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Hip-Hop Meets Disco On The Electrifying Soundtrack To 'The Get Down'


There's a new drama series on Netflix called "The Get Down" about hip-hop's early days, disco and cultural trends that emerged from New York City in the late '70s, such as graffiti art and the popularity of kung fu and exploitation films. Rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening to the show's soundtrack album and says it's as dense and complex as the TV show itself.


JANELLE MONAE: (Singing) There's a fear in the air, and there's blood on the floor. Hear a deafening scream, crying out for more. The city's on fire. Smoke is burning my eyes. I got one more chance. I need to come along and just hum along and now dance.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: It would've been easy to slap together a soundtrack album for "The Get Down." Just take some of the period hits that punctuate many scenes from the Netflix series such as The Trammp's "Disco Inferno" and Garland Jeffreys "Wild In The Streets" and shove it out there for nostalgists and newbies alike.

But like the TV show itself, there are multiple layers to this "Get Down" soundtrack, intentionally disorienting fusions of past and present and a dreamlike mood that hovers over the music like a fog.


ZAYN MALIK: (Singing) I close my blinds, so the sun won't come in. Block out the noise, but the voices within...

TUCKER: One of the things I like about "The Get Down" TV show set in the late 1970s is that it doesn't sneer at disco in favor of what would become hip-hop, unlike much of the rock music establishment of this era which despised dance music. Rap music pioneers recognized that these pulsating rhythms could be thrilling.

"The Get Down" understands just how glorious the greatest disco was to the point of creating a credible would-be hit of the era. Herizen Guardiola plays the romantic lead, Mylene, who wants nothing more than to be a disco queen on the order of Donna Summer or Gloria Gaynor. To do it, She records "Set Me Free" which sounds like a lost classic, but it's actually a new song composed for "The Get Down."


HERIZEN GUARDIOLA: (Singing) Come shine a light on me. Come and set me free. Come shine a light on me. Come and set me. These chains on me won't let me be. You've got the keys. Come rescue me. These chains on me won't let me be. You've got the keys. Come set me free. Come set me free. Come set me free. You got the keys. Come rescue me. Come set me free. Come set me free. You've got the keys. Come rescue me.

TUCKER: "The Get Down's" most prominent producer-director is Baz Luhrmann who specializes in going over the top in movies such as "Moulin Rouge" and his adaptation of "Romeo And Juliet." He's working with technical advisers such as the music scholar Nelson George and the pioneering hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Flash - so important, he's portrayed by an actor as a key character. Luhrmann mixes true facts with heightened invention.

When "The Get Down" needs an example of inspirational rapping, the production comes up with nothing less than something called "Black Man In A White World (Ghetto Gettysburg Address)," an invented manifesto that's a collaboration between Michael Kiwanuka and the rapper Nas.


NAS: (Rapping) I'm left in a world oppressed. How do I express my very own ghetto Gettysburg address? My platform is a rap song. Black man is politically attacked on the norm. My life's surviving. At night, I'm riding, smoking, hoping, dreaming, speeding, white lightening steaming, streets trifling. I keep writing. It gets deeper. My brother's keeper are we divided? I decided to keep rising.

MICHAEL KIWANUKA: (Singing) I'm in love. I feel sad. I found peace, and I'm not there. All my nights and all my days, I've been trying to run away.

NAS: (Rapper) New York, New York, the irrefutable...

TUCKER: A prime example of the way "The Get Down" plucks older music for its new purposes and thus operates precisely the way original rap music did. Appropriating beats from earlier R&B is the song "Cadillac." It takes the 1976 track, "Love Is In The Backseat Of My Cadillac" by the great British group Hot Chocolate and turns it into a different sort of hip-hop via the contemporary singer Miguel. Oh, and Cadillac is also the name of one of "The Get Down's" characters, so it all becomes doubly witty.


MIGUEL: (Singing) I've got love in my veins. I've got life in my eyes. Follow me. Follow me. Follow me. I've got fire and ice. There's no need to think twice. Follow me. Follow me. Follow me. The most high, the most fly, who other than I? Follow me. Follow me. Follow me. Yes, I got what you need. Turn that water into wine. Follow me. Follow me. Follow me. Hold on 'cause heaven's is in the backseat of my Cadillac. Heaven's in the backseat of my Cadillac. Let me take you there. Let me take you there. Let me take you there. Let me take you there, you there, you there. Heaven's in the backseat...

TUCKER: "The Get Down" as a TV series is uneven, often electrifying and moving, sometimes florid and corny. The soundtrack to "The Get Down," however, is an almost pure delight, a rapper's delight as the title of a Sugarhill Gang song once termed it. It captures moments from 40 years ago and brings them decisively into the present.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed the soundtrack from the Netflix series "The Get Down."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our series of some favorite recent interviews with Sarah Paulson. She's nominated for an Emmy for her performance as prosecutor Marcia Clark in the FX series "The People V. O.J. Simpson"


SARAH PAULSON: (As Marcia Clark) The O.J. Simpson you've never met, the face of a batterer, the abuser, the murderer.

GROSS: "The O.J." series is nominated for 22 Emmys. I hope you'll join us. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. My thanks to Dave Davies for doing such a great job hosting the show last week while I was on vacation. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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