May 31, 2017 01:05PM
By Brent Crampton
In the Netflix production, a couple of kids work their way through the economically famished world of New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Set amongst the cultural landscape that later was identified as the roots of hip-hop, the show is a brilliant representation of historical fiction. But unless you have a deep understanding of what was going on in that time period, you may have only picked up on half of the storyline. The stones that were dropped in America’s cultural pond during this era are still rippling all around us today. So let’s dive deeper into a few things.
In episode 3 of The Get Down, there was the citywide blackout. That actually happened. It was in the steamy summer of 1977 during the time of serial killer Son of Sam, when Times Square was filled with prostitutes and drug dealers—when the city was in the midst of bankruptcy and at any time, dozens of buildings were burning in the Bronx.
In the midst of this calamity, one night a flash of lighting caused all of NYC to erupt into darkness. Citizens switched on their reptilian brains and proceeded to vandalize and plunder. Interestingly enough, this is the very situation hip-hop needed.
Why? Before the blackout, only a handful of hip-hop DJs—such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Jazzy Jay—resided in the Bronx. Mixers, turntables, and sound systems were cost-prohibitive. After the blackout, hundreds of new DJs and battle crews popped up across all five boroughs.
This unforeseen tipping point allowed hip-hop to spread throughout the city, and later to become a worldwide phenomenon.
Here’s another cue: In one episode, Jaden Smith’s character “Dizzee” discovered an underground disco club that was brimming with drag queens and Quaaludes.
TV critic Lisa Liebman speculated this scene was portraying David Mancuso’s The Loft and/or Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage.
Heard of these real-life nightclubs? Probably not. That’s because when we think of disco, we often think of Studio 54.
But the only reason why Studio 54 is relevant is because all the rich, famous, and mostly straight white folks went there. It’s the Paris Hilton of legendary nightclubs—famous for being famous. The “real” happened at spots like Nicky Siano’s Gallery, as well as the aforementioned Paradise Garage and Loft.
From alterations, to sound systems, to the founding of the first record pool, to turning unknown records into mega hits in a time when DJs determined what was played on the radio (as opposed to vice versa today), the legacy of these venues created the blueprint for modern nightclubs.
Heavily frequented by the gay, black, and Latino populations, these spots were pioneers of inclusivity. This was a time when being gay meant you often had to project a false image to your family, co-workers, and community.
Could you imagine what it would feel like to hide your identity on a daily basis? Imagine what it would feel like to be an LGBTQ person walking into a club for the first time, seeing like-minded people dancing with wild abandon, and then suddenly realizing you weren’t alone, and you could, perhaps, for the first time in your life, freely express yourself.
For more than a decade, my studies of this time period have been a big source of inspiration for the work I’ve done as a DJ, promoter, and club owner. While this era was set amongst dire economic poverty, it was incredibly rich with cultural breakthroughs—disco, hip hop, emceeing, breakdancing, graffiti, street art, Basquiat, Keith Haring, CBGB, post-punk, and the post-Stonewall sexual liberation movement.
Depending on who you ask, NYC was either a complete shit hole, or it was a totally unique creative and cultural utopia yet to be matched.
When taking that dichotomy into consideration, a larger lesson comes into focus about the role of the human condition. Simply put, struggle breeds the need to find an outlet. When society presents us with a problem, we often turn to culture for the solution. Creativity becomes a form of adaptation and escapism from the bleakness. This process is a beautiful call-and-response that pushes us beyond mediocrity, urging us to collectively create lasting legacies.
So now that we’ve re-contextualized a few things, I suggest you go even deeper and get on YouTube to watch VH1’s documentary NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell. Not only will it flip your perspective on life, but also give new dimension and relevance to The Get Down.
To share your life perspectives—or whatever—with Brent Crampton and Encounter, email [email protected]
This column was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.