Last week, Netflix premiered Part 2 of The Get Down, its hit series chronicling the pitfalls of life in the Bronx in the late ’70’s through the adventures of “The Get Down Brothers,” a ragtag crew of kids learning the ways of the urban DJ scene on their road to street stardom. The story serves as a snapshot of the musical renaissance occurring in the struggling NYC borough at that time, as disco’s old guard collided with the new school: big groups of people hosting loud parties, defacing public property with spray paint, scratching their records, and chanting and talking over the cacophony–the earliest incarnations of hip-hop culture.
The Get Down serves up the story of DJ Shaolin Fantastic, Ezekiel Figaro (a.k.a. “Books), Boo-Boo, Dizzee and Ra-Ra in the style of an old Bruce Lee movie, with real-life hip-hop pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, and Afrika Bambaataa serving as the master to the kids’ proverbial “young grasshopper.” While the reception of this stylistically over-the-top presentation has met some mixed reviews (we love it, for the record), what carries the show is the strength of its music–the centerpiece of the project. Along with powerful vocal performances by the ladies on the disco side of the story, executive producer and NYC hip-hop royalty Nas wrote all of the raps featured in the show, including the over-arching musical narration that anchors each episode and the verses spun by each of the show’s characters.
While many of his character-based rhymes are seriously dope in context with the story, there are a few that can stand alone as great songs in their own right. Take, for example, “Angel Dust,” a Gil Scott-Heron-sampling groove that tells of the affliction brought on by the devilish drug. Give it a spin below via YouTube user YazmarTV:
The tune appears as the backdrop to the havoc that dust has wrought on the inner city in that era, cut together with news reports warning of the drug’s dangers and quotes from the show’s rendering of actual former NYC mayor Ed Koch declaring “war” on those who use and sell it. It applies to specific story, and a specific problem, and a specific time and place. And yet, the song feels timeless–current, even. While it may not still be a problem on as large a scale as it once was, make no mistake: the perils of PCP are still very real in many places, particularly in the inner-city.
The theme still comes up in hip-hop today. On Kendrick Lamar‘s hit 2012 record good kid, m.A.A.D city, the sinister presence of PCP in daily life is a central theme (the “A.D” in “m.A.A.D.” stands for “Angel Dust”). The concept album, which follows a tumultuous day in the life of young Kendrick and the homies, is framed as a first-hand look at modern life in Compton–and they’re wrestling with the same demons that Zeke and Shaolin and the others faced in the summer of ’77.
While the continued existence of this problem is anything but comforting, the present applicability of this song set four decades ago is a testament to Nas’ other-worldly abilities as a lyricist, philosopher, and storyteller. Nas can’t help but sound current, even when he’s writing about the 70’s.