Photo of Dan Charnas courtesy of New York Times.
'The Breaks' Creator Dan Charnas Talks Authenticity, Beepers + Staying True [Interview]
Photo of Dan Charnas courtesy of Genius.
This Monday, Feb. 20, the VH1 series The Breaks will make its premiere to anticipating audiences around the country. Picking up where the movie left off, Nikki, played by Afton Williamson, her boyfriend David (David Call) and Deevee (Tristan "Mack" Wilds) are all trying to make it in the music business during the summer of 1990. The show moves at a slower pace than the movie pilot and gives viewers a chance to get to know the characters, including New York, which is its own set piece with the '90s as the backdrop.
New characters are also introduced in The Breaks as Teyana Taylor rounds out the cast that also includes Wood Harris, Method Man and others. Loosely based on author and executive producer Dan Charnas' book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, we were able to chop it up with the creative about the show's authenticity, the time period—from beepers to tagged up subways to slang like "herb"—and staying true to telling a dramatic story. Be sure to set your dials to VH1 when The Breaks airs at 9:00 p.m. EST / 8:00 p.m. CT. Enjoy!
Okayplayer: The series has most of the same actors, Dan, and it also has the same music supervisor and staff?
Dan Charnas: Yes, same characters. Wood Harris, Method Man, Mack Wilds [are returning], and we have also added some important new ones. So, you're going to see a character played by the wonderful, amazing Gloria Reuben. There's also a character played by Melanie Diaz from Fruitvale Station. We will have some significant guest appearances as well—T.I. plays a role. Teyana Taylor plays a character. We have expanded the cast.
DJ Premier came on as our executive music producer last year. This year, he has graduated to become one of the members on our executive producer team. As far as the music is concerned, Premier and I own that together. He is the composer of the score along with the assistance from the amazing musician, Jason Moran, and he is also the composer of a lot of the original music. We have Phonte Coleman [of Foreign Exchange] as a lyric writer like he was last season. Afro is another young kid who completely bought into the '90s aesthetic—he's got his own lyrics and he's like a machine. We got blessed.
It is a fantastic music team. Everybody is in lockstep in terms of what the musical mission of this thing is—to create and evoke the world that we are actually in—the summer of 1990 in New York.
OKP: What kind of things did you all have to do to get the younger actors into '90s mode?
DC: I didn't have to do much because the actors are so motivated and have so many good resources. Mack Wilds grew up in Staten Island. His mother cut hair for The Wu-Tang Clan. He's known Method Man since he was a shorty. He's a fan of the '90s. He loves the '90s. There was no disconnect for him and a very short learning curve. Similarly for Teyana Taylor, who is from Harlem and her parents are old school hip-hop heads as well.
The young actors really got it. When I meet a new actor I like to give them my book—many of them already had the book. I never felt like I had to do much at all in terms of schooling them. I think they schooled themselves which shows just how much they believed in the show.
OKP: We have been having a run of nostalgic movies centered around hip-hop from The Get Down to Dope. How does The Breaks fit into it, but also what do you think about this renewed interest in the time period?
DC: I have to give you one caveat and that is one of the repercussions of making television, which is that I don't get time to watch a lot of TV. I watch The Wire a lot like what's the best, what's on top, what am I aiming for? I wasn't watching other hip-hop productions because I don't need to. I think it is great that hip-hop history has become a source for narrative because it is one of the greatest American stories, and there are a million ways to tell the story. You can tell it from the perspective of the 1970s or you can tell it from the perspective of the current era. You have The Get Down on one hand, you have Empire on the other or you can go in-between them and seek out the 1990s which is what we did.
There are smaller stories you can tell. You can tell the story of The Notorious B.I.G., you can tell the story of Tupac [Shakur] or you can tell the story of Public Enemy. There are a million different narratives. I think that there is room for more than just one hip-hop show. I did see the pilot for The Get Down and understood it immediately as magic realism. They aren't creating a historical document, so it is not fair to say how accurate are they? It is really supposed to be a fable about the creation of hip-hop and a fable about New York. Baz [Luhrmann] is singing a song about New York [with The Get Down].
OKP: Did you have any issues with producing this show coming from your background as a journalist? Or were you able to just let go and create things for the purpose of the story?
DC: I think it begins and ends with Seith Mann and John Strauss, who are the show runners for The Breaks. John is a newer addition to our team as a consummate television professional. Seth is a creative director and storyteller. Together, they understand how important it all is to the vibe of the show and to the storytelling to really fit this program in history as well. On the other hand, these are all fictional characters. Barry Fouray (Wood Harris) did not walk into the New Music Seminar because there is no Barry.
He is not modeled after one person. We are trying to create real characters that follow archetypes that fit very well. I don't worry about the commitment of production to making sure this looks, feels or smells like something in 1990. The greatest moment for me was inviting the people who lived during that time and worked in the industry during that time and having them say that was just how it was.
OKP: For those who don't know you're also a professor who teaches classes at New York University. What are you teaching the youth?
DC: I am an Associate Arts Professor at the Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, which is a department at the Tisch School of the Arts. I teach as part of the writing and emergent media area, so I am responsible for teaching all of the freshman about the music business. I teach everything from minstrelsy to Miley Cyrus, which is a round trip. I also teach a course on the Golden Age of Hip-Hop and I am teaching the first ever university level course on J Dilla. As a part of that course, I am taking the entire class to Detroit for three days.
OKP: With our current political climate and the industry's focus on the bottom line — how does hip-hop fit into this narrative?
DC: Hip-hop is an American story, not just because of being creative and African American and Latino culture, but because it is also a story about capitalism and how black Americans in many ways through multiracial partnerships were able to break down walls in business that had been put up previously to block them. Hip-hop ended the crossover phenomenon in the music business. Hip-hop changed the dynamic of segregation in American radio. Hip-hop broke young black actors into Hollywood as matinee idols as never before. Hip-hop talked about the importance of having equity, as well as equality. The Motown era had one big entrepreneur [in Berry Gordy], but the hip-hop era had dozens. That is important in American history.
Dan Charnas is an executive producer for VH1’s The Breaks, which will premiere on TV sets on Monday, Feb. 20 at 9:00 p.m. EST / 8:00 p.m. CT.
Ericka Blount is a journalist, professor and author from Baltimore, Maryland. Her book ‘Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train’ is available on Amazon. Please follow her (and us!) on Twitter @ErickaBlount.