Hip-Hop is always ready to champion the next. Though the foundation of sampling old records and shout-outs to forefathers forever keeps one eye towards the past, young fans of the genre crave originality and the cutting-edge. But for the generations that grew up with hip-hop back in two fertile periods of the genre — the late Seventies and the early-to-mid Nineties — there’s something to be gained by revisiting its heydays. Graphic novels, television, feature films and documentaries are resurrecting the culture’s past in what appears to be a mini-renaissance of hip-hop nostalgia. While music lovers are keeping a close eye and ear out for the new, everyone else seems to be focusing on the old schools.
“When it came to hip-hop there was always a misunderstanding of [the] who, what, where, why and when,” says Grandmaster Flash, one of hip-hop’s elder statesman and an associate producer on the upcoming Netflix series The Get Down. The brainchild of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge), the show charts the parallel rise of hip-hop, disco and the art scenes of late Seventies New York City, focusing on several young graffiti writers, musicians and dancers. (Flash is even a character in the drama played by young actor Mamoudou Athie.) The legendary DJ was struck by the Luhrmann’s attention to detail about to this long-overlooked period, “We’re talking about a time-span of information that hasn’t been asked about by most journalists” Flash says, who feels frustration with how Seventies hip-hop is too often glossed over in the history books.
That’s starting to change, however, as graphic novelists such as Julian Voloj (Ghetto Brother) and documentarians like Shan Nicholson (Rubble Kings) have been tracing the culture’s origin stories, notably how Bronx street gangs acted as a midwife to hip-hop’s birth. And though that come-up era is oft overshadowed by the heavily commercialized, crossover-heavy decades that proceeded it, people like Nelson George — who covered hip-hop in Billboard before terms like “rap” were codified — have always looked to those early years as a time worthy of its mythologizing. “It was a very innocent thing…there wasn’t any money involved, [and] it was done by kids primarily,” says George, a supervising producer and technical advisor on The Get Down. “If rock was the official music culture and disco was the hot thing for adults in clubs, then you had this other thing — hip-hop — being developed by young people.”
That youthful energy would help turn a somewhat regional street culture into a mainstream phenomenon, with rap as its primary emissary. But hip-hop’s vitality went beyond just affecting pop music; its impact could be felt in movies, TV and, most tangibly through fashion — the focal point of journalist-turned-filmmaker Sacha Jenkins’ documentary Fresh Dressed. Featuring interviews with everybody from legendary uptown designers like Dapper Dan to hip-hop–couture pioneers like Karl Kani and Kanye West, the movie charts the ever-morphing history of the culture through its clothing. “The attitude and energy of what people wore was equally important as to how you rapped or what your graffiti looked [like] or how you danced,” Jenkins says.