Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The new six-part series is a testament to both the social limitations and successes of hip hop.
There are not many professions represented in the 1977 South Bronx depicted in the new Netflix series The Get Down. It’s chock full of musicians, producers, politicians, salesmen, drug dealers, pimps, preachers—and even a teacher. But there are no police. The six-episode hip hop origin story makes it clear that there were plenty of quality-of-life problems in the Bronx—crimes against property and humans alike. As myth (or reality) has it, the police simply avoided the South Bronx, where crime rates reached ungodly highs in the early 1970s.
Which is why the timing for The Get Down is so on point. Today, there is a healthy dose of ambivalence among black communities about the role of police. Given the recent rash of publicized killings of African Americans by police, some have been calling for the defunding of police departments—if not their elimination altogether. Meanwhile, as parts of Milwaukee recently went up in riot flames over the police killing of an African American, a young man who identified himself as the brother of the victim, gave a compelling explanation for the unrest:
“Us, as a community, we not gonna protect ourselves. But if we don’t have anyone to protect us, then this is what you get,” said the young man, pointing to the fires in the background.
The scene in Milwaukee this past week is a similar one to the 1970s Bronx, where properties regularly went ablaze—seven precincts lost some 97 percent of their buildings to fires that decade. By some accounts, this was the work of arsonists and property owners looking for insurance payouts. Others say they were the result of a decrepit building stock with faulty electric wiring. They were also the logical outcome of the budget cuts that a near-bankrupt New York City made through “planned shrinkage,” which shut down dozens of fire departments across the city.
In either case, the mostly poor black and Latino residents of the South Bronx were left unprotected in more ways than one. Anyone wondering what a community without law enforcement looks like—well, the 1970s South Bronx came pretty close to that. But it was from that chaos that hip hop was born. The proudest point of The Get Down is that this Bronx youth-culture creation was evidence of life in an area that was flirting so aggressively with death. It shows how hip hop filled the void left behind by the absentee cops, firemen, and landlords.
But how, exactly, did hip hop save all these young lives—and the South Bronx—without the aid and protection of the government and police? As The Get Down shows, it was complicated: Steve Hager’s September 1982 Village Voice article “Afrika Bambaataa’s Hip-Hop” is instructional here for understanding what the South Bronx was before hip hop caped in.
Bambaataa was as instrumental in developing the culture as Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc. Those two early Bronx DJs, hip hop’s founding patriarchs, are characters in The Get Down (and both are consultants and producers of the show). Bambaataa is mentioned in the tale, but he’s not assigned a character. This might be because Bambaataa was accused recently of child molestation—charges that he disputes, but which forced his removal as leader of the Zulu Nation, an organization that is central to hip hop’s origins.
The Zulu Nation is the main entity responsible for turning the 1970s South Bronx from a gang-saturated warzone—labelled by some as “Lil’ Vietnam,” much like Chicago has been tagged today as “Chiraq”—into a confederation of B-Boys, DJs and dancers. As Hager’s Village Voice article explains, 1973 was “peak gang”—with some 315 gangs claiming an estimated 19,500 members across New York City. For the Bronx, there were two major factors that led to the rise of these gangs in the early 1970s:
- The desire to eliminate the South Bronx heroin dealers who were causing community destruction.
- A 1971 school-desegregation case that forced black and Latino students from the deteriorating schools of the South Bronx and into the schools of the predominantly white North Bronx, where white gangs like the Ministers were waiting with unwelcoming arms.
The South Bronx gangs were formed initially as a way to protect black communities from the scourge of drugs and white gangs (and police). But they later began feasting upon each other, the most vicious gang among them being The Black Spades. One of the Spades’ chief warlords was a young Afrika Bambaataa, who made it his mission to carry through a gang truce forged in 1971. It was resolved under that agreement that the youth would battle via turntables, mics, and B-Boy dancing rather than through violence. The Black Spades hence transformed into the Zulu Nation.
Which bring us to the South Bronx of 1977 in The Get Down, where New York City is under the control of a fiscal emergency management board. One of the opening scenes takes place in a church, the camera fixed on a cassette recorder. Churches were the few places at that point where kids could get their hands on music-recording equipment and instruments, given that the schools were stripped of their music and arts classes in the name of austerity.
The story revolves around a group of South Bronx kids led by a book-smart/street-smart kid named Ezekial Figuero, or “Zeke.” His chance encounter with ghetto superstar Shaolin Fantastic brings the kids into the world of Grandmaster Flash, the real-life DJ who is molding this post-gang environment into the official culture of hip hop.
For that to happen, though, Zeke’s crew has to navigate a South Bronx landscape that is depicted as pure ruin, both through Baz Luhrmann’s Mad Max-like set designs and splices of documentary footage from that era. Through either lens, the Bronx looks like a huge, hyper-pixelated chunk of “Minecraft”-esque brutalism. Trash sits uncollected in the streets. Kids squat in cavernous buildings, and running tap water is a miracle.
Despite all of this, Zeke’s clique is able to make sense and a life out of a place that care clearly forgot. Kids hack fire hydrants for thrills. The vacants across the Bronx are basically DJ parties just waiting to happen. Connectivity is all the rage, with kids scurrying around looking for sockets and power sources for their turntables, speakers, lights, mics—anything to move crowds and bring the otherwise worn-out youth together. People get excited when trains float by—not because they will give them a ride, since they don’t really have anywhere to go—but because they display the names and the newest burners from the most-heralded graffiti artists.
In one scene, a train passes by with a burner bearing the message: “WHERE THERE IS RUIN THERE IS HOPE FOR A TREASURE.”
It’s a vivid depiction of what what hip hop journalist Raquel Cepeda explained in her book And It Don’t Stop, an indispensable reference guide for The Get Down:
From the outset it was clear that this hip-hop was no fad. It was instead the rumblings of a movement—strong enough and necessary enough to evade all our beloved djalis, but also President Reagan’s failed Reagan Revolution, which, while intending to bring to the inner cities “the great confident roar of American progress and growth and optimism,” in fact did little to give our crack-infested urban centers the necessary face-lift. Hip-hop would survive these early attacks and grow like an errant vine to overtake America’s sound garden and at once become the needed didactic response, if you will, to the schisms plaguing the direct descendants of the Civil Rights generation.
It was a needed response, but, as The Get Down shows, hip hop has its limits in terms of producing true self-policing or self-governing solutions. It can help curb violence by channeling aggression into more creative and imaginative means. It can even create jobs that way. But it can’t, by itself, develop affordable housing (though “Hip Hop architect” Michael Ford is looking to prove otherwise). It can make trains prettier to look at, but it can’t make them stop on time or assure they will carry people to where they need to be transported safely.
These are critical elements of urbanism that hip hop unfortunately can’t solve on its own. For those tasks, it becomes necessary to deal with those lettered professionals in city hall and the state general assembly. The Get Down understands this, as one of its main subplots involves the plans of Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz, a Bronx council member who wants to, among other things, restore the borough’s crumbled infrastructure. He strategizes throughout the series with developers, urban planners, mayoral candidate Ed Koch, and the city’s fiscal emergency board, which held all the budgeting power at the time.
The problem is that these suits have a different vision for the Bronx than the kids who are keeping it alive. Zeke is caught in the middle, having been offered a job interning for the fiscal control board, and campaigning for Koch—whose platform included criminalizing graffiti (both in the show and in real life). In one pivotal scene, Mr. Gunns, the city’s fiscal control board manager, sits Zeke down in his fancy study and explains the “tough decisions” he made to obtain power and wealth. Zeke assumes that Mr. Gunns “worked hard” to get his spoils, to which the fiscal control manager just laughs.
“This morning, I voted to increase the cost of the subway token, and then I endorsed a plan to close a hospital, right near you,” says Mr. Gunns, pointing at Zeke. “I blocked the teacher’s union from getting a raise. And that was just before lunch. You see leaders make sacrifices, and we are vigilant about the company we keep. If someone holds us back, we leave them behind.”
This is the underlying problem that often plagues gentrification and every ill policy lording over black and brown communities: It’s those who are in control of the resources who get to decide what the lay of the land is. They determine what buildings are pieced back together, what institutions are rescued, who gets housing, and what’s considered affordable—and too often without input from the people who will have to live with those decisions.
And then there’s the policing issue. Hip hop helped drive out gang violence, but that’s not to say that everyone was safe in the Bronx afterward. Women were still at risk: Rape rates were at their peak during this decade. Bronx District Attorney Burton Roberts said in 1971 that the law "affords less protection to women and children than it does to personal property." It’s not clear from the show or from real life that hip hop made things much better for women on the protection front. Nor for children, in terms of sexual abuse, as the current allegations around Bambaataa suggest.
That’s not to say that The Get Down is a let down. It is a wonderful achievement that Luhrmann and lead writer Nelson George were able to create such a dazzling spectacle, despite all of the ugliness of the milieu. This is both the testament and paradox of hip hop: When there’s no one around to protect the people, this is what you get.
All six expisodes of The Get Down are streaming now on Netflix.