The Get Down and Modern Mythmaking

~Spoilers for The Get Down~

The Get Down is the best show Netflix has ever produced.

I loved Jessica Jones and Lady Dynamite and Stranger Things, among others – but The Get Down is in a league of its own. Besides being the sort of visual spectacle that only a director like Baz Luhrmann can provide (as showrunner and director of the first feature-length episode), amazing acting and singing talent, and overall well written, and broadly human characters; The Get Down is a successful exercise in modern mythmaking. And I don’t mean that in the same way that The Lord of the Rings or Jack Kirby’s Fourth World involve making new pantheons and worlds.

The mythmaking of The Get Down is closer to the stories of Homer, Arthurian Legend, or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Get Down turns the Bronx of 1977 into a land of larger than life characters whose lives have had an effect on history and culture as we know it. The Get Down does for the founding of hip-hop culture what the Arthurian Legends or Three Kingdoms do for the founding of countries and empires.

The first episode of The Get Down begins with a variation of the Homeric invocation of the muse. A grown up Zeke – performing at Madison Square Garden in 1996 – tells us he came from the city that gave him his name, a city made dangerous by the neglect of higher powers, and that he had all but lost hope before meeting one man who saved his life. And, at the end of his rhyme, Zeke asks his audience to help him with the story. Putting a hip-hop twist to the invocation, Zeke isn’t asking the gods to speak through him, but the people of New York City, because it isn’t the gods that inspire him, it was his childhood in the Bronx.

The Get Down proceeds to split the Bronx into three distinct levels of power – the politicians, the DJs, and everybody else. The politicians are the gods, the pantheon of power that shape the fabric of the Bronx. Many of those gods have neglected it, leaving it in a state of decay, and Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz, as a community leader, acts as the borough’s patron deity. Like the Greek gods, as powerful as he is, he has human faults. Like Zeus in particular, he engages in inappropriate relationships with people of lower status. And through the series, we see him try to curry favor with the other politicians (gods) in order to strengthen his domain. Late in the series, Cruz even tries to take a champion, or avatar, in Zeke. Touched by Cruz’s power, Zeke is given opportunities beyond most other people in the show, and that power remains tied to the Bronx.

Under the politicians are the DJs, who the show often describes as “kings,” with kingdoms of their own. Admittedly, unlike most classic myths, the DJs (kings) and politicians (gods), don’t interact much. But the position of king and DJ fill the same narrative hole. The DJs have power above the normal person – power that, unlike those of the gods – is perceived as attainable. If our heroes work hard enough, and can learn the sacred knowledge, and solve the tasks given to them, they are promised their own kingdom. The climax of the series so far is a war between two of the DJ kings, fought by their crews – which we can see as their armies/knights/samurai – and is instigated by our protagonists crossing into another king’s domain, accused of trying to steal the source of his power – his music. More on this later.

The man who saved Zeke’s life, we find out, is the DJ Shaolin Fantastic – who, appropriately enough – seems to be inspired by Eastern myths, specifically, the character of Sun Wukong from Journey to the West. Sun Wukong, more popularly known as The Monkey King, is one of the most enduring characters in eastern literature. He’s a trickster demon, a character capable of impossible feats of strength and speed – and Shaolin is a master of parkour, and able to spray incredibly large tags on walls and trains throughout the city without getting caught. Sun Wukong is also a thief, and the first time Zeke meets Shaolin, it’s when Shaolin steals a record from him. Shao’s relation to Zeke through the rest of the series is also reminiscent of Wukong’s relationship with Xuanzang, the protagonist of Journey to the West – he serves as the Zeke’s guide through the dangers of a world that’s new to him. And Shao takes Zeke under his wing under the instruction of Grandmaster Flash – who Shao treats as a spiritual master and mentor, who he hope he might one day equal. This is similar to Wukong’s goal to become as powerful as the gods, granted, much less antagonistic. Part-way through the series, Shaolin even gets a sort of staff, a staff being Wukong’s iconic weapon.

The music itself, specifically “The Get Down,” which is what the show calls the DJs’ technique of mixing records, represents the final piece of the mythology. The Get Down is the Holy Grail, the Excalibur, the Golden Fleece, etc. Attaining and mastering The Get Down is how someone becomes a king. Like in the story of Oedipus, understanding of The Get Down begins as a riddle the characters must solve. It is also a gift to Shao from Grandmaster Flash, a type of monarchical inheritance. And, as discussed in the section about DJs as kings, it is the secret to the DJ’s power that must be protected at all costs. And, as the story’s framing device – Zeke rapping in Madison Square Garden – tells us, The Get Down actually is his sword in the stone, the beginning towards his path towards success.

I’m sure given enough time and research, there’s more elements that The Get Down shares with classic myths and stories, but I feel I’ve made my point. And, besides all the above story elements, there’s another, more meta-textual reason that makes The Get Down work so well as this sort of myth. And that reason is because 1977 is arguably the most recent year where pop-culture truly evolved into something new. Arguably the most important movie of all time released in the summer of 1977 – a film that The Get Down references spectacularly. And then there is the birth of hip-hop, which arguably is the most important genre contribution to American popular culture since Jazz. Not just New York culture, not just music culture, not just Black culture, all of American culture. The Get Down also references the birth of glam and punk music, if briefly, but neither of those has had the impact of hip-hop. From ’77 onwards, hip-hop became the poetry of the oppressed, a way for the disenfranchised to turn their dark side of the world into art like no other artistic movement before it. The reason The Get Down can so masterfully mythologize that period in time is because it deserves the treatment. We’ve narrativized and made myths of all the great influential periods in human history, from the Falls of Rome, to the Renaissance, and up through World War II – it’s time that 1977 got its due.