Even those only loosely familiar with rap and hip-hop are aware of the larger-than-life characters that inhabit the genre. Rappers have routinely performed their biographies, detailing in copious, painstaking rhymes their pasts, their abilities, the things they have seen, what they have fought against, and what they will do to those who posit themselves as antagonists. “The Get Down” on Netflix takes hip-hop myth-making back to the early days of rap, where the genre both competed against and co-existed with disco.
This might not be the series for individuals who literally want to “Netflix and Chill”. This series is more like “Netflix and Wave Your Hands Like You Just Don’t Care”. The series is vibrant in both its approach: the narration provided by Nas, the comic book or graphic novel scene changes that might remind some of “The Warriors”, the music—so many performances, and its unflinching look at the street life that served to form the personalities of some of the most popular deejays and rappers (emcees) that the world has ever known. But the series is something else, too. It is also vibrant in its approach—the episodes teach audiences about rap. Not just the mean streets of New York City as a breeding ground of toughness and artistry, although some of us in flyover states might have missed how integral graffiti was to the development of rap music, but it really shows audiences aspects of rap that the uninitiated might be clueless about, such as, how to write a rap song, what it takes to memorize that song, the equipment necessary to deejay (and how it is a skill to “scratch” a record during a performance, and leave it playable after), and what the “get down” actually is. No, it is not just dancing. A similar thing happens in rock music wherein there is a break, and it sounds as though only one guitar, a bass for example, is playing, but really, it is all of them playing in unison.
If the myth-making of “The Get Down” is to be believed, then rap music was created by a bunch of young men in their teens and twenties, who had identified with comic book superheroes, and musicians. They knew what and who they respected, and set forth to take music in another direction, and were willing to put their egos on wax, and hoped with all they had that someone would see the validity of what they were doing.
Unless the viewer already knows the rap story well-enough, this is not light viewing. With the versatility of a traditional coming-of-age story, and the machismo inherent in early rap music, “The Get Down” drops a knowledge bomb on audiences who think they are merely watching a series about an ensemble of young men and their (sometimes troubled) lives, and the roles they played in the evolution of rap music. The revolution might be streamed.