Latino Hip Hop Pioneers Give ‘The Get Down’ Mixed Reviews

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

With hip hop being in existence for more than 40 years, it is important for its pioneers — who serve as the unofficial guardians of the culture — to make sure people get the story straight. For Latinos who have played a vital role in its formation, it means having to correct the myth that hip hop is just a Black thing. For Latino hip hop pioneers watching the new Netflix series The Get Down, they feel their contributions are understated.

“Latinos have always been involved in hip hop. It’s not like when hip hop was happening, we were just playing handball in the court and eating rice and beans,” Gabriel “Kwipstep” Dionisio — pioneering Boricua b-boy, executive director and producer of Full Circle Productions — said sarcastically.

Dionisio, who worked as a dancer in episode three of The Get Down, along with his wife, pioneering Boricua b-girl Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, says The Get Down is off to a good start despite its poor start of addressing Latinos in hip hop. “There is a b-boy and b-girl in respect to the original movement [in the TV series] but I haven’t seen any from the era.”

While Dionisio says the show has many hip hop enthusiasts looking back in time and reminiscing, some details are off like “Kangol and Gazelles were not rocked in 1977, more like ’81, ’82 and ’83. It’s fact and fiction at the same time. This causes some confusion as to what was happening.”

According to Dionisio, the series has the potential to be deep.“They already made the effort to show love between African Americans and Latinos. They should introduce a [main male] character that is actually [Latino playing] a Latino role [in hip hop]. They need to expand on the characters — [he’s] black and Puerto Rican and what does it really mean… the pivotal and critical roles it played…”

B-Girl Rokafella was hired through word of mouth to participate in The Get Down although her husband Kwikstep did indeed submit a few video clips of her dancing. Kwikstep was called first and then immediately afterwards she was. “It was a great experience. I shot one dance scene in a beauty parlor. I actually performed some very simple moves since in ’77 there wasn’t the extensive vocabulary that breaking went on to amass as the decades have ensued.”

Rokafella felt lucky to be included in the scene due to the fact that there were so many guys breaking in that scene. “I give them (the editor and director) credit for including me in that very pivotal scene where the main character is remarking how we were not doing the paired hustle dancing and the music had no sung vocals.”

According to Rokafella, she found it odd ,however, that some of the still active breakers were not present. “Also surprising was that they were not employed for background consultants or any other type of story, research, script advising type of roles. This aspect turned me off significantly since it just felt like more culture vulturism of the past. I was not excited when posters were appearing in the trains and billboards about it since I just knew it wasn’t going to be a bright light shining on our visionary and trail-blazing architects.”

Rokafella, like so many other Latino pioneers, has mixed feelings about the show. “I am excited that something like this is taking place at the time of the emergence of hip hop as an artistic movement in the Bronx. I love that there is a comic book quality to it. This has not happened in the past at all. I am realizing that dance has no relevance to the entire story other than to say that the DJs had to play well for the B-boys at the party. None of the main or supporting characters are dancers so it feels completely irresponsible and inaccurate.”

Cast of ‘The Get Down’
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What the show gets right, she says, “The anxiety of poverty and negligence in our community at that time. It accurately depicts the city politicians scrambling for votes. It does get the desire of young people to make right and get out of their present circumstances.”

“Even if it’s fictional, the show is talking about lives of people that are part of something extremely important to them.”

What does the show get wrong? “Every time the main female character [Mylene] has to say anything [in] Spanish, since she has no real dominion of the pronunciation. Certain Puerto Ricanisms are way off… we never say lo siento when we mean sorry — like when Mylene curses in her uncle’s presence… we might say perdón… or bite our tongues mid-word… I haven’t seen the lead actress do the “doobie doobie” — hair wrap — by the Puerto Rican girls at night to keep the waves from forming.”

Rokafella believes future seasons should further address the Latino experience. “It needs to introduce new characters and bring in more of the surrounding events that are happening since there are still uprisings and things like the bank truck robbery by a Puerto Rican Nationalist-Machetero in the plannings… or things happening in Puerto Rico that affect the Latinos in the series… (my parents still purchased El Vocero/El Diario and watched Spanish news when the reception was good in our home) so current events were in our jokes and in our conversations. I hope more about the dance comes to light, like the up rocking or the truce that happened between the gangs led by Latinos. I hope more Latino hip hop history gets light — like having a character playing Crash have more of a significant role. If not, then I just hope all this leads to a spin off and there can be more consultation on the plot, script, and accuracy of the depiction of the community by elders and today’s generation together.”

Boricua DJ Charlie Chase (born Carlos Mandes), one of the founders of The Cold Crush Brothers, called the show: “Entertaining, cliche, corny, and not accurate at times especially at some scene locations.” Chase, who currently lives in Tampa, Florida, saw the first two episodes and thought it was entertaining from a Hollywood standpoint. “There were parts that were not accurate in terms of the wares, sometimes corny and had Flash as some mystical sensei. Nothing against Flash, that’s my man. The way they portraying it is corny. [As for Latinos], there’s a lot of influence but the focus is more on a story of Latinos and private lives. The only focus is the girl as a singer. Books, is overnight, a celebrated MC.”

Justice Smith
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According to Chase, he understands why fiction can be better than fact. “The truth doesn’t sell. The truth is boring. It was not boring when we lived it. But when you put it on film and do it accurately, it can be boring. It depends on who tells the story.”

For Chase, the Netflix series also left him with mixed sentiments. He points out inaccuracies such as “some shots in Brooklyn and name buckles, which didn’t start till the ’80s. For hip hop purists, they know and notice.”

Bronx-born Disco Wiz, who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban ancestry and credited for being the first Latino DJ in hip hop, felt the show did not portray hip hop, the Bronx or Latinos accurately. “It was exploitive and poorly executed and not reflective of the Bronx of 1977. It was marketed as fiction with some historical content sprinkled in. But that’s a dangerous concept. By attempting to appeal to a younger generation (millennials) they completely trampled over an already muddled timeline and compromised our historical narrative.”

For Wiz, like so many other pioneers, the story of hip hop is extremely personal. “We were all a bunch of kids in a messed up situation and made the best of it to stay away from an early grave or jail cell. We made each other better by battling, bringing ingenuity and creativity to the art form.”

Wiz adds the show perpetuates a common hip hop myth as it pertains to Latinos. “It goes back to a very long argument that hip hop has been perceived as a primarily black movement and that everyone else came on [later]. Amongst other myths, this is in inaccurate. We were there since its inception. You continue to tell a lie so long that is becomes true. The show is completely distorting an already established narrative. We’ve never gotten the proper credit or acknowledgments for all of our countless contributions. Latinos were there since the genesis and collectively we created this global movement.”

Ezekiel (Books) and Mylene in ‘The Get Down’
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James Whipper II, better known as Prince Whipper Whip (mother is Puerto Rican and father is Black) was an original member of Grandwizard Theodore and the Fantastic Five. Currently living in Monroe, Michigan, he saw the first episode and liked the show despite its discrepancies with hip hop history. “It was Hollywood and entertaining.”

Whip would’ve liked to see more of the “groups down from back in those days. They did a good job but could put more of a good mixture. I didn’t see the b-boys in there. I saw some, but I would’ve wanted to see a little more of the graf writers. To me, the graf writers were first. They went out there, bombed and tagged. Flyers are an important piece of the game too. Depending on who did your flyer [determined to a] big deal of who turned out. We were the promoters, we were the street teams.”

B-boy Richie “Crazy Legs” Colon has been extremely vocal on Facebook airing his concerns about the show overall. “I didn’t have an opinion and stayed quiet until I saw the product. Even if it’s fictional, the show is talking about lives of people that [are] part of something extremely important to them. It is not as emotional for people who didn’t live in the Bronx or play a role in hip hop.”

Watching episode one, Legs called the continuity of the show “odd ‘cause I lived it. I felt on the level of enjoying TV programs, I have a certain bar that every project has to meet. I only watched the first 90 minutes because I wasn’t interested in it.”

Photo Courtesy of Netflix
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To Legs, “The acting, the writing didn’t seem real to me. There were moments that I appreciated. It didn’t have me at the edge of the seat. I hope it gets better, more opportunities. My biggest concern was the Latino presence and that they didn’t put a focus on b-boys — we were prevalent. When [DJs] were throwing break beats — the ones throwing them on were for the b-boys.”

He also preferred to see Puerto Ricans playing Puerto Ricans. “I don’t want to hear fake Latino accents. There are plenty of us, like myself. We can tell the difference.”

Legs took his concerns recently to hip hop historian Nelson George, who serves as supervising producer of The Get Down. “I think he knew what he was getting. He did appreciate that. I wasn’t being some yes dude. I wasn’t there to get a job. My goal was to speak on behalf of Latinos who contributed to hip hop.”

While Legs described the meeting as “productive” he said he doesn’t know what can be changed since most of the second season has been filmed already. He is hopeful because “people want to be entertained. They want to see their lives, their time period portrayed and take pride in that.”