One would be hard-pressed to find a music journalist with as much first-hand experience reporting the early days of Hip Hop like Nelson George. The culture was once considered a fad, or even a nuisance, for some. But George had enough foresight to understand its staying power and he’s benefited significantly from it.
Over the years, he’s evolved into one of black music’s great storytellers. Authoring dozens of books including the captivating D Hunter Mysteries series, George is known for his work on both the small and silver screen. Let’s be honest here, he produced and co-wrote CB4, the film that, decades later, is still seen as prophesying a certain Florida-correctional-officer-turned-drug-lord-on-wax. These examples are just a small part of such an extraordinary career.
Flexing his godlike knowledge of Hip Hop’s early years coming out of the Disco era, he’s serving as supervising producer for Netflix’s upcoming series The Get Down. Set to premiere August 12, the show is set in the late 1970s and follows young adults who are attempting to survive the South Bronx amid a culture rooted in the streets that couldn’t have cared less about the mainstream. Other rap legends ranging from DJ Kool Herc to Nas are serving as supervisors as well.
Speaking with DX, Nelson George explains blending real history with fiction for The Get Down and writing about Hip Hop when most people didn’t care.
HipHopDX: On social media a few weeks ago you said the same spot where you guys had the press for “The Get Down” was also the same spot you had the one for CB4 20 years ago.
Nelson George: Back then, it was the Bel Age Hotel. Different name but, it’s the same building and same structure. I didn’t realize when we were in there but, then I realized that movie came out in March 1993 and I believe the press junket was in February that year. CB4 was a Hip Hop movie that was pretty early on. To think that I would still be working in TV until forward times later. Actually, revisiting Hip Hop is a subject. it’s quite amazing. Twenty some odd years or more than that, I’m only grateful to be still working and still being involved. It says a lot about Hip Hop. When we did that movie, we were trying to deal with the fun part of it, the LA Gangsta rap and how that had taken off. This goes way back, way past that. Through the 1990s and 1970s. It’s a rich story, a long history.
DX: With the history of your career, did you ever think that people would be interested in Hip Hop this long to go back this far?
Nelson George: Believe me, I look back and read a lot of my old articles — I think an article from 1980 or 1981 that I did where I basically talked about the new generation. I would say I saw it like I thought it would be like. The new generation, I liked it, and then it becomes older. Older people would like it. But we didn’t know, no one could know if Hip Hop could reinvent itself. And from what it was in 1980 and 1981, it’s unrecognizable in many ways now to what it is now. It’s managed to continue to evolve as a music, as a rap style as clothes, as a dance thing. In every aspect, the thing about Hip Hop that is so remarkable is that it continues to evolve, it doesn’t stay still. Some musical movements, it locks into a hold and never improves from it. This one has a huge improvement.
DX: You mentioned Hip Hop has evolved, although Hip Hop has evolved, especially considering the history you know, are there things that still remain the same within the culture from your point of view?
Nelson George: Well, I mean it’s youth culture. It’s always been youth culture so that hasn’t changed. I think that basically at its core, Hip Hop is someone lining vocals over beats primarily. For the most part that’s still true. The style is dramatically different and the beats are really different. It used to be very simple. Someone speaking in presentation over rhythm. So, the core is that and it’s advancing. The fact that Hip Hop is also an incubator of dance style. The essence of it, even the format has evolved.
DX: Do you remember the first time actually covering Hip Hop? I remember when I saw you speak some time ago, you said it wasn’t even called Hip Hop.
Nelson George: The first thing that I wrote that we called it Hip Hop was in 1978. A friend out of a record store, we talked about these DJs buying records in bulk. They would buy 20, 30, 50 records. This one kid would be performing in the school yard. It was DJ Kool Herc. What was interesting about it, disco was big. That’s been the main. White Disco, Black Disco, Latin Disco and so on. What he was playing was different than anybody else and how everyone was dancing was different than everybody else. So, it’s what made me write about it. He was playing a record called “Bongo Rock” — basically a bongo band record. I knew that this was a new thing. I knew a difference from any other that Harlem and Brooklyn or Queens. That would be it, the very first time. I also, in that same year, saw DJ Hollywood perform in Harlem. Cutting up beats and playing parts of records in ways I haven’t heard before. The first times I remember it’s live form. I never forget that day, seeing Herc.
DX: What was it like writing about it? How did everybody else, especially your peers that were covering other genres look at Hip Hop at that time?
Nelson George: I was covering Black music, that’s what I was always covering. So this is just one part I was writing about. I wrote about Motown, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross and others. Most Black adults didn’t hear about Hip Hop. That meant that most of these Black editors that I ran into are of older Black writers who didn’t get it, didn’t care about it and thought it was crap. That was pretty much the attitude for it. Really for a long time until the late ’80s. I remember having a conversation with the editor. I think the rap records were the ’80s. I talk to this Black editor in a magazine, he was never ever having that in his publication. He just thought it was garbage. That was the attitude.
It wasn’t until really the people who were younger than me had grew up on it, survived it. A lot of what I was doing, or Harry Allen was doing. So other writers who were writing about Hip Hop, it was super inspiring. I saw somewhere. I wrote an article I tried to send to The New York Times in 1982 and they said that they had no interest in. And yes here I am, I just did an interview with The New York Times the other day. They did an article on ‘The Get Down.’ This is a new thing that is literally said that they didn’t care about it 30 years ago. That’s what I remember, a lot of gatekeepers — black and white — not being interested or thinking no one wanted to hear about it.
Without Disco, There’s No Hip Hop
DX: I remember reading an article saying that you were attracted to the fact that they chose the 70s Disco era. Disco is sort of a punchline, then with the “Disco Sucks” movement, and now. How important was it to the birth of early Hip Hop from your perspective?
Nelson George: There is no Hip Hop without Disco, period. Black people went to Disco and Black people loved Disco. Every bar in Harlem and Brooklyn had a disco ball, every club. So the difference between the Hip Hop thing and the Disco thing was really just age. To get into a club, you had to be of drinking age. So Disco clubs, even if you were a young guy or a young girl, you had to dress up and act your age, so to speak. Hip Hop was happening in rec centers, it was happening in schoolyards and parks. So there’s a generation divide that was separating that. And, then you dressed up. Black people were very much into being upscale.
Remember, this is ten years passed the civil rights movement. So Black people were like, we want to move up in the world, we’re not trying to act like we’re connected to the streets. We want to drink Courvoisier, we want to have Grand Marnier. We want to wear fancy outfits, we want to look good. We’re not interested in dressing down, we dress up. So that was the aesthetic that everyone aspired to, even to the Black Disco in New York in the 70s. Guys were really showing out. The idea that I want to go to the club and wear sneakers, sweatpants and sweat suits and a baseball cap was like WHAT!? They weren’t feeling that.
Hip Hop wasn’t just a musical change, it was a cultural change in how people dressed and how people thought going out or what looking good looked like. It was a style battle. Actually, that’s ironic of course as a lot of the diamonds, jewelry and that goes back to the Disco era. All the gold, the diamonds, pinky rings. Hustlers wore pinky rings. I think people try to act like there’s this big wall that happened and Hip Hop came and killed all that stuff. Hip Hop was an evolution to a new thing. Those things came back around.
The whole puffy, shiny suit era and that whole thing is very Disco. A lot of what I see fashion-wise is disco. Every era loves to dress up, go dancing, look good and floss. It’s a matter of degree and aesthetics. I think the generational thing is that people don’t really understand. So by 1982 and 1983, they’re adults. They can get into clubs. And slowly they’ve been getting changing with club play. Now they’re buying drinks at the bar and now they’re ordering bottles. Over time, the clubs that they like, the music that they like, took over the nightlife.
In New York, Disco records were records by groups that played a D-Train and even Michael Jackson. These weren’t called Disco records, but Dance records on the R&B station. They went out of style for new skin or the new kind of music. If you were at an old school Hip Hop night in New York there’s going to be a lot of stuff from that style with the 808 drum machine style that’s playing next to Hip Hop records.
DX: So do you see the blur that’s happening now with EDM and Hip Hop as similar to how Disco led to Hip Hop? Is there a correlation there?
Nelson George: I think it’s from House Music. House music is the influence on EDM. And House comes out of Disco. House is absolutely the child of disco. Because what you had in Disco, a lot with gospel trained singers, singing dance beats. Then House music became an evolution out of that. When you see rappers rapping over EDM beats, it’s just an extension of the ideas. It’s dance music. People like putting their rhymes over a beat. That was in any form. Even in the height of Hip Hop you have things like C+C Music Factory. There’s always been the dance music from calling it. There’s always been non-bashful artists who took advantage of the street under Hip Hop in giving self-expression.
DX: What was the most difficult thing in ensuring that “The Get Down” got right in regards to that era?
Nelson George: It’s not one thing, it’s a lot of things. Every time we go to a script, you talk about what color are they wearing or is the slang in the show right. We had a lot of conversations about slang and trying to find the right slang for the period. Telling the young actors not to use things like ‘lit’ or ‘all the way up’ it wasn’t like that back then. So we had to keep that right, making sure they were making the right references. It’s the little things that mean a lot. It’s very tough when you do 12 shows and trying to make sure every little thing is right. That’s what we’re trying to do. That was a big challenge, trying to make sure that they would be like the kids in ’77. Someone talking about where they bought their sneakers, what sneakers would they go for, what sneakers were they wearing, what’s a fly car.
Nelson George Explains Blending History With Fiction & The Future Of “The Get Down”
DX: One of the things I think you’re amazing at is taking history and blending it with fiction. How exactly did you make the balance between the reality at the time and the original stories?
Nelson George: Well, we did a lot of laps. There was a giant timeline of music as in New York. For example, anybody who knows Hip Hop history knows that the blackout was a huge event in Hip Hop because it allowed so many kids to access the turntables, the records and all the equipment. It was stolen. So suddenly you went from having a few people like Herc having equipment, to having a bunch of DJ crews all over the city. So, we use that as a historical event. I think it happened Episode 3. So, we’re using the history to help you to understand how the characters would be. Have a good grounding in what happened, then you can build your story around those things. We couldn’t do this show without filming the blackout.
DX: What’s the plan for “The Get Down” in terms of how far you plan to take the timeline in Hip Hop?
Nelson George: The first season is going from 1977-1978. And then will probably pick up in the ’80s. So, I don’t even know if the kids will make a record. The show is fresh because it’s giving you stuff you haven’t seen before. You seen Krush Groove in 1984, so we are in no rush. Maybe the second season we show to ’79. This is pretty wide open, it’s a great advantage to find an era of Hip Hop that’s totally under-documented.
DX: Will the show eventually broaden out to Hip Hop’s reach on a national level?
Nelson George: I don’t know, we’ll see. I’m really following these kids. If the kids got it, then they travel you see that. We’re trying to keep it grounded. The show works because it’s really their view … We don’t know where their careers will go.
DX: Is there another period of Hip Hop that interests you outside of the ’70s and ’80s? Is there another one that sticks in your mind?
Nelson George: I would say from 1986 or 1987 to 1989 in New York with Rakim, KRS-One, Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane era because I was still covering music full time. I was writing my book on Hip Hop. I’m just amazed how much more sophisticated the rhyming became, and how political it became. Also the crack era, so that’s affecting the storytelling, it’s affecting how everyone views everything. The politics of the era, also the anti-apartheid movement was going on. It’s something very dynamic because it was dynamic culturally.