Anachronistic music pieces have always been part of the glittery spectacle that comes with Baz Luhrmann’s films. It’s hard to think of Moulin Rouge! without picturing Nicole Kidman’s consumption-stricken cabaret star soaring high above her admirers singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” or wonder if West Egg parties would have gotten a hard pass if The Great Gatsby’s soundtrack hadn’t been executive produced by Jay Z.
But for Luhrmann’s new TV project, The Get Down, the beats appear to be as historically accurate as possible. The series, the first six of which arrived on Netflix this Friday, ostensibly tells the story of the birth of hip-hop (then called “the get down”) from the streets of a distraught 1970s Bronx through the eyes of wide-eyed teens trying to rise out of the rubble they see around them. Hip-hop godfather Grandmaster Flash not only consulted on the show, but he’s also a character (played by Mamoudou Athie, one of many relatively unknown and up-and-coming talents who appear in the series). Rapper Nas, who was born in Brooklyn a few years before The Get Down’s story takes place, composed original music that appeared in every episode of the series as well as a signature record on the album’s soundtrack.
By relying on these established musicians, Luhrmann is keeping with a larger trend in television: the influx of A-list recording artists becoming designers, tastemakers, and influencers of Peak TV programming. Timbaland is an executive producer of Empire, his first partnership with a TV series, and his connections and savvy skills certainly helped the Fox juggernaut’s first season’s soundtrack debut at the top of the Billboard charts. Questlove—quite fittingly, given the series’ name—oversaw the music for A+E Networks’ revival of Roots. Solange Knowles is the music consultant for Issa Rae’s upcoming Insecure, with Raphael Saadiq also writing a score for that HBO comedy.
The relationships each musician has with the series differ by the project. Nas started out as an executive producer on The Get Down, but he told Complex that “Baz always wanted me to do music, and as we sat down with it and started living with it, he knew what he wanted from me musically. I could see his mind working when I was talking to him, and he started coming up with things and then music ideas and more music ideas. I just took his lead on it.”
Flash was more poetic in his response, telling journalists at the show’s Television Critics Association press day in July that if “the question is if hip hop was a cake, then I cannot tell you how many people took a slice off that cake, being producers, fans, artists, and that alike. But I can tell you about the recipe the flour, the milk, the eggs, the vanilla, and the secret ingredients because I am one of the bakers, along with [musicians] Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa.” When Complex pressed for specific instances where his influence can be seen on screen, he said Luhrmann would bug him incessantly for tiny details to help with authenticity and supervising producer Nelson George said that he had “videotaped a conversation between Flash and Baz about time and about movement and about what happens inside a DJ’s earphones.”
All of these changes have made for some interesting times in both the music and TV industries. Gary Calamar, a DJ at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based KCRW who has served as music supervisor for shows like Six Feet Under, Wayward Pines and The Man in the High Castle says this exodus into TV makes sense, given “the sad state of the record industry these days.” He says “it is also a place where musicians can reach their audience and make some money; I understand A-listers have expensive tastes.”
Some of these collaborations have injected adrenaline into stories that jaded TV viewers might think are passe while also bringing attention to channels and quality series drowning from low name recognition. As an executive producer for WGN America’s Underground, John Legend and his company Get Lifted found unconventional ways to help tell the story of the early days of the underground railroad. In turn, the first season brought new perspective to songs like “Summertime” from the musical Porgy & Bess and The Weeknd’s “Wicked Games.” Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” plays in the first episode as Aldis Hodge’s lead character thunders through the woods.
“It lent so much urgency to the opening of the show...and it really sets the kind of tone that we want to set musically for the entire show, where it felt urgent, it felt current and timeless, and really powerful,” Legend told journalists last winter at the show’s Television Critics Association press day in Pasadena, Calf. “And we didn’t want it to feel too stuck in the period as far as the music went, because we feel like the story is really relevant and meaningful now, and so we didn’t want the music to make people feel like they were going to a museum. We wanted them to feel like it was something fresh.”
But this system is not foolproof—even for the biggest musicians in the world. Mick Jagger was an executive producer on Vinyl and he helped his son James write one song for its pilot. But he couldn’t save HBO’s story of music execs in the 1970s from quickly downing a Quaalude, tripping on its flared pants and flailing spectacularly last season.
“Over the last 15 years or so with the emergence of the great cable and online channels, the quality of television has gotten so high that it’s natural that everyone would want to get on the train,” says Calamar. “I think talented people are looking for projects that speak to them creatively and there are so many exciting things on television right now.” He stresses that, while marquee names might be great for marketing and buzz, there are going to be pitfalls if these stars are just looking to kick back and check off the first letter in “EGOT,” while those with less Instagram followers do the grunt work.
“As a music supervisor, it can be exciting to work with people like this," Calamar says. "But I would want to make sure they are in the trenches contributing and not just lending their name to the project.”
In other words, get to work before you get down.