EXCLUSIVE: 'The Breaks' Cast Brings '90s-Era Hip-Hop to Life on VH1

Photo: VH1
Many of the actors on VH1’s new scripted series The Breaks (premiering Monday, Feb. 20) were just kids during the early ’90s era of hip-hop captured in loving detail on the show. Yet, they’re still able to channel the spirit of that moment in the culture’s history because of how far they’ve gone to prepare for their roles. For Mack Wilds, whoalso stars on Fox’s racially charged drama Shots Fired, premiering March 22, that meant actually learning how to spin records in order to add to hip-hop producer DeeVee’s skill set. When DeeVee takes part in a DJ battle at NYC’s New Music Seminar on the show, Wilds was prepared to go through the motions. “I’m the type of guy who, if you put me up against anything that I don’t understand, I’m gonna go try to find out,” says the actor, who also has a Grammy-nominated album under his belt, 2013’s New York: A Love Story. “I want to learn what it is, and I don’t want to be fake. I’m such a hip-hop head, fan, everything, I couldn’t get behind some turntables and act it out. I had to at least know the basics. So I attended the Scratch DJ Academy for a month or two to learn the basics, figure out how to actually scratch; all of the basics you need to work harder. It was necessary. We have so many amazing hip-hop figures that come on set and want to watch on a daily basis, so if I got up there and looked corny, I woulda gotten laughed out of the building. And that is a no go for me!” “Mack Wilds is the consummate pro,” confirms his DJ instructor Rob Swift. “He practiced for the DJ battle scene as if he were about to enter a real battle. That's what impressed me the most about him. Although it wasn't him who recorded that actual audio, he made a real effort to master all of the movements a real battle DJ would make in a competition. You can just tell he's the type of person that wants to dot every I and cross every T.” MORE: Bravo Finds the Real-Life 'Empire' in 'First Family of Hip-Hop' “I definitely became a lot more into it, even just learning how to blend music,” Wilds reflects. “There’s literally an art to it. People don’t realize that turntables are instruments. You’re learning a new instrument. I’m 200 percent more of a fan than [I was] prior to trying this!” The Breaks began as a feature-length film on VH1 last year and was ordered to series following a successful reception; it eventually became the No. 2 cable original movie among adults 18-49 in 2016. “Everybody on that set worked very hard,” says Dan Charnas, the show’s creator and an executive producer. “None of them had to be schooled about this era in hip-hop because they went ahead and schooled themselves.” Charnas was floored by Wilds taking on scratching, and was equally impressed with how actor Antoine Harris (HBO’s Ballers) “became an MC” to bring truth to his character Ahm, whose life in the streets is at odds with having a legitimate music career as a rapper. MORE: A Tribe Called Quest Gets Political With 2017 GRAMMYs Performance “We are definitely a family,” says Harris, “and when you’re a family and you care about people and your craft, you want to do your job to the best of your ability. I think all of these characters have two sides, but one of the sides of this character was to be invested in the art and to be invested in the music. So I had to do the homework. I had to understand what makes a great rapper and understand what makes a great poet or what makes good person to tell a story. And once I figured that out, then it became a competition -- I’m competitive with myself. So I was like, ‘Yo, if you were around in 1990, would you think that you were good? Could you be on the radio?’ I tried to make myself to the point where I believed that he could be on the radio.” The actors have had the benefit of mentorship from two legends in hip-hop: DJ Premier (Gang Starr), who provides the musical score, and Phonte Coleman (Little Brother, Foreign Exchange), who serves as the show’s lyrical consultant. “There are so many artists right now that we will keep nameless who are literally inspired by everything that man does,” Wilds says of Coleman. “When I say he’s your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, I mean that wholeheartedly.” “It’s unreal what he can do with a pen and a pad,” agrees Harris. “His ability to tell a story is ridiculous, and he’s true to the form. He’s lethal with that pen.” MORE: Erykah Badu on Resurgence of '90s R&B, 'Baduizm' and Brandy's Influence The cast also looked to their own actors, like Wood Harris (The Wire), Evan Handler (Sex and the City) and Afton Williamson (The Night Of), for inspiration. “Wood is a dynamo,” marvels Charnas. “When he first comes into a scene it seems like he's warming up, but then before you know it he has his hands gripping the handles of the whole scene and he's moving the whole room around with his hands. He has the scene in his hands, not ours. It's amazing to watch. And I'm saying this as a fan watching these people work, they're great. Evan was great, so prepared, so thoughtful about what he did. And of course Afton, she carried the whole thing.” And the ensemble also had an important book to consult for guidance: The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, Charnas’ meticulously researched nonfiction tome that inspired the film and series. The cast likens the 688-page offering to another big book, both in heft and spiritual weight. “It’s like the Bible of hip-hop,” asserts Wilds. “There’s nothing like it. It’s a writing of the prophets!”