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South Bronx Residents Have Mixed Feelings About “The Get Down”

“The Get Down,” is back. The second season of Netflix’s series about hip hop’s origins in the South Bronx premiered over the weekend. It’s inspired a new walking tour this weekend. But locals say it doesn’t completely change mixed feelings about how their history is being portrayed. Emily Dugdale reports. 


DUGDALE: Nilka Martell is showing me a part of her new Bronx walking tour.

MARTELL: This is 149th Street and St. Ann’s. My parents actually lived in that building right over there…

DUGDALE: We’re in St. Mary’s Park in the Melrose neighborhood in the South Bronx. In “The Get Down”, the main character, DJ Shaolin Fantastic, and his crew climb around on top of the park’s signature giant rocks.

MARTELL: There were plenty of scenes here… Shaolin sliding down, the guys talking at the top of the rock when the girls were kinda to learn how to dance and trying to get into the club.

DUGDALE: Martell was just a little kid in the late 70s when hip-hop was taking over the neighborhood. But she grew up here – and with the popularity of the “The Get Down”  – sees an opportunity to tell the story of hip hop from a local perspective. She wants to show off places like 1520 Sedgwick Avenue where DJ Kool Herc first spun the turntables, and music from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five lit up sweaty underground parties.

MARTELL: I think one of our favorite songs in the house is the Message. Sometimes like we’ll be talking and I’ll be like, “Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge,” and the kids are like, Ma, shut up.

MARTELL: That early hip hop was really like documenting history. The anger, the frustration, roaches and rats, right, and it’s like, yeah, this was what was going on. Because if you had abandoned buildings, what did that attract?

DUGDALE: Martell says hip hop is rooted in this history of poverty. And it’s poverty that’s not all in the past. The Bronx – still overwhelmingly black and Latino –  remains one of the poorest areas in the country. Nelson Seda – who goes by Chief 69 –  is walking through the Fort Apache neighborhood – a mecca for hip hop history. He’s been rapping about his love for the craft since he was a kid, and is now showing me around some of hip hop’s forgotten landmarks – the ones that marked the beginning of the scene. Like here, where there used to be the store where everyone bought “the look”.

SEDA: And you would get all your hip hop gear if you lived in the Bronx from Jew Man’s. You’d get things like the suede Pumas, the fat laces. This is way before Run DMC and “My Adidas.”

DUGDALE: Like the store, there’s a lot from the 70s that’s no longer around. New buildings line the old blocks, and street construction is underway. There’s a renewal of sorts going on – in part because of shows like The Get Down. And that’s ironic for Seda. The Get Down has a multi-million dollar budget – but when they contacted Seda to audition for a dancing role, he couldn’t afford to fly out to LA. He says they should support and include more hip hop artists from the real Bronx – not just hire Hollywood actors.   

SEDA: That’s the thing that bothers people like me who are from the culture. Are people getting paid for it, or are they just being exploited again, like it’s the 80s all over?

DUGDALE: And yet, he says there’s something great about seeing his stories represented at all.

SEDA: When’s last time you saw for so many episodes that you seen people who look like you. With conditions that you’ve lived in, portrayed. Accurately, or relatively accurately. We don’t see that enough.

DUGDALE: But Nilka Martell – the organizer of the The Get Down walking tour – says the borough she grew up in has come a long way from the 70s. For some who feel deeply rooted in this community, the show’s representation of the Bronx risk being stuck in the past.

MARTELL: If you were born and raised here, or you know, you spent time in the Bronx, you know that it’s not burning anymore. But if you’re on the other side of the world and you watch this Netflix show, even though it’s based in the 1970s, it kind of just reinforces that image of a burning Bronx.

DUGDALE: And Martell says with the walking tour, she’s ready to show how far the Bronx is from a burning borough. Emily Dugdale, Columbia Radio News.


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