Why We Need 'The Get Down'’s Hip-Hop Myths

On hot summers and the stories we tell ourselves to get by

The Get Down, the new Netflix series that intersects at the dying dreams of disco and the rise of hip-hop, largely takes place during a 1977 Bronx summer, cloaked in an impossible heat. The characters are sweating, often dramatically. We see them sweat in dance, in rap, walking down a sun-soaked sidewalk, or even running into the night. I appreciate this small aspect of the show – how the heat is so palpable within the setting that it bleeds through the television and fills the room of its watching audience. Summer, or perhaps even just heat, is an important element of black mythology, to both the birth of black stories and the tellers of them. When I begin a story from the past with an image of a summer day in the hood, I know I will be understood. When there is more sun in a day, and more heat bearing down on the body, there is a type of mercy in stationary living, or a story told on a shaded porch while the day drags.

The Get Down, in many ways, feels most like this. When you come from a people who have crafted myths as a means of survival or a way to exist beyond their lived existence, the firm details of a story can be sacrificed for something that will make it into a grander experience. For example: I might say that, for me, rap was invented through the open windows of my childhood living room in 1990, when a thick braid of slow-moving cars crawled down my block with their tops down in August, letting what I would later come to know as Public Enemy leak thickly from their speakers. The Bomb Squad’s harsh and jarring symphony trailed behind every car, twisting into the humid air. There, at the end of it all, when the last car turned at the intersection and carried on to another street, is where the music invented itself. I ran outside and the bass still hung in the air. Chuck D echoed in my head for hours.

This, of course, is not actually how rap was born; it's true only in my small Midwestern world, and only to me. But does that make the story any less valid?

The Get Down isn’t a story of how rap was truly born, but I think it does the show a great disservice to hover over that point. It is the story of the birth of rap as it might be told on a porch, or around a card table; after too many drinks in a bar, or at the barbershop by someone who won’t stop reminding you that they were there, man, even though their story changes with each retelling. In this way, The Get Down is in line with a tradition I understand. It is over-the-top, yes, in ways that are both aggressively corny and overwhelmingly delightful. I feel called to the feet of an elder while watching, which is something I have never allowed myself to take for granted. It allows some of the corniness to wash away, or become forgivable. The awkward visual of Daveed Diggs mouthing Nas’s words at the opening of most episodes, the overwrought and quintessentially Baz Luhrmann emotional makeup of the characters, the soap-opera vibe of it all. It holds up despite these things, I think, due to its reliance on narrative. The ability to place people inside a story that isn’t entirely real is one of the greatest things that can be done with our gift of language.

Hip-hop is the last great surviving genre that was born before I was, and I find this essentially important now, when the idea of genre, in the mainstream sense, is being chipped away with each passing year. I love hip-hop because it was young when I was young. It figures itself out as I do. I can talk around the borders of hip-hop about this love, or I can run directly through them and into the heart of the land. In college, when my rural dormmates would roll their eyes at my stereo and tell me that “anyone could rap,” I would make them listen for breath control, presence, and enunciation, and then put on an instrumental and tell them to try it themselves. But more than all of this, what I hold up about rap is its insistence on myth-building: a person growing his own legend until it is an endless shadow, trailing at his back.

Careers are made off of this act. It is a callback to perhaps the only thing I can relate to about professional wrestling: sinking your teeth into a character and never letting it go. Antonio Hardy puts on a few gold rope chains and a silk shirt and he becomes Big Daddy Kane, the sex symbol who could out-rhyme your favorite rapper and out-dance your favorite dancer in the same night. Curtis Jackson is shot nine times and emerges from a hospital bed to make Get Rich or Die Tryin’, which puts 50 Cent on the map. The man who survived. The unkillable street king. Aubrey Drake Graham walks out of a teenage drama and spends years branding himself as a ladies’ man, an aggressor, a denizen of all coasts. All of this because they knew, or maybe still know, that the key to belief is rarely in the story itself, but in what the audience needs and wants to believe. Not all of it is true, or maybe none of it is true, but we take what we need and roll our eyes at the rest. Even the largest reaches, like the one made by Rick Ross, have leaned so far into the myth of who these artists are that it sounds convincing enough for them to remain.

I am interested in the “real” aspects of rap, but I’m not interested in what we believe them to be. Yes, the rapper who is really from where he claims to be from and the rapper who has really done what he claims to have done is “real.” But real, too, is the rapper who can convince me of his survival in that place where he’s from. Real is the rapper who has done what he claims to have done, and then, because he knows the architecture of his deeds, can convince me that he’s done even more. This is the difference between a lie and a myth. Tell me the places you have been first, and then make me believe in the places you haven’t been. It is the greatness of Jay Z to milk his hustler’s exploits for so many years. If everyone is telling the same story, the only job you have, as someone invested in legends and folklore, is to find out how to tell your story in a different way.

The Get Down succeeds in this. This is why it is the birth story that rap deserves, even though we know it is loosely based on and not clinging to the accuracy of history. History, especially the history of black music, is so often stripped down and molded into something that it isn’t anyway, so why not this? If black people have been pushed to the edges of rock and roll origins and to the edges of punk rock origins, I will take a rap music origin story that is so excessive and grand that it cannot be moved. And more than anything, The Get Down is immovable. It fits into the lineage of rap music, which fits into the lineage of black storytelling, which has been a needed escape during countless summers, countless years. It is a story about young people with voices and talent and a desire to make a mark in a city that is trying to swallow them whole, but beyond all of that, it is a vision of rap music’s birth, told to me as I most want to hear it.

I hope that The Get Down serves as a spark for people aiming to dig deep into the roots of hip-hop. As fascinating as the show is, even in its most cringe-worthy moments, it is still a drama, and there are plenty of rich stories in the facts behind the birth of hip-hop, as well. Jeff Chang’s 2005 book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, with an introduction by DJ Kool Herc (briefly portrayed in The Get Down), is a vital text. Check the Technique, by Brian Coleman, is an extremely deep dive into the genre’s most notable albums. How to Draw Hip-Hop, by Damion Scott and Kris Ex, is a crucial look into the elements of hip-hop beyond the music, explaining and instructing on the spirit and importance of the B-girl and the B-Boy, and teaching on graffiti, something that The Get Down utilizes as an aesthetic but never fully unpacks. I am saying that I value The Get Down and its commitment to grandiose myth, but I also value the foundation of hip-hop enough to know that The Get Down cannot be consumed alone, without at least falling back into some of the other vital literature on hip-hop as more than a genre — as a cultural movement.

It has been another hot summer. An unforgivable swelter has, again, laid itself heavy across the block and made the simplest of ideas unbearable: touch, movement, dance. I sweat, even underneath a fan in my own living room with the windows cracked enough to hear a car drive by playing Future on the hook of Jay Z and DJ Khaled’s “I Got the Keys,” the sloppy rattle of the trunk nearly drowning out any actual words. This is how the story of rap reinvents itself in the heat, for someone far younger than I am now. I watch The Get Down in the coolest room in my apartment, and it pulls me into another world with another relentless sun and another movement waiting to be born. There are people, right now, fighting for their own space and their own right to exist, without the romance of music to carry them. I think, too, of how we will tell stories of this time when it is long past. The heroes we will build for those who were not there as we once were.

When it is too hot to move, as it is in places now, all we have are our voices and whoever nearby will gather at the sound of them. All we have, then, are the stories we tell each other. The myths that make our people large, bright, and impossible to move. Even through generations: impossible to move.

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