Even Lucious Lyon's Empire wasn't built in a day. Another music-centric television project, VH1's movie The Breaks, which premiered last night, takes a look at the hip-hop industry -- but well before the multiplatinum, shiny-suited heydays of labels like Bad Boy provided fodder for Fox’s hit show.
Loosely inspired by the acclaimed 2010 book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnas (who executive produced and co-wrote the film), The Breaks is set in 1990 in New York, a key time and place in a young genre's evolution. Major labels were only just getting involved in hip-hop, and the artistic heights reached by future Big Apple icons like Big Daddy Kane and De La Soul were followed closely by the commercial peaks of future punchlines like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. It was also the apex of the crack era that inspired rappers for decades to come -- annual murders in New York were at an all-time high of 2,245 in 1990, more than five times recent yearly totals. The Breaks does an admirable job recreating this long-lost mix of danger, daring and dreams, providing a New York-centric companion piece of sorts to Straight Outta Compton.
And two of its key ingredients are real-life musicians based in New York: Tristan "Mack" Wilds, an actor (The Wire, Adele's "Hello" video) and rising R&B star who touts his love for vintage New York rap (see his breakbeat-heavy single “Love in the 90z”); and DJ Premier, the legendary producer behind 1990s classics with The Notorious B.I.G., Nas and his own duo Gang Starr (among many others) that came to define the city’s traditional, so-called boom bap sound. Wilds co-stars as aspiring rap producer DeeVee; Premier scores the film, which climaxes in a hard-hitting original song by the character Ahm he produced (rapper Phonte, of Little Brother and Foreign Exchange fame, wrote the lyrics). Weeks before the The Breaks hit VH1, Wilds and DJ Premier sat down at the producer’s studio in Queens, surrounded by gold and platinum by timeless albums from Nas and The Notorious BIG, to discuss their work on the film -- which reportedly could be developed into a series if it’s well received. At press time, it was a trending topic on Twitter.
Wilds: The main thing I kept telling Dan and everybody was "I'm never gonna disrespect the culture. I gotta learn -- I need class right now. Teach me everything." It was just understanding the culture, talking to the right people, doing your research, making sure you got everything down pat -- the way they walk, the way they talk, the way they dance, the way they move. Plus it's embedded in me. Being a New Yorker who grew up in that time, it was innate. So they didn't even have to tell me a lot of times.
Premier: I remember one little thing in the scene where you hear [makes police-siren sound], the way the cops do now, with the vacuum horn. I was like, "Yo, what was that?" They said, "That's from outside when we were filming." I said, "Well, y'all are gonna mute that right? Because police sirens didn't sound like that back then. They were like bwoop, bwoop" [mimics the hook of KRS-One’s 1993 “Sound of Da Police”]. They changed it.
Wilds: We wanted to keep it as authentic as possible.
Premier: I've never really scored anything. I'm new to this; I'm used to just making records and performing. Scoring films is just not my world. But authenticity was the number one thing that on my mind from day one. And what I like about what Mack did, he was like, "Yo, show me how you did it." He was following my movements when he was scratching and doing the drum machines, the SP-1200 [sampler/sequencer]. All the producers from that era that were the top dogs, from Showbiz, Diamond D, Large Professor, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, all of us -- they're gonna be looking at that like, "Yo, it looks like he's really doing it!”
Billboard: Mack, are you going to start making beats on the SP-1200 now?
Wilds: I might!
Premier: We'll get him lessons.
Billboard: The movie is also well-timed. With artists like A$AP Rocky, Joey Bada$$ and Action Bronson, all of whom released albums last year, the sound and sensibility of '90s New York rap is experiencing a bit of a comeback.
Premier: To a certain degree, yes, because it makes you go back just like when Straight Outta Compton came out. For that movie and N.W.A to now be back on the charts, that lets you know that their music doesn't have a date. At the end of the day, timeless music can always come back. I feel like the same thing could happen with this, especially with the younger generation that never saw the '90s era, they get to see in this film.
Wilds: They created the sound -- that boom bap. That's the sound of New York. That's the sound of the trains rolling by. That's the sound of trying to get a buttered roll right before you gotta hit the streets. One of the biggest characters in the movie is New York. The way it sounds, the way it moves, the way it feels -- it's New York City.
Billboard: How much of the film was inspired by real characters and events? Which ones?
Wilds: This man right here [points to Premier]. I honestly think that my character, he's supposed to be like a young DJ Premier, so getting tutelage from him was probably the best thing that I could have done.
Billboard: Premier, was it hard going back to your old sound for this? This is before you helped innovate sample-chopping; it was mostly loops back then.
Premier: Yeah, it was a sample-heavy era. There was a sample I used for the score that Whitney Houston's mother wouldn’t clear. I had to do a whole different version, but it still had to sound the way I made beats back then. I had to do my best to avoid sampling and I'm replaying everything on a keyboard, but a lot of the sounds on these machines now don't sound like that era. A lot of these keyboards now didn't even exist in the '90s. They're too clean. I had to kind of forget about what I'm doing now. It took me a good day to just go back to that zone -- I don't do that style anymore.
Billboard: Premier, did you ever have a gun pulled on you when dealing with an artist, like Mack’s character? Guru [Premier’s late Gang Starr bandmate] raps about your shows getting busted up by violence on “Soliloquy of Chaos.”
Premier: No. There have been guns in our midst here and there, but we survived that. But you know, that was always part of hip-hop anyway. If you're a rapper from that era, you were always gonna get tested. It just goes with it.
Mack: In hip-hop? You're gonna get tested. It's necessary. You joined a brotherhood. Like even me! I'm a singer, but I consider myself in a weird way like a hip-hop singer. Like I don't really just do R&B -- a lot of music that I lean on is hip-hop. Like, those are rap beats that I sing over. So even me, there are times when people would try to test me. But I've been in this culture for so long. It's dope that I'm able to play out something that's inspired me so much throughout my life.