What to Expect From New Hip-Hop Drama 'The Breaks': 'Authenticity Is What We Agonize Over'

Courtesy of VH1
Russell Hornsby as Sampson in a still from The Breaks.

When VH1’s original film The Breaks debuted in January, it was met with critical and commercial success, pulling in 2.6 million total viewers the night of its premiere (according to Nielsen) and prompting the network to option an eight-episode series. Loosely based on The Big Payback, Dan Charnas’ authoritative 2010 history of the hip-hop industry, the show is a period drama set in 1990 New York about three friends trying to make it in the burgeoning hip-hop business, and its success suggested that Fox’s hit Empire had paved the way for similarly themed dramas.

However, since then, the high-profile debuts of the rock-centric Vinyl and Roadies (both of which were canceled), and Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy dive into hip-hop’s roots, The Get Down (which received mixed reviews), have made the genre less of a sure bet. With The Breaks’ hourlong episodes set to debut in February 2017, Billboard sat down with Seith Mann (who wrote, directed and produced the show) and Charnas (who co-wrote the story) to talk about authenticity, hip-hop and what to expect from season one.

Billboard: What differentiates The Breaks from shows like Empire and The Get Down?
Seith Mann: Even if we speak specifically to the shows that are music-related, I don't think there's another show that felt to me like a grounded, historic piece about the real personality types that evolved the music the way it is, particularly in 1990. So for me, The Get Down is a very different show; Empire has a different aesthetic and tone. Dan always talks about the Authenticity Bank: there's only so much that you can withdraw before it sounds like bullshit, so there always has to be that balance. I was interested in the characters who made hip-hop become what it is. So to have characters that live in those arcs, it’s a great intersection of authenticity and what’s commercially viable.

Dan Charnas: I take more lessons from Mad Men and The Wire than I would, say, an Empire, which to me is a contemporary soap, or The Get Down, which is this magical realism that's based in a different era from ours. We wanted to make a business drama. Which isn't to say we're not aware of those other shows, but we really don't [look at them]. 

The Authenticity Bank is what we agonize over, and we should. When we make a withdrawal from the Authenticity Bank account, when we create a fictional situation that might reduce the believability, that's not completely in sync with actual factual history, what are we getting in return for that? Do we get a great dramatic moment? Do we get a great new character? And maybe that new character can actually contribute to the Authenticity Bank account.

Can music-related period dramas capture audiences over a full season?
Charnas: I don't feel like it's the period that captures people, I think if the narrative is strong and isn't offset by horrible decision-making when it comes to authenticity, then people will stick around.

Mann: I'm not necessarily a fan of medieval kings and queens, but you hear enough that Game of Thrones is good, so you watch it. I don't care about dragons, but I watch that show because it's well-executed. I think that's what we have to do.

Why is it important to have the hip-hop community involved?
Charnas: It means a lot, even just for the nod to the core audience. We work with real life figures from back then to create characters. [Brooklyn rapper] Special Ed worked with us to recreate Special Ed; he coached the actor, wrote his rhymes, was on set when he performed. Same with [R&B singer] Keith Sweat; I cannot believe what we did with Keith Sweat. We recreated a DJ battle scene from the New Music Seminar and Mack [Wilds] trained for months. He enrolled himself in the Scratch Academy to learn. And then we had two of the greatest battle DJs of all time, Babu and Rob Swift, come and help coach him and recreate a fictional battle sequence with some real moments in it. That's the best part of this, just being able to have those moments.

Mann: What we didn't do in the pilot but that we've done now in the series -- not in every episode -- but we have some real-life characters from the music business intersect with our characters, and hopefully not necessarily just as a cameo pass-by, but as an actual catalyst or integral piece of a narrative that is affecting our characters. So that is one way that we've tried to connect our fictitious world with the real world. And we'll continue to try to do that as we move forward.

What can fans expect from this season?
Mann: To see the characters they met evolve, or devolve, in the business as they get more access to it, or less. Because not everyone is as successful as one would have assumed. We ended [the pilot] on a really upbeat note.

Charnas: But what happens when you get what you want?

Mann: And you find out what happens when you get what you want. But there are complications that follow that, and seeing how these relationships and friendships are affected by relative success or relative failure -- not failure, but slower success in the business -- is something that we deal with.

Charnas: I have two hopes. The first is the journalist, professor hope, that people come away from this with a deeper understanding of the forces that created this thing called hip-hop and that it was, in many ways, dealt a raw deal. But in hip-hop, unlike previous genres of music, the participants of it were able to secure for themselves a bigger piece of the pie -- more equity, more access -- than R&B had ever enjoyed, than jazz had enjoyed, and that is due in large part to the culture that these kids created. But then the other part of me, as a producer and storyteller, hopes that people like the characters and get invested in them. I'll settle for one, but you hope that both happen.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 10 issue of Billboard.