It’s easy to think of hip-hop as a collection of superstars and strivers, full of faces angling to be seen. But in truth, hip-hop is an ecosystem favoring the industrious — talent scouts, managers, club promoters, photographers, journalists and more. Without all the activity buzzing behind the scenes, the scene itself would be dull.
So consider VH1’s “The Breaks,” which has its debut at 7 p.m. today, a workplace drama taking place at the dawn of hip-hop’s first large-scale identity crisis: Gangster rap is on the rise, political and socially progressive hip-hop still has legs, and lyricism is a priority, but MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were bringing a high-energy strain of hip-hop, regionally and politically decontextualized, to the pop charts.
In this moment, hip-hop was a genre ripe for exposure, as well as mishandling and manipulation. That’s the animating tension of this promising show, which builds off a two-hour TV movie VH1 aired last year.
At every turn, hustling and ethics rub up against each other. Ahm (Antoine Harris, blank and ominous), a stoic drug dealer with aspirations to rap, records in secret while his criminal enterprise begins to crumble. Barry Fouray (a hilarious Wood Harris) tries to turn his fledgling management company into a proper record label, playing nice with major label executives while using drugs and sparring with a former business partner. Nikki Jones (Afton Williamson) works as Fouray’s assistant, trading favors as a means to climbing the ladder. DeeVee (Mack Wilds) is trying to make it as a music producer, but risks getting caught up in Ahm’s dark business. (The irony of DeeVee’s rap-hating father being played by Method Man is rich.)
“The Breaks” is loosely based on Dan Charnas’ “The Big Payback,” an impressively detailed history of the makings of hip-hop as a business. (Charnas is an executive producer.) The result is sometimes verisimilitude first, emotions second, with characters taking a few episodes to develop into something resembling real people, rather than allegorical constructs.
Unlike the telenovela intrigue of “Empire” — which presumes that hip-hop is already big business, accompanied by epic drama — “The Breaks” takes place in a time when the stakes are still low; therefore the squabbles don’t always rise to true dramatic tension (though the scenes in which an enraged radio station boss lays waste to his office with a baseball bat are absurdist fun).
In many ways, the real star of “The Breaks” is historical accuracy. Throughout the show, the fictional characters intermingle with actors portraying actual figures of the time, including Keith Sweat, Special Ed, DJ Chuck Chillout and the executive Dante Ross.
And the music — whether used as soundtrack or in situ — is spot on: Boogie Down Productions’ “Love’s Gonna Get’Cha (Material Love),” Stetsasonic’s “Talkin All That Jazz,” Slick Rick’s “Mona Lisa.” The third episode takes place at the New Music Seminar, an essential hip-hop trade event of the 1980s and early 1990s. Here, Fouray, holed up in a hotel room sniffing cocaine, seeks out new talent while out on the floor, a famous rumble involving Ice Cube’s crew Da Lench Mob — as seen in “Straight Outta Compton” — is recreated.
Perhaps the most elegant homage to the time comes from the original music written for and performed by the various characters. The music is produced by DJ Premier — also an executive producer — whose granular understanding of the texture of late 1980s and early 1990s hip-hop is beyond reproach. And the lyrics for the songs delivered by Ahm and other rappers on the show are largely written by Phonte Coleman, of Little Brother and Foreign Exchange. (He also makes a wry cameo as an Afrocentric rapper in search of a record deal.) His ear for detail is stunning, creating songs — rhyme patterns, flow textures, subject matter — that would have fit into the era seamlessly.
In these moments — seeing Ahm recording in a makeshift booth with egg cartons for soundproofing, or watching Fouray audition a sterling rapper, obviously based on Nas — it’s clear what everyone behind the scenes was working so hard for, and why the music rose, while their personal stories were left in the shadows.