I remember taking the train back from the Bronx one afternoon, where I’d been visiting family, trying to imagine what it must’ve been like to see it all ablaze. It’s a scary thought; you’d be silly not to be afraid of fire. The fires that consumed the Bronx in the 1970’s were the embodiment of oppressive destructive forces that are just as scary. Poverty, exploitation, and neglect riddled the growing African-American and Latino communities. Fueled by racism and greed, these vulnerable communities were pawns in the games played by powerful politicians and businessmen, but from the fire that seemed impossible to control, a beautiful and powerful culture was born. It went on to color and transcend the troubling experience.
The Get Down a new Netflix series directed by Baz Luhrmann and produced by Nas, chronicles the birth of hip-hop through the rise of fictional figures set to the backdrop of the actual historical events and figures. This drama-musical captures the color and energy of late 70’s Bronx. The first few episodes are jam packed with Disco dancing, skillful graffiti, and flamboyant outfits that at times made me feel I was born in the wrong era.
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This interpretation of such a pivotal era inspired me to revisit Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang’s award winning historical novel that traces the birth and the development of Hip-hop from it’s origin. The show and book work off of each other, and when considered simultaneously, allow for an insightful intertextual experience. Chang’s book begins at the same place the show does,with the Bronx on fire, before focusing in on the DJ’s that revolutionized spin technique. These pioneers, starting with DJ Kool Herc, were masters of the craft, but also master organizers. They created around themselves a culture that excited and empowered the downtrodden and opened entirely new lanes of expression.
This book really does an excellent job of setting the scene, communicating the political and cultural turmoil revolving the art forms. Watching the train covered in beautifully written messages of hope chug its way round burning buildings in the opening scenes of The Get Down is all the more impactful with a solid understanding of what factors went into the birth of the slums, and ultimately the birth of hip-hop.
I strongly suggest picking up a copy of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop if you plan on delving into The Get Down. If you can get past the necessary dose of Luhrmann ‘cheese’, there are some really amazing characters, sets, and music to be enjoyed, and knowing the real story behind it all will help you to find the truth in the fiction, and the beauty in the history.
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