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Hip-Hop Origin Story: Prof. Joseph Ewoodzie Jr. on 'The Get Down'

Joseph Ewoodzie
Prof. Joseph Ewoodzie Jr.

Netflix will release the second half of the first season of The Get Down April 7. The sprawling television drama set against the backdrop of the late-70s Bronx as hip-hop takes shape has been called "a beautiful mess, a flawed show interspersed with moments of remarkable brilliance" by Variety critic Sonia Saraiya.

Joseph Ewoodzie Jr., assistant professor of sociology at Davidson College, is an expert on the sociology of the formative years of hip-hop. In addition to teaching the course "Hip-Hop and Urban Sociology," his first book, Break Beats in the Bronx: Rediscovering Hip-Hop's Early Years will be published by The University of North Carolina Press in September.

Check out the following Q&A with Ewoodzie on The Get Down.

What does the show get right about the early days of hip-hop in the Bronx?
What I love about The Get Down is how accurately the show portrays the energy of the youth that drove the creation of hip-hop.

It's easy to forget just how young the real founders of hip-hop were. Some of the actors on The Get Down look like babies but in truth, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc–they were all between 13 and 18 when this started in the mid-1970s.

Not only were they young; they were all very different from one another. These kids came together solely because of this music. Like the characters "Zeke" and "Shaolin Fantastic," the earliest DJs and rappers came from different backgrounds–graffiti artists, gangsters, straight-A students–and would probably never have crossed paths without the music.

Why do you think hip-hop blossomed in the Bronx instead of somewhere else?
Hip-hop filled a musical and social vacuum in the South Bronx.

In the mid- to late-1970s, disco was the dominant musical genre. It was everywhere. But disco was for older folks, people with money who could afford to go to the clubs in Manhattan. It wasn't aimed at kids. So, kids either listened to disco or their parents' music. They didn't have music they could call their own. Hip-hop filled that void.

Hip-hop also created a way for people to become "cool" that was missing after the presence and influence of gangs waned in the late 1960s. DJs created events and were the centers of attention. If you had big speakers and could DJ a party, you were looked up to–you were cool.

But there were DJs in other parts of New York too, right? How were they different?
DJs in the other boroughs in New York were much more professional and, crucially, were more interested in playing whole songs. Grandmaster Flash and the DJs in the South Bronx were different. Instead of playing the entire song, they focused on "breaks"–the song segments primarily featuring drums. They actually weren't at all interested in anything but the rhythm parts of records.

What do you hope the series explores in the new episodes?
Hip-hop changed so quickly. What it looked like in 1977 was totally different than what it looked like in the early 1980s. For instance, in this show, the DJ–the one spinning records–was the main attraction. However, the MC–the rapper–quickly became the star of the show. That caused a lot of friction–I'll be curious to see if the show addresses that.

I'm also looking forward to seeing hip-hop leave the Bronx and hit the airwaves. The songs became shorter to adapt to pop radio and money flooded the scene. That was when the rules of hip-hop stopped being determined by the artists. Instead, labels and big money called the shots. Hip-hop hit it big, but it lost its independence.

Follow Ewoodzie on twitter: @Piko_e


Jay Pfeifer
japfeifer@davidson.edu
704-894-2920