After the first six episodes aired last fall, Baz Luhrmann's series The Get Down is returning for a second slate of episodes on April 7 (entitled The Get Down Part II). Set in the gritty Bronx in the late 1970s, the show follows promising young MC Books and his circle of friends during disco's heyday and hip-hop's birth.
Given hip-hop's looming present-day influence on pop culture, focusing on such a critical point in music history presented a unique challenge for Elliott Wheeler, The Get Down's composer and music producer. Wheeler had previously worked with the show's executive producer, Baz Luhrmann, on The Great Gatsby, but on The Get Down, the Australian not only works on composing music but he has been directly collaborating with luminary figures such as Nas and hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash to provide authentic musical moments to the show.
"We had the ultimate freedom of being able to do 100-piece symphonic scoring sessions or more of the '70s action kung fu-style scores that we had in there as well, or hip-hop or going to the masters of [disco songs] themselves," says Wheeler, speaking with CBC Music over the phone from New York. "The realms of the possibilities were just limitless, really. It was an amazing project in that regard."
The show focuses on Books (Justice Smith) and the people in his immediate circle, including disco singer — and girlfriend — Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) and his streetwise DJ/graffiti writer/hustler friend Shaolin, with whom Books creates a nascent hip-hop group called the Get Down Brothers, giving Wheeler much to work with and convey.
"We had to try and musically develop how both Mylene and the Get Down Brothers would have been changing, and that was very exciting," explains Wheeler.
"The first half [of Season 1] is very much about our characters about to enter adulthood and discovering this music getting their first breaks and putting together the band in terms of the Get Down Brothers, and the second half is much more emotionally mature, or at least it’s starting to examine those decisions and the effect that music has on their young adult lives and so it does get darker, which you see in the production of the music."
"Mylene’s music goes from being the very celebratory [mood] you had in the first half and it takes on, without giving away too much, an entirely different trajectory in the second half [of the season] and we had to make the music follow that trajectory," says Wheeler.
"And same with the boys. In the first half you only really see the Get Down Brothers perform together once and when we come back into the second half we come in a year later, so obviously their style had developed. They had to be more cohesive as a group and they had to be doing new things and that was something that was very exciting and challenging for us. Working particularly with Flash and Raheem [of the Furious Five] we were working out what that trajectory would have been in 1977 as a young group working out their rhymes, working out their flow trying to discover new sources of music, which is something that Flash talks about all the time."
With music so integral to both the narrative and atmosphere of The Get Down, we asked Wheeler for an old-school playlist of songs tied directly to his work on the series.
Fela Kuti, 'Shakara'
"This is one we played a lot with Flash. Just an amazing track and one of the hidden gems in his sets as well. It’s one that we’ve mined. Good to get in there. Well, without giving too much away it’s a song that might appear somewhere in the second half. I’m not going to say where but it was just one of those great ones we came across and it just ended up being a useful tool for collaborating for a number of artists and it’s got such an incredible beat and incredible sound and it allowed us to go into a new space musically at a particular point in the storyline when we needed to."
The Commodores, 'Assembly Line'
"Maybe not an obvious choice but it is one used to explain when Flash is explaining to Shaolin how the get down works. Flash talks about the ‘impending wackness’ when the chorus comes back in which is true, it’s not the break, but I happen to just love the track, I’m like 'Oh, that’s fairly harsh.' I think the whole track’s awesome. But we do use a particular bit that was such an incredibly technical musical journey to go on, to be able to explain to the audience and to the characters exactly what it was Flash was doing and to also give the audience a sense of how incredible it was coming up with being able to extend the beat for the first time. What a massive creative leap that was, and that was a song we ended up using as a vessel to explain that so it’s a very important piece for us in that way."
MFSB, 'Love is the Message'
"One of the big areas in the show that we actually investigated in and explored particularly with Dizzy’s character (Jaden Smith) is a whole lot of voguing in New York at that time, and MFSB was an absolute anthem obviously."
Jimmy Castor Bunch, 'It’s Just Begun'
"Just because you sort of have to. When we’re working with Flash it was just one of those tracks that he said was just when it came on at those parties. It would just bomb the place. It was one of those tracks that we did end up using in the mix, but it was just one of those pieces of music that became almost like an anthem for us, even if it didn’t end up getting used that much. It was sort of constantly floating around, constantly getting played, constantly fitting into different bits and yeah, it was one of the ones that kept sticking for us and became very much part of our landscape even if it may not seem [like it is in the show that much]. It became part of the musical family."
Nas, 'It Ain’t Hard to Tell'
"Bringing in his voice when he came on board, it added such a different flavour to the show and his particular voice was something that became very present in our minds. We were listening it to a lot working with him a lot."
Herbie Hancock, Death Wish soundtrack
"There’s a whole other side of the scoring that I was trying to get into the sound of the show, which was representing the action films of the time. That particular soundtrack of all of those films, but the amount of influence that the kung fu films had obviously in hip-hop and for our young characters. That was so much a part of their world and I very much wanted to bring it into the sound of the show and was something Baz really, really embraced."
Follow Del Cowie on Twitter: @vibesandstuff
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