For most millennials, it’s hard to imagine what a world without cellphones pinned to the hip and social media platforms like Twitter plugging our every move even looked like. But for the kids roaming the streets of the South Bronx in the late 1970s, that was all they knew. The 70s Bronx was a cellphone-less era for most POCs and definitely people at the bottom of the economic food chain. Instead, it was plagued with drug needles and junkies, plastered with graffiti, and its streets were overwhelmed with kids up to no good, who dreamed of turning nothing into something. The 70s were a more vibrant, noisier time than 2016. But luckily The Get Down, the newest Netlflix original series, is bringing back the funk to a small screen near you.
By the grace of esteemed producer, and director, Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby), The Get Down was captured. The buoyant and colorful series chronicles the birth of hip hop during the 70s as the city was crumbling in chaos and destruction. While Baz definitely provided the vision (along with Nas, who was a big aid in the creative direction of the series and soundtrack), it’s the young cast that brings the story to life.
At the head of the pack is breakout star, Shameik Moore, who first commanded the camera in the Sundance Film Festival turned blockbuster hit, Dope. But now, after one big screen triumph under his belt, the 21-year-old is back for more, for what he claims will be the next step in his professional destiny. Moore stars at Shoalin Fantastic, the graffiti artist-turned-DJ of almost legendary status, who guides his wolf pack of miscreants and hip hop fiends into a life of b-boxing, break dancing, and vandalizing. And adding flavor to the mix, Moore stars alongside, Jaden Smith (who plays Marcus “Dizzee” Kipling) and new kids on the block, Justice Smith (Ezekiel) and Herizen F. Guardiola (Mylene Cruz).
From the eccentric flare of the bell-bottoms jeans to the turntables in the hole-in-the wall joints where Shoalin and his crew first got their start, The Get Down leaps from an educational lesson to an entertaining and thrilling watch. VIBE spoke with Shameik to get the low down on his role in the highly anticipation series, his favorite 70s style, and what to expect from The Get Down.
The Get Down premiered on Netflix Aug. 12.
VIBE: You play Shoalin Fantastic. Can you talk about your character and how he plays a role into the origins of hip hop?
Shameik Moore: The show is about the origins of hip-hop. It captures that time period in the late 70s and it gives you a fresh perspective. My character, he’s from the streets. He’s the original bad boy of hip-hop, and that’s how his story line plays out. He finds a best friend, his first real friend, and ends up making a group. He’s a super hero; he’s a myth. He’s a legend; he’s special. He’s definitely a creative character for sure.
This seems like a big departure from your role in Dope, but did you find any parallels between your two roles or were they pretty different?
The training process for this was actually longer than the process for Dope was. We trained for two months and Dope was 35 days or something. So it was a big difference. And then we were shooting for a year and a half. But the difference between the characters, Shaolin is a bad boy. And he grew up in the 70s, so buildings are burning down, he’s poor, he’s also has to figure out [his life], and hustle to make money. And Malcolm (from Dope), he was hustling too, but he was forced into the situation. Both of the characters are a part of me, or exaggerating the parts of me that make the characters come alive.
Would you say that you’re a bad boy or more of a scholar forced to play dirty like Malcolm?
I’m in the middle honestly. I have Shaolin’s swagger that makes him a bad boy. I carry myself the way that Shaolin carries himself, but you’re not going to see me getting into fights, selling drugs and walking around with a gun. That’s not who Shameik is. But on the other side of things, I’m a lot like Malcolm. Like when I’m shy, I pretty much act like [him]. Sometimes, I stutter like Malcolm. But I have Malcolm’s confidence as well, and the love and all the positive energy within him I carry.
The story centers around the birth of hip-hop, but it also focuses on friendship. How was it working with a cast around the same age as yourself?
Being able to share genuine energy amongst your peers and being able to make something historic is a blessing. I made some lifelong friends. We all have our separate goals in life, our paths crossed on this beautiful project and we’ll continue to support each other. The project that we made together is absolutely a masterpiece. I think our battle is to make sure that everything continues to be better and not just stay as it is now.
You were born in the mid-90s, so how did you prepare for a role that was set nearly 20 years before you were born?
It was a lot of watching videos and documentaries and movies. It was lots of conversations and talking with Baz, Grand Master Flash and Lady Pink. It was a lot of talking with the dance instructors, Rich and Tone, Famo, DJ Phantom. It was about really getting into the mindset. We took two months to get it right.
How much did you interact with Baz personally, and what was that relationship like?
Me and Baz have a great relationship. I communicated with Baz a lot. I have scoliosis, so he had somebody come to my house a few weeks, taking care of my back while I was doing break dancing, which was really nice. He shows lots of love. He’s like an uncle. I tried to get him to let me screen The Get Down at his place, but he was like, “We can’t do it at my place.”
You’re a musician and artist aside from acting, as well. How did that background play a part in the series, whether you were break dancing or commanding the stage with your DJ sets?
Even though it was a different style of hip-hop, because I have my groove, I think that I was able to pull it off. I got better, gradually over the time while filming, so each b-boy scene gets better and better. But thankfully, I don’t look like I’m b-boying in 2016. That’s what people should know; don’t expect the same kind of dancing. People wasn’t doing windmills and flares. The back hand spring was as crazy as it got. So that’s what you see. It’s really fly, and each sequence just gets better and better as the storyline continues to grow.
Of course there’s an educational aspect to the series, but what else do you think it offers to young and old audiences?
It’s very entertaining. You don’t really look at it like it’s a history lesson while you’re watching it, but it really is. I think what happens can be crazy and people will leave with that knowledge [about the birth of hip-hop], but they won’t even realize that they learned so much.
Since this is about hip-hop, what’s your first memory of falling in love with it?
My favorite memory is watching You Got Served for the first time. I started chanting immediately after. I went in with my pants in my belly button, and I came out sagging. And I was doing a whole bunch of dance moves on the way to the car. And then my life basically changed. I started doing underground hip-hop battles in my community. I got real popular amongst the dance community and just went from there.
Have you gotten a chance to listen to the soundtrack for the series? How do you think that adds a little flavor or something extra to the show, especially being that it’s produced by Nas and features so many notable artists in the game?
Yeah, I heard most of it. The authenticity is definitely there. Even with the stuff that doesn’t sound like it’s in the 70s, it fits with what’s going on. That type of stuff is what Baz is good at and what he’s famous for. Music always sets the mood, and the scenes are so style, class, and finesse, that the music masters that. I think they did a great job. The music brings everything to life and takes it to another level.
You’ve already had an outstanding career for being so young, but you said that this is just the beginning and The Get Down is taking your career a step further. What did you mean by that?
In Dope, it’s a great film that touched a lot of people. It’s more of a folk classic, which is fine; it’s a movie that will grow and continue to grow and last forever. Lots of people notice it, and love it, and show a lot of love for it. It’s my introduction. The Get Down is my solidification. This is what’s going to make you say, he’s not just a geek, he can’t be put in a box. He played two totally opposite characters. This allows me to take my brand and my platform even higher, and a lot more eyes will be on me. I think a lot of people will see more of what I’m going for in my mind in The Get Down. I want to do action movies, I want to do romance movies; I want to do music. I have some many ideas and goals that I want to accomplish. The Get Down is my next step to getting what I’m ultimately going for. That’s why I feel like it’s really good for me.
What do you want the audience to take from the show?
I want everyone to take away the knowledge of the past, and apply it to the present. Live in the moment so we can create the future. Let’s make a better future. People see Shaolin and see themselves. They’ll see Ezekiel and see themselves. They’ll see Maylene and see themselves. Look how many rappers are still selling drugs to fund what they’re doing. Shaolin was basically the first person to have to do that in the hip-hop scene. I want people to leave with knowledge and be able to apply it to themselves and what’s going on, whether that’s from fashion or music or how they carry themselves, or the bonds between friends or going out on the street and not having social media. However the [things you learn from the series] affect you, I want it to inspire you in a positive way.
What is one 70s style that you would love to see brought back to the future?
I would love to see the fur collar brought back. I think it would be dope to wear a suit with a dope fur collar. It’s just the fur — you put it around the collar of your neck. It’s nice. I would do that. It’s not too much; it’s fly. It’s like an accessory. It would just capitalize the regular statement.