Hip-Hop Pioneers Joe Conzo & DJ Disco Wiz on “The Get Down”
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Best known for a series of posh, over-the-top cinematic extravaganzas including Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet, and The Great Gatsby, Australian film director, screenwriter, and producer Baz Luhrmann has turned his attention to the small screen with The Get Down, a twelve-episode Netflix series, which premiered on August 12, 2016. Originally budgeted at $7.5 million per episode, the show ended up costing at least $120 million, making it among the most expensive series in television history.
Set between 1977–79, The Get Down is a fictional account of life on the streets of the South Bronx as the twin stars of Hip Hop and disco crossed paths in ways no one could have ever imagined. Attracted to this pivotal moment in American culture, Luhrmann found himself an outsider with no firsthand knowledge of the scene so he brought Nas, Grandmaster Flash, Nelson George, and Kurtis Blow, among others, into the fold to produce and consult on the project.
The production was troubled with a series of starts, stops, and stalls that lead to scripts being written, discarded, and revised to such an extent that, according to Variety, some writers had taken to calling the show “The Shut Down.” Variety went on to describe The Get Down as a cautionary tale for Hollywood, but Netflix indicated they had no regrets.
The Get Down tells the story of a group of teenagers coming of age at a time when Do It Yourself was the ethos of life. It is an irony not lost on viewers who are inundated with a whirlwind of cinematic tricks and tropes that can easily be purchased at $10M a pop. Using a mélange of authentic film footage throughout the show, The Get Down weaves in between fact and fiction with little concern.
As a result, there has been a strong, divisive response to the show with each camp firmly established in their position. To address the division, Crave spoke with Hip-Hop pioneers photographer Joe Conzo and DJ Disco Wiz, both natives of the Bronx who were active during the 1970s.
Conzo, co-author of Born in the Bronx: A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop (Rizzoli), was invited to participate on The Get Down, as his photographs became a primary source for costume, set, and production designer Catherine Martin. Conzo was also invited to photograph on the set, producing images that fit beautifully into his larger body of work.
His contemporaries have been quick to call out the factual inaccuracies of the show. Of the conflicts, Conzo observes, “Hip Hop culture is very political. When I did Born in the Bronx, I couldn’t do it unless I included the majority of the people, and I made sure everyone got checks. But I could do that because I have a 9-to-5. But not all the pioneers can do this; many depend on these gigs—but not everyone was invited to be a consultant. Money makes the world go ‘round. That’s the bottom line. I have to look at it as: they’re not obligated to get it right.” Referring to a scene in the show, Conzo observes, “A graff writer can’t slide down rocks and tag at the same time—that’s a fantasy. They have to make it entertaining or its not going to go anywhere.”
At the same time, Conzo observes how the show was filmed in the Bronx and featured a ton of local talent. He reveals, “The majority of b-boys and b-girls were real b-boys and b-girls. I have to give credit where credit is due. They didn’t have to use any of us. They could have done it based on what they read. They could have filmed in on a Los Angeles sound stage but instead these b-boys and b-girls got some of the biggest checks of their lives.”
But what about the people who were not brought into the production in any form, the people whose lives were cribbed as fodder for the show? DJ Disco Wiz, author of It’s Just Begun: The Epic Journey of DJ Disco Wiz, Hip-Hop’s First Latino DJ (Miss Rosen Editions/powerHouse Books) does not mince words: “From the initial trailer, I was anticipating it would be what it turned out to be: an extremely corny, wack, delusional portrayal of what the Bronx was at that time. It was a fictional series with historical facts sprinkled in. My intellectual property was hijacked.”
In 1975, Wiz teamed up with the legendary Grandmaster Caz to form the Mighty Force Crew, representing the East Bronx. Together, they waged some of the biggest DJ battles of Hip Hop’s formative years. They also made the fist “mixed plate” in 1977, which brought Hip Hop to wax two years before the Sugarhill Gang would steal Caz’s lyrics and release “Rapper’s Delight.”
Theft of intellectual property is hardly new, but it burns all the same. Wiz observes, “There were numerous times they took my likeness, as well as Grandmaster Caz’s.” Wiz notes the blackout scene where they broke into a sound room and stole a mixer as well as DJ battles scenes were part of his story.
On Twitter, Wiz asked Nelson George, “So.. why did you hijack mine and Caz’s battle story?” to which George responded, “Narrative of 1 crew being blown out by rival crew is not new.”
Perhaps it is not new now, but it was new then. Wiz observes that old grudges die hard, including those that have been festering since the 1970s. Of the scenes that bear witness to his story, Wiz observes, “We never gave consent to this. If you wanted to use part of my story, come talk to me. It’s my decision to have. To not give me the benefit of the doubt is one of the biggest slaps in the face.”
This is one of the challenges of creating works of historical fiction while the people who created the culture are still alive to contribute to—or fact check—the story. Indeed, The Get Down may very well be a cautionary tale for Hip Hop. We live at a time when pop stars like Drake can openly admit to hiring ghostwriters to craft his lyrics and no one seems to care. With the advent of commercialism, the needle has skipped. To read the reviews of The Get Down, for better or for worse, is evidence of the importance of the Bronx and what it represents: the D.I.Y. ethos that made a homegrown movement into a global phenomenon.
For those who feel the vibes, trust that what you see is not what you get when C.R.E.A.M. comes into the picture. Let The Get Down be the tip of the iceberg that takes us to the Truth. As Conzo wisely observes, “Everyone is going to tell you their history as they remembered it and see it. People aren’t going to include other people in it. It will be their version of his-story.” It’s an important reminder for creators and consumers alike.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.