‘Can I Live?’: Why Can’t Hip-Hop Oriented & Inspired Dramas Find A Home On Cable & Media Streaming Platforms?

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In 2019, it is impossible to deny Hip-Hop’s seemingly limitless, global influence and the impact that the genre and greater culture has managed to make worldwide. From the music industry itself, to film, television, fashion, sports, comics, video games, fine art, dance trends and even obscure niche internet cultures Hip-Hop as a musical genre and broader encompassing culture has without a doubt left a indisputable, lasting mark the world over. In the nearly forty years since Hip-Hop left the five boroughs of New York and slowly began its proliferation throughout the country and eventually to the rest of the outside world; you’d be hard pressed to find a single industry, artistic medium, movement or cultural trend that has not in some way or degree been influenced or latched itself on to the prominence and resilient popularity of Rap music and Hip-Hop culture. What began as a hyperlocal artistic phenomenon, conceived and pioneered by Black and Latino youth in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods of New York City, has grown into a literal billion dollar industry that was expanded far beyond the culture’s four basic elements of DJing, MCing, B-Boying, and graffiti writing which served as the cultures most basic pillars. While the genre has garnered immeasurable success in industries and places once thought unimaginable, one area has remained stubbornly elusive for the genre to find a stable footing. That medium being dramatic television on both cable and major streaming services. We’re going to take a look at several of these ill-fated television programs and see if we can find out why these Hip-Hop centric and inspired dramas can’t seem to land a home on cable and major Streaming Platforms?

VH1’s The Breaks

img_9692Out of all the series we’ll discuss in this publication, none are perhaps more overlooked or forgotten as the short lived television series The Breaks. Loosely based on the book The Big Payback, a narrative history of the Hip-Hop business by Dan Charnas; the series’s fictional story centered around a group young friends fulfilling their dreams and aspirations in the burgeoning, gritty underbelly of the early 90’s Hip-Hop scene of New York City. Beginning as a made for T.V. movie premiering on VH1 back in 2016, The Breaks movie essentially served as a back-door two hour pilot for the series. Back-to-back airings of the film netted 2.6 million total viewers and connected with audiences, cashing in on intersecting 90’s nostalgia with Hip-Hop culture for the maturing millennial generation. VH1 was so successful that Viacom, VH1’s parent company eventually opted to adapt the film into a full-length television series; with the film’s main cast of Afton Williamson, Wood Harris, Tristan ‘Mack’ Wilds, Antoine Harris, David Call, Evan Handler and Melonie Diaz all reprising their former roles for the show. The series made its debut on VH1 nearly a year later in February 2017and successfully wrapped up it’s first season that April. Averaging an audience of one million viewers per episode, Viacom announced the series would be renewed for another season; opting to move the series over to VH1’s sister network BET for its second season. The move was supposedly made because network execs felt the series would fair better at garnering a larger audience at BET which has aired a string of very popular, successful made for T.V. biopic-films and runs a variety of dramas as part of the network’s programming. This indeed sounds like a much better fit for the series and falls in stark contrast to VH1 which is notorious for now airing mostly cheap, unscripted, reality television programming and movie re-runs. However, the network quickly double backed on its promise that The Breaks would be renewed and by November of 2017 it was officially announced that the series renewal was scrapped and would not return for a second season. Effectively cancelling the series. The move was just the first of several moves on the behalf of the network that undercut and ultimately doomed the series. So what happened? With an original score courtesy of Hip-Hop legend DJ Premier, song writing contributions from Phonte of Little Brother for the series original songs, with a stellar mains cast as well as sporting featuring actual Hip-Hop artists such as Method Man, Teyana Taylor, A-F-R-O and Dave East in supporting rolls; The Breaks seemed to be in the hands of some of the most qualified, and passionate individuals one could ask for to work on a authentic, engaging Hip-Hop drama set in the genre’s glory days. Likewise, with the series move to BET it had appeared that the series and found a home that tailor made to cater to those that love Hip-Hop. It’s really unclear what exactly was the underlying factor for The Breaks demise. Whether it was the show’s budget or network’s decision to focus more on reality television based programming remains to be seen and will likely never be fully known. It’s unfortunate that even on a network that has produced successful made for television biopic films, and even successful drama series such as Being Mary Jane even there The Breaks couldn’t even catch a proverbial break and live long enough to garner a larger following.

Netflix’s The Get Down

img_9693Another series that unfortunately seemed to be doomed from the start was the ill fated Netflix original series The Get Down. The series was in the South Bronx region of New York City in the late 1970s and revolved around the exploits a group of inner-city youth exploring the respective Disco and the just emerging Hip-Hop and graffiti scenes of the city. Using real life figures such as Afrika Bambaataa, Grand Master Flash and DJ Kool Herc as well as real life events such as the New York City Blackout of 1977; the show was an ambitious attempt to craft a fictional narrative with cast before the backdrop of real people and events to depict a time in Hip-Hop’s history that seldom has been depicted in fictionalized, period piece drama. Unfortunately, it seems that series suffered just about every problem imaginable, many of them stemming from the show’s co-creator and executive producer Baz Lurman. Lurman who’s known for directing highly stylized and visually appealing films such as Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and The Great Gatsby reportedly played a very large roll in the series on-set turmoil. Long story short, ultimately what sank The Get Down was the series ridiculously extravagant and over the top production costs. As noted previously, known for his exuberant production value series Baz Luhrmann managed to turn what should have a simple and cost effective period-piece drama about a small group of inner city kids in 70’s New York city into 120 million dollar money pit for the series first and only season. Lurman drove the series millions of dollars over budget, with a budget reaching upwards of a million plus dollars per episode. For comparison, HBO’s critically acclaimed Game of Thrones; a special effects heavy fantasy series that cost around $10 million per episode, with overall production cost coming out to about $100 million a season. In fact, at the time of its release in summer of 2016 The Get Down was the most expensive show Netflix had ever produced; that record has since been broken by The Crown, which cost $130 million to produce in its first season making it the most expensive television series of all time. Producer and writer changes were also reportedly a recurring problem, which constantly stalled filming and led to numerous re-writes and tossed out scripts that also crippled the series’s roll out date. This ultimately led to the series having to be split into two parts; with the series’s second half not being released until April of 2017 nearly eight months after the series’s initial debut undoubtedly affecting audience and viewership statistics. Netflix is notoriously very secretive concerning its audience-viewership and does not reveal subscriber viewership numbers for any of their original series; so realistically, we may never know for sure ho much of a factor viewership played in Netflix’s decision to ultimately not renew the series for a second season. However, what is very well-known is that Lurman’s reputation for producing visually impressive, but incredibly expensive productions led to series coming with a very hefty and needlessly inflated price tag and extremely troubled production which undoubtedly contributed to the series ultimate demise. Overall, it seems like The Get Down was never quite given the proper tools and team it needed to create  truly authentic and engaging Hip-Hop drama. Sadly the series was put in the hands of a over the the top Hollywood Director who had never worked in television or had any prior expertise in Hip-Hop culture, paired with a fickle writing staff and delayed roll out that ultimately drove production cost to astronomically unreasonable proportions and alienated viewers who lost interest due to the series’s lengthy character development and unexpected hiatus. To top it all off, upon the series initial cancellation it was (at the time) among only a handful of original programming that Netflix had ultimately decided to cancel; setting another sad milestone for The Get Down. Had it not been for the series’s needlessly inflated budget and script re-writes that crippled the series’s initial roll-out, it likely could have garnered a cult-following and earned a respectable and loyal fanbase to keep it afloat. Unfortunately, now it seems all but certain we’ll never know the fate of Zeke, Mylene, Shaolin Fantastic and the rest of The Get Down Brothers. While its debatable just how popular the series could have become, a show with so much veteran talent such as Jimmy Smits and Giancarlo Esposito and up-and-comers like Justice Smith and Shameik Moore; pacjed to the brim with potential the series certainly deserved a better fate than what The Get Down ultimately received.

Marvel’s Luke Cage

img_9691If one show seemed poised to become a lasting flagship series for Netflix, Marvel’s Luke Cage certainly seemed like a safe series to place a bet on. Set in Harlem, New York and centered around a Black convict falsely imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, Luke Cage is an escaped con turned-superhero who gains the powers of bulletproof skin and super strength after being subjected voluntarily to an experimental procedure. Starring Mike Colter as the series main lead and a ensemble cast which included Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson, Theo Rossi and Mahershala Ali; upon the series’s debut in 2016 Luke Cage quickly rocketed to not only being one of Netflix most popular and critically acclaimed original series but, also hailed by critics and fans for its casting and immersive, deliberately socially conscious narrative. Luke Cage as received praise for the portrayal of its protagonist, who unlike most other contemporary superheroes is not equipped with state of the art technology or dazzling costumes; but is a working class super hero that happens to fight to fight crime while also struggling to hold down a regular 9 to 5 and pay the rent in the city that never sleeps. While not exactly a “Hip-Hop” centric television show in the traditional sense, the super hero action-drama based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name certainly on paper and in practice seems to hold the proper attributes and aesthetics to deem it worthy of a Hip-Hop centric series. Featuring an all original blaxploitation film inspired soundtrack composed by Adrian Young and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, with cameos from Method Man, Jidenna, Raphael Sadiiq and The Delfonics amongst others, to even naming the episodes of the series two seasons after iconic Gang Starr and Pete Rock & CL Smooth song titles; Luke Cage was arguably by far the most “Hip-Hop” centric television series ever to air that didn’t specifically revolve around the music or broader culture itself. Of course it’s possible that Luke Cage’s cancellation has more to do with parent company Disney’s plans to roll out their own streaming service Disney+ and move the companies properties to that platform rather than Luke Cage or the company’s other Marvel series were underperforming. (Dare Devil, Jessica Jones and the less popular Iron Fist were also cancelled) So while it’s possible Luke Cage could be resurrected in some form or fashion in the future on Disney’s own platform, its debatable how much of the mature and risqué aspects of the show’s nature remain. Given that at the end of the day Disney is still a company who’s core demographic is comprised of children and families; and that is highly unlikely to change no matter how popular gritty super hero series become. Unlike the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man or even Black Panther; Luke Cage is not a character who’s image will be gracing children’s shirts, lunch boxes & bed sheets; nor is it likely the character will see his own toy line or kind of promotional merchandise marketed towards Disney’s core demographic either, which again is children. That’s just not the kind of character Luke Cage is or has been marketed at least. Which is why airing the series with show’s edgier tone on Netflix made sense. However, with Disney restricting all of its properties to to its own services; it remains to be seen when or if we’ll ever see Luke Cage return in capacity nearly as gritty or authentic as the Netflix series incarnation. With the original deal between Marvel and Netflix for the series stipulating that the characters cannot appear in any non-Netflix series or films for at least two years following the cancellation of Luke Cage it will be awhile before we see the bullet proof man return to the silver screen.

 

Future Possibilities 

With all of this said, television is by no means a inhospitable no mans land for Hip-Hop and music industry influenced and inspired programming. Fox’s Empire has been consistently holding its own and now in the midst of its fifth season. However, if one were to draw a Venn diagram of its viewership it would far more likely overlap with Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Love & Hip-Hop than Luke Cage, The Breaks and The Get Down. Other shows such as Atlanta, the brainchild of Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino who created, produces and stars in the FX series has also found great success on the late-night cable circuit; its debatable that just as with Empire that the series’ draw and appeal lays more-so in the show’s non Hip-Hop related elements. In Atlanta’s case social commentary made on race relations in the U.S., race in conjunction with pop culture, gentrification and a host of other issues and struggles encounters and faced by millennials. While shows like Atlanta may cover a wider variety of topics and do so in a more conscious and ‘woke’ manner; at the end of the day it is no more a Hip-Hop centric than Empire. Thus which separates the series from others such as Luke Cage, The Breaks and The Get Down. Essentially, while both series may be influenced by Hip-Hop culture and even feature characters who are musicians, the emphasis on these plot points usually pales in comparison to the importance that it played in ll the aforementioned series that have since been cancelled. Television audiences clearly show an appetite for music inspired and docudrama-esque programming. Television mini-series on BET such as The New Edition Story chronicling the music careers of New Edition have proved some of the network’s most popular and successful original programming, while VH1’s CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story  the biographical film about the R&B/Hip-Hop trio TLC released several years earlier also proved to be the highest-rated original film premiere in VH1 history. Clearly audiences enjoy and will tune in to watch such programming as stand alone features and mini-series. Yet full blow television series still seem to repeatedly have the plug pulled prematurely by network execs. With Rap music and Hip-hop culture seemingly more mainstream and more popular than ever, then why do Hip-Hop centric dramas and inspired television programming continue to have such a a hard time finding a home on cable channels and streaming service platforms? Could it possibly be that at the end of the day so called  ‘real’ Hip-Hop heads don’t spend real time and money tuning into such programs or supporting the platforms they air on? With even popular programs such as Luke Cage getting axed, while some shows may lack the audience numbers to justify their budgets; its doubtful this is the plight responsible for every similar show’s downfall. While series like The Get Down likely met their fate due to over inflated budgets and irresponsible spending, its unlikely that smaller or far more popular shows like The Breaks and Luke Cage were killed off for similar reasons. One possible explanation could be that at the end of the day, while Hip-Hop is entering a stage where a contemporary market is not only emerging but growing; the genre is at the end of the day still largely a youth driven movement and culture. Hip-Hop, historically is not a genre that generally speaking is very kind or compassionate towards it’s pioneers and it’s ver possible we are seeing an extension of this playing out on cable television and steaming platforms. However, that’s not to say all hope is lost. As the ‘millennial’ generation continues to progress deeper into adulthood and the demand for more 90’s and other throwback inspired content that tugs at the heartstrings and childhood memories of 90’s babies continues, it’s safe to assume that at least for the time being we’ll continue to see some more old school and classic Hip-Hop inspired content produced that hopefully will eventually find its audience ad survive long enough to garner a following.

 

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