Dan Charnas knows exactly how long it takes to build a time machine. On a humid afternoon in June it is the third of day of shooting for TV film, “The Breaks,” a period piece inspired by his exhaustive tome on the hip-hop music business, The Big Payback. The college professor and former label exec is in the improvised radio room overseeing what will be one of the final scenes of the movie, but is being shot out of order. The midday heat has baked the dozen or so people in various states of productivity. Charnas watches on two small monitors as Directer Seith Mann calls “action” and the room of club patrons below bob their heads to silence, pantomiming a good time. The actual music will be dubbed in later, but Charnas sneaks a play of the DJ Premier-produced reference track through some orange foam headphones, smiling from ear-to-ear. New York radio and hip-hop legend DJ Chuck Chill Out barks commands into the microphone from his perch above the crowd. Like the neon logos for Next Plateau and Tommy Boy Records adorning the walls he is a living artifact of an earlier time in music history. The visual cues like this are just small examples of the extensive lengths that the team behind “The Breaks” went to to make it feel like it’s 19-ninety-now.
The story of “The Breaks” revolves around a young firebrand named Nikki (Afton Williamson), a recent college grad from George Washington University who descends upon New York City like Dorothy in hopes of securing a meeting with The Wiz, a hip-hop music mogul named Barry Fouray, (Wood Harris). Nikki is joined on her journey by her boyfriend David (David Call) who is trying to force change at a local R&B radio station. He has plenty of brains but not much heart. On the other hand their friend DeeVee (Mack Wilds), an aspiring producer, has plenty of passion to match his talent, but is short on street smarts. Together they endeavor to drag the hip-hop music industry kicking and screaming into the future, even if they have to drop a house on a few people along the way.
In between takes WatchLOUD sat with some members of the cast to reflect on this journey into sound.
1. The SP-1200 that Mackwild’s character DeeVee plays is realer than real.
Charnas bought the drum machine from radio legend King Tech in 1994 for $1200. Chino XL’s first LP Here To Save You All, was recorded with it, among others. “It’s a great machine. I trained Mack for an hour on it and he did so good. A natural. We even got the positioning of the sliders right for sampling; First two down for the front end and next two up for the tail end.”
2. Antoine Harris, who plays hardened MC Ahm, was told he should rap in real life by a reliable source:
“Nikki Giovanni was one of my professors in college,” says Harris, who caught the attention of TV fans as an arrogant wide receiver on HBO’s “Ballers” this past season. “She was real close with Tupac’s mother. I’m a poet as well and she published some of my poetry, and she told me I should be a rapper. I didn’t know how I was gonna do that but I became a songwriter.”
3.The jacket DJ Chuck Chillout is wearing in “The Breaks” is his own…from 1989
“If you look at the video to ‘Rhythm Is the Master’ I’m wearing the same jacket in the show. That era was Dapper Dan, the Jeeps, The Maximas, the ‘98s, the Cadillac Sedan Deville’s and Dapper Dan was the one putting the stuff on the cars. He was here earlier. I had him come down here [to set]. I had him in all of my videos and he was out of here after that. A lot of rappers were coming in but they didn’t put him in their videos. I put him in mine tho. One of the little kids from the video ran up on me a couple years ago. She’s like 29 now. She was like ‘You remember me?’”
4. The club scenes at “Rita’s” were shot across the street from the old Roxy.
“The Roxy was right across the street!” Chuck Chillout says pointing emphatically. “That’s where they shot ‘Beat Street.’ Right there! It’s a museum now. I met the world in there. You had David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Jane Kennedy, Madonna. We had 3,000 people in there on Friday night listening to hip-hop music. We was basically playing break beats in there. Afrika Bambaataa was in there, Afrika Islam, DST, me and Red Alert was in there. It was HARD to get in there. The line was around the corner, it was crazy.”
5. Playing at the Roxy is how Chuck finally got to play hip-hop on the radio, one of the key storylines in “The Breaks.”
“If it wasn’t for that building I wouldn’t have got on the radio because I met Barry Mayo in that building right there. Me and Red Alert met Barry in that building. He came up to me and said ‘I wanna put this on the radio.’ We was like GTFO here. He was the General Manager. Before Kiss (98.7 Kiss FM) it was called XLO. He wanted to put hip-hop on the radio because of (W)BLS. So he gave me and Red a mix show from coming into that building every Friday. It was closed for the longest and then they made it a museum. I had to get out of my car and run up in there. I said ‘What did y’all do to the place? Did you know what was here?’ The guy didn’t even know. If you wanted to make a name for yourself, uptown it was The Fever but down here it was [The Roxy]. A lot of people was scared to go uptown running around like they gangsters now.”
6. Wood Harris’s character Barry Fouray is loosely modeled after music moguls like Dame Dash.
“Barry Fouray is the owner of Forae management and he also has some of the top artists and producers in the game,” says Harris. “He’s an early mogul type. He’s one of those guys who had a big 1990s cellphone. Beam me up Scotty style. There’s still a little smoke in the air from the ’80s.”
7. Phonte Coleman of Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange pens the lyrics for both Ahm and the other battle rappers he plays in the film. Also, his fellow MC Torae cameos as Ahm’s opponent in an early battle scene.
“People think that MCing…it is made to look so easy,” says Te. “It’s made to look so easy, like I just go in and say ‘rat, hat, bat and swag,’ and that’s it. But it really is a process that requires a lot of discipline and hard work. It was a refresher course for me.”
8. A-F-R-O is your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper:
“We were looking to cast rappers and we were having a debate,” says Charnas. “Do you cast a rapper who can act, or an actor who can rap? I came down on the rapper who can act side, but it’s hard. I came up in an era where they did both, but that’s not the case anymore. We auditioned a whole bunch of rappers and he was by far the best of the pack. He was 17 at the time and we found him because of DJ Premier. RA The Rugged man found him in an online contest. He doesn’t listen to anything but ‘90s hip-hop. It’s almost as if he was created by an evil genius in a lab just for us. His character D Rome is depressed because the label has him making music he doesn’t like. It was like when GZA tried to do ‘Come Do Me‘ or when Brand Nubian had this track ‘Try To Do Me‘ because at the time labels were trying to get harder acts to do New Jack Swing tracks. So this is the role that AFRO steps into. The song he performs in the show, ‘Saved Me,’ is actually one of his own that he recorded before, because he really feels that hip-hop saved his life.”
VH1’s “The Breaks” premieres on January 4th.