Nostalgia — that seemingly endless pool of artistic inspiration — motivates at least half (by my less-than-scientific calculation) of this year’s major pop culture moments, from Netflix’s Stranger Things all the way to Frank Ocean’s Blond(e). As source material, it’s a tricky beast, at its best capable of drawing on shared memories to remind us what made something great in the first place. At its worst, though, nostalgia invites a kitschy reimagining of the past that too often morphs into revisionist history. Perhaps nowhere is this division more hotly debated than in the realm of hip-hop, a former subculture whose influence now runs far beyond its original parameters, sparking important questions as to how it should continue to evolve while remaining true to its roots.
“No one alive can name me one rapper that was bigger than the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC or Spice Girls was in the 90s and mean it,” asserted rapper Vince Staples in a recent interview with Noisey. “And no one can name an artist bigger than the rappers now, bigger than Kanye West specifically, without it being kind of subjective… He’s the rock star. He’s the biggest artist, to me, in the world.” Fact checks aside, the 23 year-old Long Beach native delineates an obvious trend: that hip-hop, in the last decade, has reached new peaks of pop culture dominance unknown to the genre’s founders. Driven by a concern of drifting too far from its origins, hip-hop’s older guard often asserts the late-80s and early 90s as the genre’s Golden Age — rap in its purest form. Staples, a guy whose music suggests little patience for nostalgia, refutes that claim on the simple basis of hip-hop’s increased popularity.
At the same time, the genre’s scope has grown more nebulous, and elements of it pervade most popular music today. The technique of sampling, for example — as innovated and subsequently popularized by hip-hop DJs and producers — is among the most useful tools in the modern music producer’s arsenal. Have the bearded woodsmen of Bon Iver become hip-hop artists by building their recent music around samples and guesting on Kanye albums? Is Anthony Kiedis (of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame), in fact, just a really bad rapper who wound up in a rock band? These questions stem partially from an unnecessary need to categorize anything and everything, but they also emphasize the absurd challenge that is trying to keep track of hip-hop’s influence on music and culture throughout the last 40 years. How then, can the particularities of the genre’s origin story — birthed in part out of racial struggles and systemic injustices glossed over in history books — be guaranteed a place in the collective conscience?
With these lofty goals in mind, and armed with well-intentioned nostalgia, Netflix’s new series The Getdown cuts through all the noise around hip-hop’s evolution to deliver a representation of its founding, as rooted in a distinct time and place. That place is a vividly realized Bronx circa 1977, brought to you by Baz Luhrmann, the notoriously excessive Australian director responsible for your high school English teacher’s least favorite adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Thankfully, he enlists a team of individuals far more qualified to bring this particular story to computer screens everywhere, including playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, music journalist Nelson George and a slew of game-changing hip-hop artists including Kool Herc, Afrikaa Bambaataa and Nas.
As both art and entertainment, I should mention that The Getdown is far from perfect. Its first episode, especially, is jarringly paced and a slog to get through, clocking in at over 90 minutes and still somehow failing to properly introduce the main cast of characters. The rest of the show continues as a disjointed mess, bogging down moments of brilliance with unnecessary melodrama and extended conversations that do little to provide depth or advance the narrative. The dialogue itself is stilted but honest, a case of uneven writing resurrected by a great cast, including breakout star Justice Smith, Hamilton the Musical’s Daveed Diggs, Dope’s Shameik Moore and Jaden Smith — a man who needs no introduction (but deserves your follow on Twitter).
As all Luhrmann projects, The Getdown is defined by its sleek surface. The overblown aesthetics (and gorgeous color palette) are part of the point here, incorporating the elements of Blaxploitation, camp and kung-fu films that inspired early hip-hop artists. In creating and mythologizing the world of the late 1970s Bronx, Luhrmann and his team powerfully root this story in its specifics. The level of historical accuracy, as fortified by anecdotes from the veritable hip-hop historians working behind the scenes, is vital to the show’s entertainment value as well as its political intent.
Amidst increasingly loud and often problematic discourse on issues of cultural appropriation and where hip-hop is heading, a visual representation that establishes where it comes from feels timely, even when it’s not enough.