VH1 rolled out its new series, The Breaks, recently with an adrenaline shot opening bell at the NASDAQ stock exchange and a ceremonial street renaming in front of Viacom’s Times Square headquarters. The events teed up the premiere of the hip-hop throwback series that followed and directly continued a VH1 movie of the same name that aired early last year, and ended up ranking as the number two cable movie of 2016.
“The Breaks movie debuted last year to huge fanfare and really strong ratings, and so it became a no-brainer to take this fabulous movie to series,” said Amy Doyle, general manager of MTV, VH1 and Logo, flanked by the show’s cast and crew at NASDAQ’s opening bell podium. “The buzz on this show is palpable. Essence has deemed it, ‘VH1’s highly anticipated new series,’ and NPR is calling it – my favorite – ‘a hip-hop answer to Mad Men.’”
Later that morning, this crew gathered again on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 44th Street in Manhattan to temporarily rename the street “The Breaks Way.”
The Breaks rumbles out of the unfiltered New York City of 1990, an ode to hip-hop’s gritty rise that is equal parts historical drama, nostalgia trip, and reminder that there was nothing predestined about the genre’s eventual rise.
A period piece set at a crucial juncture where rap had crept into the zeitgeist but still skirted the mainstream, the series immerses us within a crew of fictional stand-ins who shoulder the mighty task of recreating that frantic era: a wily and determined Nikki Jones (Afton Williamson), her boyfriend and radio station rookie David Aaron (David Call), aspiring producer DeeVee (Tristan “Mack” Wilds), hip-hop manager Barry Fouray (Wood Harris), and drug dealer-cum-rapper Ahm (Antoine Harris).
This crew returns from last year’s movie unaltered, to an internet-less domain of pagers, payphones, and Walkmen, a paper-choked recent past absent office desktops and noisy with impassioned and ceaseless phone calls. So embedded, they continue their recreation of a world meticulously described in former music executive and hip-hop documentarian Dan Charnas’ definitive 2010 book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.
The first episode, set in a crime-infested New York of grafittied subway cars and refuse-filled shopping carts dumped on sidewalks, shoves us into this realm with an abduction, an arrest, a family feud, a lover’s quarrel, and a baseball bat-wielding station boss, but also with the unapologetic enthusiasm of an industry poised to erupt, all set to original period-exacting music written by Phonte Coleman (of Little Brother and Foreign Exchange) and produced by DJ Premier.
This wholesale visual and auditory recreation of the era has landed well with critics. “In many ways, the real star of The Breaks is historical accuracy,” writes The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica. “And the music — whether used as soundtrack or in situ — is spot on…”
The series has done something essential in delivering the little-known backstory of a hip-hop force now omnipresent in American culture. “The Breaks is a time machine of sorts — and not just because of the outsized influence of the Village Voice,” writes Los Angeles Times’ Steven Zeitchik. “Chronicling an era when hip-hop’s role as a spark for both mass protest and mass commerce was just an ember, the eight-part series marks a new entry in scripted television’s growing rap canon.”
Here’s a sneak peak of episode 2. The full episode will air Monday at 9 p.m. ET:
Viacom trades on the NASDAQ stock exchange under the VIA and VIAB tickers. VH1 was returning to the ceremonial market open just a few months after swinging through to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its much-lauded Save The Music initiative. Other Viacom brands have mounted the podium for an opening or closing bell in the past year, including TV Land for the premiere of Lopez and Nickelodeon and Paramount in advance of last summer’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.