'I love hip-hop, and I think it's gonna change the face of America...'
Hip-hop comes home in the new film The Breaks. Premiering January 4, the VH1 original chronicles the journey of three friends — Nikki, David, and DeeVee — as they embark on making it in the music industry in 1990. Directed by Seith Mann (The Wire, Homeland) and inspired by the book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnas (who also served as co–executive producer on the movie), the film traverses New York City pre-gentrification, when doorknocker earrings were fly and hip-hop was a fledgling art form. Nikki Jones (Afton Williamson) is a plucky graduate who forgoes an Ivy League scholarship to become an overworked intern for a nightmarish label boss (Wood Harris), while her boyfriend, David Aaron (David Call), languishes at a radio station that won't play hip-hop. DeeVee (Tristan 'Mack' Wilds) is an aspiring producer trying to discover the next big MC while working out of his father's (Method Man) garage.
'The script came across my desk. I read it, loved it, and knew exactly what they were trying to do,' says Wilds. A native of Staten Island, he pulled from his own experience as well as from seminal films and albums by Jay Z, Wu-Tang Clan, and Rakim. With his Kangol hat to the back and large, Afrocentric chain, DeeVee could very well have fit into any A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul cypher. 'I surrounded myself with the time so I could understand what that time period felt like. You hear stories but you don't understand unless you were there, so I had to definitely pull from a lot of research.'
Initially, Charnas had wanted to recruit rappers who could act (versus actors capable of rapping) for the film. 'I thought it would be harder to find an actor that can rap, but I was wrong,' he says. Each of the rapper hopefuls was asked to recite the first verse of Jay Z's 1996 track 'Can I Live' during the audition. Charnas got the best of both worlds in actor-turned-singer Wilds. The 26-year-old turned to legendary producers DJ Premier and Pete Rock to inculcate in him the mannerisms of a producer — spinning, cutting, and scratching records. 'Those are the people I drew the inspiration of — talking to them and understanding what they were doing, the music they were producing and why they wanted to make it.'
That training is on display in the film's opening scene, when DeeVee, in Dad's garage, is seen working on beats. '[The film's creators] are sticklers for details. They want it to be authentic. It's the little things, like how to make a truncated beat, how to put it together, what samples that you need. They were very much hands-on while I was doing it,' recounts Wilds. Premier contributed his old SP-1200 sampling drum machine, an audiophile's wet dream come to life. 'It was our drum machine back then. Me, Diamond D, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip. We were all on that machine,' Premier explains.
'I think the risk is always that it's gonna be wack, but [Premier] understood what we were going for,' says Charnas. 'It was his job to come up with the original music for the movie. He couldn't just do great beats; he had to do wack beats, too, because we have to show DeeVee's growth as a producer. So some of the beats have to not be great.'
'I loved it,' Premier, the music producer for the film, says of reading the script. 'Everything is authentic. The songs, even the [original] music that I created, reminded me of that era.' When it came to lyrics for the rapper characters, Charnas turned to Phonte Coleman of Little Brother fame. 'Phonte is a master of voices. He can imitate every voice in his head. He knows what the vocabulary of 2015 is and he knows what the vocabulary of 1990 was,' says Charnas. 'It was just unbelievable and spot-on and funny and serious.' As a bonus, the rapper also makes a cameo during a rap battle scene.
Other hip-hop notables who make cameos: DJ Chuck Chillout, known for his time spent on the 98.7 KISS FM airwaves in the early Eighties; producer Prince Paul, who — ironically — plays a bootlegger; and early record label executive Faith Newman. Underground favorites like rapper Torae and the ascendant freestyler A-F-R-O also make appearances. 'A-F-R-O's a seventeen-year-old kid who doesn't listen to anything but old-school hip-hop,' says Charnas. 'He's a freak of nature. He was built for this.'
The film is peppered with insider jokes and subtle nods. 'Method Man totally got the humor. I think he got the humor of himself in the role,' says Charnas. ' 'This is me. I was DeeVee in the Nineties, but now I'm actually playing my dad.' That was kind of amazing.' Subliminal (or maybe not so subliminal) references abound. Harris points to former Roc-A-Fella Records honcho Damon Dash as his inspiration for the hot-tempered Barry Fouray (although some would argue that there are flashes of classic Puff Daddy behavior interwoven in there). 'If Fouray don't get paid, the song don't get played,' he yells to his office, wearing a bucket hat. Harris nails the megalomaniacal tendencies of a classic Nineties rap exec, oscillating between loving mentor and full-blown psycho. 'Sorry, sweetheart...get this unreasonable bitch outta here,' he says to Nikki in one scene. Russell Hornsby is equally compelling as the program director at a fictitious radio station that won't spin hip-hop. 'WPPS will play no rap, period,' he purrs, while wearing a silk shirt. In another scene, he's creepily schmoozing an ingénue in a bubble bath. It's unclear what radio personality Hornsby is alluding to, but there's plenty of guesses — past and present.
The Breaks was created as a standalone project, but the 'backdoor pilot' may be picked up by VH1 as a full series, depending on the film's reception. For a network steeped in reality franchises like Love & Hip-Hop, it would be a fitting return to music programming. 'VH1 has every right to claim a strong musical legacy,' Charnas says. 'They were the first video channel to play black music, when their sister channel MTV wasn't doing it. VH1's documentaries are impeccable. They did The Tanning of America. They even did a Yo! MTV Raps documentary. I feel like this is very worthy of VH1.'