Between shows like “Empire,” “Star” and “The Get Down,” it’s pretty safe to say hip-hop’s been enjoying a television renaissance for a while now. And with Monday’s (Feb. 20) series premiere of “The Breaks” on VH1, we have a feeling we’re only at the beginning of an untapped world of story possibilities.
The series — starring Wood Harris, Mack Wilds, Afton Williamson and David Call — continues where the film left off: Not only diving further into hip-hop’s business beginnings, but exploring the bond between Nikki (Williamson), DeeVee (Wilds) and David (Call) as they pursue their music dreams.
While there will seemingly be drama aplenty, the series will continue adhering to Dan Charnas’ highly acclaimed book, “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop,” which is a detailed documentation of the movement, and its evolution.
To get a further understanding of how the VH1 series will tackle the subject matter and where “The Breaks” will fit in today’s television landscape, Screener sat down with executive producers Seith Mann (“The Wire,” “The Walking Dead”) and John J. Strauss during January’s TCA Winter Tour.
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Why is now the right time for a story such as the one you’re telling in ‘The Breaks’?
John J. Strauss: To me, good entertainment is about characters and engaging an audience. If you look at any given time in the history of television, there have been multiple law shows on the air, multiple medical shows on the air, multiple procedurals on the air… So, I don’t really see it like we’re competing for space in the world of hip-hop, as much as we have a very particular set of characters and a very particular point of view. I think the world that we’re presenting is really grounded, gritty, realistic and dramatic. It has people who you are going to be invested in. I think that’s really what it’s about.
The characters featured in this story are inspired by real people?
Seith Mann: Inspired by, but not necessarily based on real people. They are inspired by the types of characters that you found in the hip-hop community and culture in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In terms of why now… I’m not sure I know exactly why now. I know that I was very interested in telling a story that would get into the history of how this music — how this nascent subculture — became this dominant world power. At the same time, as I’m interested in that — and doing research on my own — across the country, Dan Charnas is finishing his book that covers that exact subject matter! So, I feel like there is a certain zeitgeist that is happening — or has happened — that we’re a part of, you know?
Would you consider Dan Charnas’ book as a road map for the series?
Seith: I wouldn’t call it our bible because we take a lot of dramatic license. We are telling a fictitious story, but we are attempting to tell a story about characters that didn’t necessarily exist. But they could’ve existed — you know what I mean? So, the book…
John: It keeps us straight — especially with the history of the era. He writes all the way from the ’70s to the present, but it’s so comprehensive. He’s been great, too — he’s an executive producer on the show — and he’s been sort of our policeman saying stuff like, This never happened. This did happen. This can’t happen. This should happen.
Seith: He’s our banker. He always talks about — and we all agree, it’s one of the things that is very important for us in the room — we are telling a fictitious story about characters that didn’t exist and companies that didn’t necessarily exist — but we want to believe that they did exist. We want these characters to represent the kind of people that transformed the world. What Dan started talking about, that we all leaned into, was the notion of an “authenticity bank.” We can only make so many withdrawals from the authenticity bank before our show becomes bullsh**t, so we’re very rigorous about making sure we don’t take too many withdrawals. You know, that’s a delicate dance when you’re telling dramatic fictitious stories.
Especially with the die hard fan base — not just of the music, but the culture.
John: We have a tremendous responsibility. We really do.
Seith: One of the things that was so gratifying in shooting this was people saying things like, Oh yeah, you got them Fila warmups! You know what I mean? Hip-hop has always been tied to fashion — people are paying attention to that! They’re paying attention to the music, the language — we’re very rigorous that we don’t let some slang that didn’t come around till 1993 slip into our 1990 story.
Speaking of the music, we’d be remiss not to mention A-F-R-O. The young up-and-comer — after making huge waves on the Internet — made his acting debut in ‘The Breaks’ movie. Will he be back as D Rome?
Seith: A-F-R-O is in the show. He comes back!
What is that like, when you’re working with a raw talent such as his?
Seith: For me, it was pretty amazing. You know, I come from a film school background, and I’ve worked mostly with actors. I believe a lot of musicians and musical talents can act — but it’s not a given that just because you have a presence on stage, that it’s going to translate in front of a lens.
So when A-F-R-O was introduced to us by DJ Premier — who was our executive music producer on the movie/pilot/whatever you want to call it, and now executive producer of the show — he said, You guys really need to take a look at this guy! We looked at him and saw the same thing everybody else saw and was like, We gotta bring him in!
…It really was like a family affair, because when we shot “The Breaks” he was 17 or 18 — it was all very new, and everybody just took care of him. Wood [Harris] worked very closely with him his first day on set, and then when he came back for the series, he was just like an old pro. He just got it, like fish to water!
If VH1 gave you carte blanche, how many seasons would you want the show to last?
Seith: And see, this is what I love about John. When John came into this, he always raised the game. My number was seven. But I’m going with John’s number.
John: I just feel that there’s that much to do! Don’t forget, we did eight episodes — we’re not doing 22.
Seith: Yeah, it’s an eight-episode season.
John: And there are a lot of characters, man. There’s a lot of history!
Seith: It’s like, with the movie we just scratched the surface of the world. With the first season, we dig deeper — but there’s just so much breadth, and so many interesting characters. How the music expanded, how the business expanded — at the end of the day, it’s still about how the business grew and affected the culture around it.
“The Breaks” Season 1 premieres Monday, Feb. 20, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on VH1.