very quiet. I was in shock because the guy almost looks like me. He said, ‘My name is Mamoudou and it would be an honour for me to play you on this film, and I promise if you teach me how to DJ, I won’t let you down’”. Fulfilling his request, Flash mentored Athie over numerous months, until the young actor’s depiction of a teenage Flash working the turntables was nothing short of perfect. Speaking on seeing himself on-screen, the 58-year-old DJ says, “For me, Flash, to watch Flash, was something. When I saw the rough cut on-screen for the first time, I was very emotional”.
Grandmaster Flash (left) and Mamoudou Athie (right)
“In the Bronx, it was Herc, Bam, Breakout and Flash. It was like a village; we all knew each other…it was family back then for us.”
The Get Down isn’t without its moments of hardship in its portrayal of neighbourhood gang violence, political division and religious oppression, but it’s memories of family and community that stand out the most for Flash and, ultimately, anchor the drama throughout its six episodes to date. “In the Bronx, it was Herc, Bam, Breakout and Flash. It was like a village; we kind of all knew each other. I can remember times when some of my fans could not get home and I had to drop them off or put them in a taxi, meeting mums and dads. This is why Baz put the family situation into the film, because it was family back then for us”.
While family and community values remain important facets of hip-hop culture, the distended ego, fixation with wealth, and assertions of seniority that have become associated with the new breed of rappers are hard to ignore. Despite the genre’s strides and occasional missteps, Flash maintains both a diplomatic and modest outlook when considering today’s generation of hip-hop heroes, explaining, “I don’t want to sit here and try to tell anybody how to do hip-hop; everybody’s going to do hip-hop in their own way. But I do think, from a historical perspective, that any enthusiast of hip-hop – whether you’re a fan, producer or artist – should take a moment to sit on the couch and watch this. Just watch it from the perspective of the people that did the heavy lifting earlier, so that you guys can do what you do today”.
Grandmaster Flash and the cast of The Get Down
Paralleling The Get Down’s purpose of educating audiences on the origins of hip-hop through a semi-fictional musical drama, Flash emphasises the need for artists in the hip-hop community to remember where the roots of its sounds came from: through disco, funk, R&B, Latin, Caribbean, and anything else with which he could find a drum break on wax. Decribing the rudimentary setup depicted throughout the series’ pioneering DJs, Flash elucidates, “No studios, no apps, no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram, no technology – no nothing. Just two duplicate copies of records and a mixer. That’s pretty much all we had. People need to know where hip-hop truly started”.
A consideration that’s often overlooked, Flash and his peers’ ingenuity with the turntable also had lasting implications for a very different brand of music that depends on the now-digitised technology: electronic music. While genres like EDM excite Flash, he stresses that in order to be a great DJ, one must go back to basics, no matter the genre. “To be a world-class DJ, you have to know who Incredible Bongo Band is; you have to know Chic, Thin Lizzy, Michael Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone. You have to know how to play these songs in a set, and then once you do that with a laptop, go and buy these records and learn how to play them on vinyl”.
Imparting his authoritative wisdom at the end of our conversation, Flash concludes confidently, “Play for the world – and if you’re going to play for the world, then you have to play a genesis hip-hop set. That’s the way that I play; I can go into any country and play, because in the two hours that I’m on the set, I’m going to get you. I might not get you in the first five minutes, but I’ll get you before the two hours is up, and I’m gonna have you throwing your hands in the air and screaming with me. That’s the idea of hip-hop: joy.”
The first six episodes of The Get Down are available to stream now on Netflix. For more info, visit netflix.com.