Two episodes in, The Get Down embraces its inner Moulin Rouge, turning Machine’s immortal 1979 dance classic “There But for the Grace of God Go I” into an anthem of defiance. But before we get to the most insanely rendered ethnic display of church since Rev. Cleophus James gave black folks dat feelin’ in The Blues Brothers, let’s talk about Shaolin Fantastic and the Magic Crayon.
Full disclosure: I used to DJ back in the ’80s. One of the more intriguing aspects of The Get Down is how it applies Shaw Brothers–esque mythical qualities to objects that, truth be told, really did feel magical to us. It’s not for nothing that Shao secures his initiation into the DJ dojo of Grandmaster Flash with a rare remix 12-inch single. Any DJ worth his salt spent time digging through crates of LPs, looking for the musical equivalent of the Holy Grail or a sensei’s mastery. Sometimes you stumbled upon it by accident, discovering a record’s hidden treasures after buying it. And other times, word of mouth about a rare remix elevated it to must-have status.
A DJ’s collection is like a pirate’s buried treasure: What you have and what you do with it can cement you as a legend. When Shao mentions that DJ Malibu was killed after he played the Misty Holloway remix, the “last record he’ll ever play,” Shameik Moore delivers the line with a hint of nobility. And when he brings the Fantastic Four Plus One crew to his humble abode, revealing the mother lode of LPs he locked away in a cabinet, the crew looks at it with awe and reverence. It’s Shao’s treasure chest, a figurative million bucks snuck in behind his otherwise broke-ass hustler’s existence.
By the way, you’ll notice that I don’t use the V-word to describe those round black things that have music coming out of them. This is because I am old, and back in the day, vinyl was the shit that burned the skin off your legs when you sat in your pops’ car in the summertime. Today, vinyl is a bad word, a hipster fakery of aural coolness. Anybody who calls a record “vinyl” should immediately get beaten by a spinning octopus holding a switch in each arm.
But that’s just this grumpy old man’s opinion.
Anyway, Grandmaster Flash was already legendary by the time I touched a turntable, so his role as Master Po to Shao’s Kwai Chang Caine feels right to me. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear, and Shao is definitely ready for his first assignment. “I have in my hands the key to my quick-mix theory,” Flash says. He pulls out a purple crayon, which is accompanied by a swordlike noise on the soundtrack. “But what about the Get Down?” Shao asks. “You were supposed to show me how to do what you do.”
“Do NOT underestimate the crayon,” Flash warns. Crayola should trademark this line immediately. “I promise you the secret, not the answer, Grasshopper,” he continues. Pointing to Shao’s crew, he says, “You must solve the mystery as one.”
While the Fantastic Four Plus One (FF+1 henceforth) look for clues, Mylene remains on punishment for sneaking out to go to Les Inferno. Her Tío Francisco visits her, advising her to be patient regarding his promise to help her achieve stardom. Turns out that Jackie, a music producer at a major label, owes $25,000 in gambling debt to Los Hijos Boricuas, the club Francisco represents. He reminds Jackie that Los Hijos Boricuas’ motto is “la violencia is discouraged … but not prohibited.” Jackie agrees to listen to Mylene sing this Sunday — and if he thinks she’s worthy, he’ll sign her. Mylene will find out about this later. For now, her uncle leaves her with some wise words: “Live out your sentence with dignity and soon you shall be free.”
Francisco also has some wise words for his brother, Reverend Buggin’ Out, but he won’t listen to any warnings about over-parenting Mylene. The reverend will pay for that later.
Meanwhile, Shao is dealing with his own gangster. Fat Annie (an awesome Lillias White), the owner of Les Inferno and the leader of a drug ring up in the Bronx, is about to accept Shao’s resignation from the drug game. Before he shows up, Annie takes care of some business with the Bronx homicide detective on her payroll. He tells her that the Savage Warlords were hired to hit Les Inferno, possibly by her rival in Harlem or maybe even by a higher-up inside the Warlords. “I want more than maybe for my money!” she warns.
The detective suggests having a Warlord named Napoleon brought in for questioning by her son, Cadillac. “And please, no more dead bodies,” the detective begs, “or we’ll have a problem even I can’t fix.” Unfortunately, Annie’s dopey disco-dancing son, Cadillac, accidentally shoots one of Napoleon’s teenaged henchmen to death during questioning. The scene is really ugly, proving The Get Down is terrible at mixing comedy with graphic violence.
Unaware of her son’s fatal mistake, Annie dispenses some tough love and wisdom to Shao. “You got the gift for graft boy,” she tells him, “and now you wanna go blow a horn?” When Shao clarifies that he wants to be a DJ, a disappointed Annie throws up her hands. She rips a $100 bill and hands half of it to Shao. “When you need the other half of this, you come see Annie,” she says, with a hint of confidence that he’ll return sooner than he thinks. “But it won’t be so easy for you next time.”
Also not so easy: Flash’s crayon riddle. Not even good weed can help the FF+1 crack it. Boo-Boo (Tremaine Brown Jr.) and his brother Ra-Ra (Skylan Brooks) give up, lest they miss dinner: “Mom’s making that Rice-a-Roni with that non-federal cheese and that ground-meat chili.” The non-federal cheese is what sold it for me, because not even a nuclear explosion would melt gov’ment cheese.
Dizzee (Jaden Smith) also leaves after accidentally breaking Flash’s crayon, but Ezekiel vows to stay as long as necessary to help Shao decipher the riddle. The answer comes from, of all places, the flying rats of Gotham. The pigeons and their circular flight patterns help Ezekiel realize that the crayon is used to mark the place where the Get Down begins. For his discovery, Shao rechristens Ezekiel as “Books.” Their bond grows deeper, but tragedy will soon render it asunder.
After congratulating him, Flash gives Shao a two-turntable challenge. “Find one infinite beat,” he says, “and Grasshopper, choose one you can live with for a long time!” Within his record cabinet, there are many options, but just as Shao masters this second assignment, the owner of the abandoned building where he’s squatting has the property torched by hired arsonists. Shao’s record collection is completely destroyed, leading him back to Fat Annie so he can earn enough money to rebuild it. When Books won’t go with him, Shao brutally dissolves their partnership.
This leads Books back to Mylene. Angry over their “break up” last episode, Books refuses to accompany her on piano at her “audition” in Reverend Buggin’ Out’s church. Mylene asks because she knows he’ll give her church solo the funkier sound suggested by Boo-Boo’s sister, Yolanda (Stefanée Martin). Let it be said that I worship at the altar of Yolanda’s Afro Puffs, but that’s a topic for another time.
With Francisco’s help and a sexy new dress underneath her choir robe, Mylene prepares for her date with destiny. Books plans to accompany her — he changes his mind after that dustup with Shao — only to discover that her father cancelled her solo just before services start. No matter. As the churchgoers get happy, yelling and shaking and speaking in tongues as only the Pentecostals can, Mylene steps into the forefront, letting out a mighty roar of perfect notes.
Suddenly, Mylene tears off her robe to reveal a dress that would please everyone but Jesus and her father, then tears into “There But for the Grace of God Go I.” Even if the show didn’t slightly alter its lyrics, the song tells a story very similar to hers. It’s about overprotective parents who leave the Bronx, raising their daughter in a place with “no blacks, no Jews, and no gays.” The smothered daughter rebels in spectacular fashion, proving that “too much love is worse than none at all.” The warning comes wrapped in a killer ass-shaking musical hook, which Books and the choir flawlessly reproduce. When the song ends, even the traumatized reverend realizes that a star was just born.