Summer 2017

Boom Box Vibrations

Hip-Hop continues to reverberate with deep-dive sagas that blend fact and lore


No detail is left unattended by director Seith Mann on the set of The Breaks. (Photo: Elizabeth Fisher)

Crafting meaningful depictions of specific musical periods always requires a commitment to authenticity. But for hip-hop, where "keeping it real" has been a four-decade mandate, the onus on filmmakers to sweat the details, as well as the technique, is at a particular premium.

After years of sometimes questionable efforts, filmmakers on all size screens have been increasingly eager to apply the strictest degrees of verisimilitude in tackling hip-hop culture's various scenes and eras.

All Eyez on Me, about slain superstar Tupac Shakur, recently earned a stronger-than-expected $26.4 million out of the gate (it opened June 16, on what would have been the rapper's 46th birthday), and a biopic on the first major female MC, "Roxanne" Chante Adams is making its way to the big screen in the coming year. In the meantime, rigorous documentaries on Nas, Snoop Dogg and Warren G, and Sean Combs have recently breezed through the festival circuit.

Although Netflix's The Get Down, was not renewed for a second season, nitpicking attention to detail and wild stylistic abandon coexisted freely in Baz Luhrmann's two-part reimagining of hip-hop's birth in 1977 Bronx.

Meanwhile, the record industry-themed The Breaks, whose first season aired on VH1 with a second season on the way via BET, looks at another watershed moment for rap: the dawn of the 1990s, when hip-hop made its seismic leap from a curious, mostly New York-centric musical genre into a worldwide, culture-shaping force.

Like The Get Down, The Breaks is fiction, and producer-director Seith Mann notes that the show was willing to make occasional departures from the historical record when needed.

Creative License

"[Creator] Dan (Charnas) put it in terms that we really took to, which is that you can only make so many withdrawals from the bank of authenticity before your account is overdrawn," Mann says. "So you have to be judicious when you take departures."

In episode three, for example, The Breaks has central character Barry Fouray hold a series of MC auditions from his suite at the 1990 New Music Seminar, which occupies a place in hip-hop lore thanks to a brawl that occurred there between Ice Cube's posse and fellow West Coast rappers Above the Law. The problem: They discovered that no one actually held auditions at the New Music Seminar.

"So we went forward with the awareness that that wasn't something that happened," Mann says. "But we relied on the character's personality to do something that we believed could have really happened, even though we knew historically that it didn't. And that kind of give-and-take happens all the time. We want it to be 100% accurate. But we also want it to be engaging."

Ed Bianchi, center, brings "two turntables and a microphone" to life while filming The Get Down. (Photo: David Giesbrecht/Netflix)

Getting the Locations Right

Mann was insistent that The Breaks shoot in New York, where it's set. But dealing with the demands of the city meant being eternally prepared to improvise, and the crew's quick thinking was put to the test filming a climactic late-night outdoor gunfight for episode seven.

"A night exterior always presents challenges," Mann says, "but this one became substantially more difficult because when we were up there preparing to shoot it, the police pulled our permit for the squibs and [practical] effects. Suddenly had to shoot it without anything. So you just have to go forward. Thank god for all of the advances we've made in visual effects."

Adds Ed Bianchi, who directed more than half the episodes of The Get Down: "We'd go out and look for locations to shoot in New York, and I'd be the one saying 'that definitely looks like the '70s right there.' It was one of the things we were most concerned about, making sure we were in the right period all the time."

The Acting Equation

Working with a very young central cast, Bianchi took cues from his younger actors in trying to keep the show's rhythms and aesthetics as distinctive and non-clichéd as possible.

"We were trying to be as fresh with it as we could. At the end, there's some breakdancing scenes that I shot, and it's hard to do breakdancing different and make it fresh—I was directing commercials back [in the period], and when breakdancing hit, it was in every goddamn commercial around – but I thought we did some really good stuff there."

For All Eyez on Me, director Benny Boom surrounded himself with people who were intimately familiar with his subject, including L.T. Hutton, the film's producer, who was a music producer at Death Row Records and befriended Shakur when he joined the label, as well as Afeni Shakur Davis, Tupac's mother, who passed away before the film was completed. Even the father of the actor who played Tupac, Demetrius Shipp, Sr, was a producer at Death Row and produced the Tupac single "Toss It Up."

"We had people there that could tell us how Tupac performed," says Boom, "so we didn't miss a beat. We surrounded ourselves with everybody musically, with everybody from the family that we could have to make sure that the film was as authentic as possible."

Director Benny Boom works out a scene for All Eyez on Me with his lead actor Demetrius Shipp Jr., who plays the late rapper Tupac Shakur. (Photo: Quantrell Colbert)

Finding the Groove

Of course, any music-themed project will ultimately live or die on the quality of its tunes. The Get Down boasts '70s hip-hop legend Grandmaster Flash as a key associate producer; Rahiem, of Flash's Furious Five, consulted, as did pioneering MC Kurtis Blow.

For The Breaks—named, incidentally, after a Kurtis Blow song—VH1's relationships with labels helped grease the wheels for a wide range of licensed music, with an original score courtesy of Gang Starr founder and all-around super-producer DJ Premier.

"We had the incredible fortune of having Premier come on to be our executive music producer," Mann says. "Which is not to say that it wasn't a challenge for him, but for me directorially, it was just like, 'okay, Premier is gonna make these dope beats that sound exactly like the era, and I'm gonna nod my head and say 'thank you.'"

For All Eyez on Me, Boom used the masters from every album Shakur ever recorded, so it's Tupac's voice you hear in the film rather than Demetrius Shipp, Jr., who plays him.

"He does a few freestyles in the film," says Boom, "but they're more like poetry freestyles.

"Tupac, as big as he was and the legacy that he has, he never had a world tour or a national tour. So what you had in Straight Outta Compton, those guys when they made that first album, they went out on tour immediately and promoted that album. 'Pac never had that. He always had these small venues where he would perform, so we have a few of those types of performances in the film. The biggest performance we had was the [L.A.] House of Blues performance, which was July 4, 1996, and we recreated that in the film [in Atlanta], in our third act. It's like the biggest set piece of the movie."

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