It’s so deeply embedded in our culture now, that it’s hard to remember a time when hip-hop was just a movement. It was once the ugly step-sister in the music industry desperate to shine, and it took some very ambitious and brazen people, to push the sound of a generation to the forefront of mainstream culture.
Picking up where the two-hour television movie (which aired last year) left off, “The Breaks” television series is about being ambitious, embracing the grind and never settling for anything less than what you want. Set in the summer of 1990, “The Breaks” follows Nikki Jones (Afton Williamson), David Aaron (David Call) and DeeVee (Mack Wilds) as they claw their way up the ladder in the music industry during a time when hip-hop was seen as just a fad.
Director Seith Mann has fleshed out his characters and storylines, shining a light on the dedication and sacrifices that have long since been forgotten. Recently, I spoke with Mann about the series, what inspired him to tell this story, and how his characters have shocked him.
Seith Mann: Hi Aramide, how are you?
Aramide Tinubu: Hi Seith, I’m well how are you?
SM: I’m blessed and highly favored.
AT: Wonderful! First and foremost, congratulations on season one of “The Breaks.” I know we’re only about halfway in, but it’s already gotten such amazing reviews, and it’s so well done.
SM: Thank you very much, I appreciate that!
AT: No problem! So, I would love to chat about what inspired you to do this piece. I know that Dan Charnas’ book, “The Big Payback” was really instrumental in inspiring the idea for you, but did you know prior to reading the book that you wanted to work on a piece about hip-hop in the ‘90s?
SM: I was reading the book because I wanted to do a historical piece about hip-hop, and how hip-hop has become this thing; this world power. It was so much bigger than just music at a certain point, and I knew it didn’t start that way. So, I was doing a bunch of research because I was a kid who grew up listening to rap, but I wasn’t in the music business, I just listened to it all of the time. I didn’t know the history like that other than just being a fan. “The Big Payback” was one of the many books that I read. It was the one that really touched me because it was just so spot on. It was non-fiction written like fiction; it was a page-turner. It’s like a one thousand page book or something like that, and I couldn’t put it down. I read it really fast. At the same time, the author of the book, Dan Charnas had set it up at VH1 to do a movie. The research agent Chris Lawson, who had helped me find the book, flagged the project for me, and I started talking with Maggie Malina who is the Head of Scripted at VH1 and Dan about exactly what they had in mind. I went back and forth with Dan about the story, and before I knew it, it was mine to tell. So, that’s how I got involved with it.
AT: Fantastic. One thing that really struck me about the series and the film was how accurate they both are. You’ve really captured the grit and grime of New York City in the ‘90s. How did you work with the set designers and even the costuming department to make sure you were getting an accurate portrayal of the summer of 1990 in New York City?
SM: It was very important to us to get that period right as our foundation. This book was rigorously researched, so we just wanted to get the period right. Like you said from the costumes to the production design, it was very important for all of our department heads with the movie and continuing through the series to do their own very rigorous research. They got to know the period well. We definitely embraced people who lived in New York at that time themselves, but we didn’t want to just lean on that, so as part of their creative process the department heads did a lot of research. And then, on top of that, we had Dan [Charnas], we had Maggie [Malina], we have DJ Premier, we have many people involved with the production who knew the period from their own experience. We were very exacting to make sure that for example, those shoes don’t go in the frame because they didn’t come out until ’93.
AT: (Laughing) In terms of shifting from a film into a series, I first saw the film at the tail end of 2015, and I knew that you all were developing a series, but it took a second. What was that timeline like for you moving from film to TV, and what was that process like?
SM: You know, it was interesting (Laughing). The movie aired January 4, 2016, and we all felt very excited. We were very proud of the movie. We felt like it hit the kind of numbers that it needed to hit, and we just wanted to go right into the series. So there was a little bit of a period of waiting on pins and needles for VH1 to check all of their metrics to make sure it made sense to continue, and they did. But, I think they didn’t order it until March of 2016, or maybe the end of February, I’m not sure. But, once that waiting period was over, it was like we need to put the team together. So, the first part, beyond getting a general idea of what we wanted to do in the season was finding someone to run the room with me, because I’ve never show run before. There was a period of finding John Strauss who is the co-showrunner. He came in to partner with me in terms of just running the room, and he’s just been tremendous in that regard. After we got John on board it was just putting the room together, and that was such a critical part, and why I think the show is so successful. TV is a writer’s medium. There are a couple of shows where one or two people are writing it, but for the most part, it is not something you do alone, and you have to have a good team. So the next part was rounding out our writing staff for the first season. Once we had that in place, we opened the room up. We had a target production date that we were working towards, so it was fast and furious and exhaustive and fun, breaking those eight episodes in preparation for an August production date.
AT: One thing that I love about “The Breaks” is that it speaks to millennials even though it’s set just as many of us were being born. I think a lot of times as millennials, we feel that no one really understands how hard we’ve had to hustle to break into our industries and things like that because we’re living in such a different time. Was that intentional on your end?
SM: Honestly, no. It wasn’t like a conscious thing that we wanted to tell this story and gear it towards millennials per say. But, we did want to recreate that sense of what it means to be young and hungry and ambitious in New York City. For me, I was not someone who was in the music game, but I was a young, hungry filmmaker in New York in my twenties. So that journey was something that resonated with me even though it wasn’t exactly the lane that I was in. So, it’s a journey that resonates not just with millennials, but anyone who has ever been young and hungry and ambitious. It’s those people that often change the world, and that’s what we are saying these characters did. These characters represent that generation of people who used hip-hop to change the landscape of this country and the world.
AT: One of the characters that really speaks to me the most is Nikki, played by Afton Williamson.
SM: Love Afton Williamson.
AT: She’s amazing! I think one of the things that really speaks to me about her character is the fact that she’s so hungry and driven that she’s willing to bulldoze her way through anyone who gets in her way. We have “Scandal, ” and we have “How to Get Away With Murder,” but you don’t really see younger Black women in those type of roles. How did you come up with her character because she is so morally ambiguous in so many ways, and she really walks to her own beat, acting in the moment without regard for the consequences?
SM: (Laughing) You know that is a good question. Nikki evolved in a certain kind of way. In the first treatment and in the first draft of the script, I don’t know that she was clearly formed in terms of that part that you’re talking about in her that is willing to do what she needs to do, and what the limit of what she needs to do is. It was really just one of those things that in the process of rewriting, I want to say it the second or third draft; it was just a little bit of the “what if” game. She just announced herself to me at a certain point. Once I had that part of her, she was just clear.
AT: Let’s talk about the music. I know that DJ Premier does all the music for the series and it’s just so timely. How did you work together and decide which tracks you wanted to use in “The Breaks” because it’s such a vital component?
SM: You know what, the music is obviously a key part of it. Premier composes most of the original tracks that are there. It was important for us to work with Premier because we just felt that he was so quintessential to that period. We wanted to be transported back to that time, not only in wardrobe and in production design but also in music. That’s was why we wanted to work with Premier, and he’s just been great concerning his production work and also his score which is so important. We wanted to have music in the score that still reflected the energy and music of that time, and he’s just been so great in delivering music that speaks to the dramatic moments we need but also, evokes the period. In terms of the source music we have, the music that was playing at the time, we have the benefit of Dan, who was an A&R guy at the time, so he helps us curate a lot of the musical choices. I will pick songs, Dan will pick songs, our editors will pick songs, but ultimately we rely on Dan and Premier to make sure the tracks that we are picking are the correct tracks for that period. Then we’ll rely on all of us to make sure the music is right dramatically.
AT: Was there any character in particular whose journey really shocked you once you guys finished writing the scripts for season one?
SM: Yup! (Laughing) Things happen, and your story and your characters speak their truth at a certain point, and you have to listen to them.
AT: Wonderful, thank you so much for speaking with me Seith. “The Breaks” is just so well done, and it’s so great seeing all the different aspects of the music industry that no longer exist anymore. It’s really incredible to look back at how things were during the emergence of hip-hop into the mainstream.
SM: Thank you.
“The Breaks” airs Mondays at 10 PM ET on VH1.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami