The past few years have seen a burst of TV shows set within the volatile world of the music industry, be it country (Nashville), classical (Mozart in the Jungle), or rock ‘n’ roll (Vinyl, Roadies). But the most compelling new series centered on the creation and the business of music have come from the world of rap and hip-hop, most recently the VH1 original The Breaks and The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series about the birth of hip-hop in the late 1970s Bronx. Unlike Fox’s hit music-biz drama Empire, these shows take a historical approach to their subject, a genre new enough that it’s not hard to document with fairly detailed accuracy who the major players were, and how it all began.
The Breaks, which just ended its eight-episode first season last week, began as a made-for-TV movie that functioned as a backdoor pilot for the series. Based on Dan Charnas’s 2010 book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, the show takes place in New York City in the early 1990s. Afton Williamson stars as Nikki Jones, a fresh college graduate determined to elbow her way into the nascent hip-hop industry. Her friend DeeVee (Tristan Wilds), a would-be producer, represents the creative side; her (white) boyfriend, David (David Call), is another early convert who works at an R&B radio station where he endures daily torture in the form of cheesy love songs.
Like The Get Down, The Breaks demonstrates that the development of an entirely new genre — both creatively and promotionally — is just good drama. It’s a wonder it took this long for television to pounce on the undeniably juicy story of the growth of hip-hop from scrappy outer-borough party music to mainstream, global ubiquity. Of course, that’s easy to say with a few decades’ hindsight. The Get Down and The Breaks benefit from that distance in another way: The kinds of people who might be depicted as “thugs” and troublemakers 15, 20, 30 years ago, at least in a mainstream venue, are portrayed in a more compassionate, and realistic light — as regular people living their lives, trying to make their ambitions a reality.
David has to fight to convince his boss to play hip-hop artists other than M.C. Hammer; he and Nikki both struggle to convince others to take rap, and not just R&B, seriously. The Breaks manifests David and Nikki’s enthusiasm with lots of thrilling performance scenes, which are also the best part of The Get Down. Like any good musical, these shows use song-and-dance numbers to advance the plot and/or develop characters — and it doesn’t hurt that they’re expertly produced and dazzlingly performed.
With enough distance, a character like Nikki is nothing less than a prophet, a woman who sees that the future belongs to hip-hop. But, as her boyfriend’s father, the old school, corruptible promoter Juggy (Evan Handler) tells her, if she can’t find a way to “affect the bottom line,” she’s nothing but a fan. If you’re not an artist, he explains, passion isn’t enough.
The Breaks has no shortage of passion for its subject. It splits its time evenly between the business and creative sides of the music industry, and, like The Get Down, highlights the ingenuity of talented people with few resources; in one scene in the made-for-TV movie, DeeVee and drug dealer-slash-rapper Ahm (Antoine Harris) fashion a makeshift sound booth by stapling egg cartons to the walls and ceiling of a closet. The Get Down’s most compelling scenes are often the ones in which a character breaks down how to create a specific sound, like the sequence in which Shaolin (Shameik Moore) and Zeke (Justice Smith) figure out why the legendary Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) has gifted them with a purple crayon: It’s meant to mark the spot on a record where “the get down,” a.k.a. the catchiest, most dance-able part of the song, begins. The spotlight on young dreamers over jaded old executives (*cough Vinyl cough*) adds an element of pure joy to these series.
The Get Down and The Breaks don’t shy away from the fact that music is a business, and in this sense the genre helps the drama along as well. Rap has always been savvier and less hypocritical about the commercial aspect of the music; the people who invented it were unabashed in their pursuit of money. For these innovators, music wasn’t just a hobby or a passion project but a lifeline. There’s less risk that these shows will fall into the trap of the authenticity fetish that plagued one-season wonders Vinyl and Roadies — masturbatory celebrations of the glory of rock ‘n’ roll mostly told through the stories of white people.