The first thing you need to recognize about The Get Down, Netflix's show about the South Bronx and the birth of hip-hop in the late '70s, is its creator: Baz Luhrmann. That'd be the guy who turned Romeo & Juliet into a technicolor tragifest, the guy who turned the The Great Gatsby into a coke dream. If you know Baz, you should be able to guess that his approach to The Get Down's subject matter won't exactly be straightforward. That means a show that unabashedly combines genres—disco, hip-hop, documentary-style filmmaking, theater, kung fu—and takes a stunning amount of risks.
Some of those risks apply to the casting. Case and point: Baz selected Shameik Moore (Dope) to play Shaolin Fantastic, a graffiti artist turned DJ of almost mythic quality who guides the main character, Ezekiel, into the world of b-boys and Grandmaster Flash. And then he cast Jaden Smith—not to lead the show, but to play a secondary character, a graffiti-spraying, philosophically inclined teen named Dizzee. One might worry that Smith's star power and public persona might cause the show to fold in on itself, but the opposite happens: the risks pay off. Moore is charismatic beyond belief, and Smith is pleasantly soft-spoken, picking his spots and ceding the spotlight when necessary.
If you want to know how to characterize The Get Down, just look at Shameik Moore and Jaden Smith—two unexpected choices who make so much sense when you see the final result. We visited the set of The Get Down and caught up with Moore and Smith to talk Baz Luhrmann, hip-hop history, and how the show can speak to 2016.
Alright so, you hear Baz Luhrmann is making a show about the birth of hip-hop, what's your first reaction?
Jaden Smith: The first reaction is like, "The birth of hip-hop? What is that? When and where is that? Where did hip-hop start? Why did it start?" The answers to that are: it started in the South Bronx—well, different places in the Bronx at different times. It was happening in the 1970s. Particularly our story The Get Down, 1977 is where we start off. It's pretty much all following these kids, fictional kids in the Bronx and it's telling their story and giving all types of historical facts. It's also painting the picture of the Bronx crumbling down—the landlords are burning down apartment buildings just to get the insurance. It's just painting the dystopia of the broken, crumbling down Bronx, on fire at all times. But so much art and creativity still sprouted out of all of that.
So did you guys hit the books right after you got your parts?
Shameik Moore: Yes, immediately. We worked with Lady Pink [one of the first women graffiti artists], [watched] documentaries.
Any in particular?
Smith: Mainly Wildstyle. That was the one for me.
Moore: What he said, Wildstyle. There were other ones—I know The Freshest Kids was one of them. There were a lot of documentaries on YouTube. Just hearing how people talked, it was educational in itself. But also, we had the iconic figures of hip-hop of that time involved, like Grandmaster Flash, Rahiem [of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5], Nas, and so many other people.
Knowing those guys were involved, did it make you feel like, "Okay, this show is going to be alright."
Moore: They lived in that moment of time. This is what happened. There are so many scenes based on a story about what actually happened. Rahiem would tell us a story and then we would read it in the script. The Get Down is like a mythic take on reality.
It does have a magical realism feeling to it. How do you see this show—about the Bronx at a time when the borough was being ignored or exploited—speaking to the world we live in right now?
Smith: I mean, Grandmaster was literally just speaking to me and Shameik right before we walked in here. He was saying how it's really important for kids now to know what was happening, where it was happening, and why. That the Bronx is the mecca of hip-hop. The stories of everyone there and how they got out and made a name for themselves. Now hip-hop is this huge pop culture dominating force—like, J. Cole, Biggie, and Jay Z are on Sprite cans and stuff. It's dominating popular culture in every single way. It's changed the swag of everyone in the world. Even for people wearing Adidas and Pumas. For them to really know where that comes from and for them to go back, like, these are the people who were trendsetting these ideas back in the day.
Aside from being educational, do you see the show having something to say about social activism? A lot of these artists from the Bronx used this music to say, "This is fucking nonsense." Can that translate to 2016?
Smith: A hundred percent.
Moore: For sure, there are kids right now who are going through what Shaolin is going through, who are going through what Ezekiel is going through. Not much has changed in hip-hop in the process of the come-up and I feel like rappers feel like they have to sell drugs to get the funds to rhyme and get their music out. They have to, and Shaolin is going through that because he has to. That's the world he's coming from and it's a struggle. People will relate to the whole process. You can take the knowledge of the past, apply it, acknowledge it, and change the future. Create the future. We hear about Grandmaster Flash, but until you really learn about him you can't acknowledge him.
Smith: And the magic realism that Baz presents throughout the show, it's perfect. When Shaolin has his first conversation with Grandmaster Flash, it's the most surreal conversation. It feels like a conversation with Zeus.
Do you think that's the best way to tell this story? As opposed to trying to do some kind of gritty, straight-on retelling?
Smith: Yeah, that is the best way. At the end of the day that's how it's remembered, in a magical realism way. It was amazing and also terrible—it gives you a real juxtaposition. Instead of picking up a gun, they pick up a spray can, a mic, a record, they plug in their turntables. That is when we're at our peaks of magical realism and when we're not there we drop below.
Do you feel that the best creativity comes out of struggle like that?
Smith: A lot of innovative ideas come from struggle.
Moore: That was a good answer. [Laughs.] I have a hard time believing that I have to go through struggle to be creative, but it is true that when you're struggling, a lot of good ideas come out.
Smith: You have to think of ways to do something very difficult, or [overcome] people telling you it's impossible.