Listen, if you want daytime-soapy melodrama and overwrought histrionics featuring barely-believable, over-the-top plot twists, by all means: continue to enjoy Empire on Fox. The tale of the Lyons’ unlikely rags-to-riches dynasty is a great, goopy mess of guilty-pleasure television, like a stack of pancakes drowned in buttery, syrupy, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe it schlock. But if what you’ve been looking for is something a little more well-rounded and wholesome — if you’re looking for a hip-hop show that’s actually about hip-hop — hop aboard VH1’s wayback machine and get a faceful of The Breaks, the season finale of which airs Monday, April 10.
This is the show that hip-hop heads have always dreamed about. Yes, it embraces the glitz of showbiz, like Empire, and the romanticism of the art form’s early days, like Baz Luhrmann’s woozy, whimsical Netflix show The Get Down but The Breaks, like the book it’s based on (Dan Charnas’ 2010 book The Big Payback — which examines the role of the behind-the-scenes marketers, promoters, and deal-makers in rap’s rise to the pinnacle of pop culture), focuses on the pressure and potential of breaking into the burgeoning hip-hop scene (indeed, creating it from scratch), at a time when rap music was considered more “fad” than “worldwide phenomenon.”
What separates The Breaks from its counterparts is a commitment to the everyday, unfiltered realities of rap. Ironically enough for a genre whose guiding ethos is to ostensibly “keep it real,” so many rap-oriented shows shy away from the potential humdrum, mundane moments that a hardline focus on authenticity might bring. The Breaks leans right on into it. DJ and aspiring-producer DeeVee (played by Tristan Wilds, one of many The Wire alumnae that appears on the show) lives with his disapproving dad and has little luck with his lady friend, single-mom and music writer, Damita (Melonie Diaz). Nikki (Afton Williamson) and David (David Call) wrestle with the demands of maintaining a relationship while both trying to advance in their careers in the business, as a label head assistant and radio program director assistant, respectively. Ahm (Antoine Harris) is a hustler, maintaining an iron fist as boss in his Brooklyn projects, but recruits DeeVee to produce the tracks that give his well-hidden rap skills free reign to flourish, while Josie (Ali Ahn) works in her Korean-emigrant parents’ bodega by day, and as a freelance photographer by night.
Each member of the young cast bring layers, intensity, and honesty to their roles, breathing each character to something like real life. Rather than being clichéd, thinly-drawn types, they have real goals and motives that hew closer to difficult, real life truths than easy plot devices that simply move the action along. Call is petulant in his character’s interactions with his father, tender but hesitant in portraying David’s tense relationship with college sweetheart Nikki, and defiant in his belief that rap can belong on radio when standing up to his radio boss. Wilds, arguably the most experienced member of the younger half of the cast, plays DeeVee as shook but determined while venturing into the heart of the projects to reach out to Ahm, who he truly believes can be a star. In particular, Harris is a frightening figure, especially when he subjects Ahm to his stone cold stare, the kind that makes you believe he will actually murder someone in cold blood, then order the special with the wings fried HARD (as if there were any other way).
The show also uses its setting well, adding little historical flourishes to the proceedings; from Golden Age cameos (Special Ed!), to stand-ins representing the stars of yesteryear (Al B. Sure! …was that Nas??), real heads will get moments of recognition and warm nostalgia, while newjacks (pun intended) will get an education on a piece of rap history that is often idealized, but very rarely accurately depicted. Meanwhile, even when the prominent figures of rap history don’t show up, it’s pretty clear from the antics of the magnificent Wood Harris as manager-aspiring-label-owner Barry Fouray that we are meant to take his whole persona as a direct homage (and a bit of a loving send-up) to impresarios such as Russell Simmons and Sean Combs (who will always be Puff Daddy to fans of a certain age.)
Anyone who was around for it will remember the unease surrounding hip-hop as a new youth movement; that’s here too. The show unflinchingly depicts the specter of violence that hovered over the era without wallowing in or sensationalizing it. The nascent movement was plagued by accusations of glorifying street culture, yet it balanced that with a need to tell stories that, even now, are far too often overlooked. Here is where the show really excels; Ahm is caught up in a cycle of hood drama and real beef, not the rap kind, that he accepts with a stoic sort of fatalism that somehow doesn’t feel like helplessness or despair. A tragic incident at a Fouray Management-sponsored event places Barry, Nikki, and David squarely in the spotlight of the mainstream’s fascination with “violence in rap,” and DeeVee’s pops, Darryl (played with surprising aplomb by none other than Method Man) implores his son to give up his dreams of rap producer superstardom and move down South to stay with family (part of many an old-school hip-hop head’s biography, to be sure.)
All of this, of course would be completely worthless without the most important factor: The music. It’s here that The Breaks stands head and shoulders above the rest. DJ Premier plays the music supervisor, not just selecting the background beats, but actively placing songs of the era at the forefront, from hits to deep cuts, from D-Nice to Johnny Gill, from Rakim to Rare Essence. Even “Ice, Ice Baby” gets a chance to shine in a humorous scene from last night’s Episode 7, where Tommy Quon does his best to swindle label head Mattie Taylor into buying into the inevitable juggernaut of Icemania at the ground floor — or maybe it’s the other way around. When it comes to the original tunes, the show flat out refuses to slouch, bringing on Phonte of Little Brother to pen rhymes for its slew of up-and-comers, including Teyana Taylor as the most ferocious MC of her gender since MC Lyte.
There’s a lot to love about the show; there’s almost nothing to critique. If one were to scramble for a complaint, it’s that the show is almost too realistic, making references to Uncle Russ right alongside his analogue, making one almost wonder, why didn’t anyone know about Fouray Records if it happened at the exact same time as Def Jam? However, if ever that was a qualm to have, boy is it ever the right one to have. The Breaks ends up being a perfect encapsulation of a moment in time, but without being stodgy or feeling static. It feels every bit as dynamic as the era it depicts, evoking not just the imagery or the sound, but a feeling that is just unmatched by anything else in the current television landscape. After so many years, it’s ironic that it took a cable TV show with a cast who was mostly still in diapers at the time to bring real hip-hop back.
Aaron Williams is an average guy from Compton. He’s a writer and editor for The Drew League and co-host of the Compton Beach podcast. Follow him here.