The Breaks, a VH1 original movie premiering on Monday, Jan. 4, is a snapshot of the summer of 1990, as seen through the eyes of three friends trying to make it in the nascent hip-hop industry. Nikki (Afton Williamson) is desperate for a job with an artist management firm, David (David Call) is trying to keep rap on the air at the radio station where he works, and DeeVee (Mack Wilds) is a producer trying to find the MC who will help him launch his career.

When VH1 first approached veteran hip-hop journalist Dan Charnas about developing a project for the network in 2013, he didn’t have those characters in mind yet. His 2010 bestseller, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (New American Library/Penguin), was an expansive overview of rap music’s rise from Bronx block parties to a billion-dollar business. Dramatizing decades of history, with the names and stories of so many real individuals, would have been impossible in the space of a two-hour movie, but a fictionalized story about a pivotal moment in hip-hop’s growth came with its own risks.  

“You have to create a fictional universe that people will believe, and you also have to create fictional artists, and then fictional music,” says Charnas. “I loved shows like The Wire that were able to use fiction to tell the truth. I started to think, ‘It’s the music that’s gonna be the hard part.’” Executive producer Maggie Malina brought in Seith Mann, who had directed episodes of The Wire as well as other revered TV dramas like Homeland and Friday Night Lights, to help create the story and direct the film.