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


Many of the actors on VH1’s new scripted series The
(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
. “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
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

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“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.

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“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

“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.”

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The cast also looked to their own actors, like Wood Harris (The
), 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!”