VH1’s The Breaks Holds Up a Mirror to the Early Days of Hip-Hop

The cast of The Breaks (VH1)
The cast of The Breaks (VH1)

In the late ’90s, I went to a meeting at one of the biggest record labels. I was scheduled to do a quick interview with the president. I knocked on his door and he waved me in. Then he sized me up and fixated on my navy-blue messenger bag with the Rawkus Records logo stitched on it.


“WHY IS THIS GIRL IN MY OFFICE WITH A RAWKUS BAG?!” the executive screamed. Now, Rawkus Records was a tiny upstart, repping underground artists like Mos Def and Taleb Kweli. Why did this guy care about my Rawkus bag?

I was startled, to say the least. Employees were hustling to find me a bag with the company’s logo. They never found one. I kept my bag. He eventually simmered down and I just slid my bag out of his sight.

It’s those memories that make VH1’s The Breaks such an awesome trip for me and so many others who either worked in the hip-hop industry or grew up in the era. Or, like me, both. The original film aired last year, and a new series based on that film begins Monday night. The Breaks is an instant add to my DVR, and it makes me think about all the awesome content out there right now.

Black-ish. Luke Cage. Atlanta. Insecure. The Get Down. Power. Empire. In the past few years, the authenticity (and sheer volume) of black life showcased on television has been astounding. I cry a little every time I check my DVR and see how behind I am in watching the plethora of shows I love.

It’s actually a little overwhelming for me. I grew up at a time when Jet magazine’s last page listed all of the places where you could see black people on television that week. My dad would actually check it and tell my sister and me what we could watch. Gary Coleman on Diff’rent Strokes. Bill Cosby on The Cosby Show. It’s hard to believe now. But a mini-sized magazine was big enough to let you know where you could find people who looked like you on television.

So last year, I waited with anticipation to catch The Breaks. This was a show with people who looked like me. Not just people of color, but my tribe. My fellow hip-hop folks. I became a staff writer at The Source about 10 years after the movie begins. And I worked with (or wrote about) many of the players in the movie.


The Breaks follows three sharply developed characters. I love DeeVee, a would-be music producer (played by Tristan “Mack” Wilds). He feels just a bit too young for the role, but I blame that on the dimples. Nikki (Afton Williamson) is kicking in the door to get one of the preciously few spots for women who didn’t aspire to being in music videos at the time. (In 1999 I was the only woman in the music department at a hip-hop magazine. When I showed up to conduct an interview, many rappers barely contained their disappointment. Nikki, I feel your pain.) David (David Call) is a radio-station programmer, and Wood Harris is spot-on as comically intense record label exec Barry Fouray. (Yeah, his kind really did exist. See above story.)

I checked in with show creator and Executive Producer Dan Charnas on my dilemma of having almost too much awesomeness to keep up with. (Full disclosure: While we’ve never met in person, he and I have many mutual friends and I consider him a comrade.)


“Are there too many good shows featuring people of color?” asks Charnas. “No. We are in a golden age of programming. I don’t believe there is a limit for an environment that fosters that.”

Charnas, who also has his roots in hip-hop journalism, brings that level of dogged research to the set of The Breaks. The haircuts have to be right. The Adidas logo has to match the time frame. The slang has to be on point but not delivered too perfectly.


“Here are the questions we wanted to answer,” says Charnas. “What was it that made hip-hop so different at that time? What were the inter- and intraracial dynamics? Why did it have so much equity? And we want to do it in a way that is not hitting people over the head.”

Despite Charnas’ effort, The Breaks gets it so right that it does indeed hit people over the head—but only in the best way. It doesn’t take long to get invested in the characters—even the ones with minimal screen time. (Method Man, who plays DeeVee’s father, is note-perfect, and I want to see him in his own dramatic series. Seriously.)


Tonight I will be 2 inches away from my television pointing out names and songs that I remember from the time period. And of course, I will also scrunch my nose and text my fellow old-school friends when the dialogue or the fashion is even slightly off. (A show like this can never be all things to all people. It’s impossible.)

My DVR is already set. But I plan to watch this one in real time. In keeping with the early-’90s theme, I’ll actually tune in at the appointed hour, the way I would have back then, long before I had a device chock-full of everything I could ever want to watch.


I still have my Rawkus bag, too. I’ll keep it close by.

Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books. She has written professionally since 1998.



Good to see another show on the air.

I keep trying with black-ish, and I keep failing. I don’t know. I don’t have any like...authenticity issues with it, I just don’t laugh.