At 688 pages, Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback
tome is perhaps the most exhaustively researched book ever written about the near-half-a-century history of the hip-hop music business. On Monday, a piece of Charnas’ page-turner came to life on VH1 as the TV movie, The Breaks
The film is set in 1990 and follows the industry pursuits of three relentless hip-hop enthusiasts—Nikki Jones (Afton Williamson), David Aaron (David Call) and DeeVee (Tristan Wilds). Each is vying for a bona fide hip-hop industry position as A&R, radio program director and producer, respectively, at a time when hip-hop is on the brink of a mainstream eruption. During the same time period, hip-hop also grew as a ripe lyrical testing ground for the type of emcee that could carry the torch of the genre’s earlier stylistic and technical juggernauts such as Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick and Kool G Rap.
In The Breaks
, DeeVee believes he has found that paragon in the hard-edged character Ahm (Antoine Harris), with whom he eventually begins recording music. To equip Harris with the kind of dexterity and ferocity he’d need to make Ahm believable as an emcee of era, Charnas recruited a real-life master, former Little Brother member and current Foreign Exchange frontman Phonte Coleman, to write Harris’ rhymes and coach him. Charnas also gave Coleman a role in The Breaks
as a militant Afrocentric battle rapper Imam Ali (think X-Clan meets Kool Moe Dee), plus the responsibility of writing all of the rapping in the film.
Coleman recently spoke with the INDY
about the possibility of VH1 going forward with The Breaks
as a continuing series, muscle memory and that scene where Imam Ali became the unlikely favorite.
INDY: What’s the most surprising feedback you’ve gotten so far about the film?
People want more. That seems to be the common sentiment. Online and offline, they’re like, “Yo, what happens next?” or “There’s gotta be a part two.” It’s good that the movie served that purpose—to kind of set up for something more.
It’s probably too early to gauge, but what are your feelings about what the potential is for VH1 to pick up the The Breaks as a series?
There’s always potential. I really don’t know. I can’t say anything until we know for sure. I saw the numbers—we did 2.6 million [Monday night] viewers. That’s crazy to me, but ultimately, it’s up to the network to push the button on it.
Dan Charnas has been a fan of your music since the early 2000s, but how did the conversation go when he actually asked you to be a part of The Breaks?
He hit me up and was like, “Look man, I have this opportunity, and this is what it is.” I was like, “Yeah, man, let’s go.” It was really fast. We started working in the summer, and the movie aired on Monday. But I was such a huge fan and supporter of The Big Payback,
and I knew that the people who were involved in the project—from Dan, to DJ Premier, to [director] Seith Mann, along with Mack Wilds—really wanted to get it right. They really wanted to portray that world accurately and were really invested in doing a good job.
VH1 is primarily known for reality shows, but it gets lost on some people how well VH1 does original content, especially when it comes to documentaries. They get that shit right. They really nail those. So when I heard who was involved and who was doing it, it was pretty much a no-brainer.
Were you familiar with Antoine Harris [Ahm] as an actor before you two started working together on the music for the film?
I had never met him. I didn’t know who he was. Later, I went back and looked his profile and recognized him from being in shows like Power
. So, we got acquainted after that. But just from the time in the beginning when we hung out and were just vibing together, there was no doubt in my mind that he was gonna kill it. He’s just a really smart actor, really intuitive. It’s just like John Wooden would say: “He’ll do everything I tell him, but I don’t have to tell him to do everything.” The vibe and the bond that we formed in just a couple of months was incredible. When I saw his audition tape, when I saw him read for Ahm, I was like, “Yeah, there is no question who Ahm is.”
Do you know if he was familiar with you as a musician?
I think he kind of knew who I was, but I don’t know if he knew the full gist at first. Mack Wilds was very familiar. He was telling me that he used to bump The Minstrel Show
when they were taping The Wire
. I was like, “Wow, that’s crazy.”
The lyrics you wrote for Ahm remind me of the work you did on The Roots undun LP where you wrote a verse on the song “One Time” from the perspective of the album’s protagonist Redford Stephens. What were the differences between your work with The Roots and your work on The Breaks?
The good thing with writing for Ahm is that they gave me the whole script, and I was able to read it from top to bottom. So, I knew how the story was going to end; I knew the arc. That was very, very helpful. Having that road map early on gave me a clearer picture of where the character ends up. With The Roots, I didn’t know how the album was going to end. They called me to do that one record and gave me the concept. That character had been shaped through several different writers and interpretations. You had me, Dice Raw, Black Thought, Greg Porn—all these different writers putting their spin on who Redford was. With The Breaks
, Seith pretty much had it laid out who Ahm was and gave me the liberty to interpret that as I saw fit for the rhymes. And it worked out.
You made a pretty memorable cameo in the film’s battle rap scene as the black militant emcee, Imam Ali. Was that role already written in the script before Charnas decided to cast you, specifically?
Nah, that was something that came last minute. I was actually supposed to be leaving. In addition to writing rhymes, I was actually on-set as a consultant while they were filming the battle scenes. It was more so to help coach Antoine—making sure he wasn’t using his voice so much, making sure he drank water in between sets, coaching him on body language, little stuff like that. The night before I was scheduled to leave, I got a text from Dan that said to call him urgently. I was just like, “Oh shit.”
When I hit him back, he said, “Look, we’ve been shooting these battle scenes, and we’re not really too big on what we got so far. Would you be willing to step in?” I said, “Yeah, sure. I can write another rhyme or whatever for another emcee if that’s what you need.” Then, he was like, “We need you to write, but we also need you to step in on camera. I have this idea for a character named Imam Ali.” As soon as he said the name, I knew what the character would be. He told me that I had the range and the freedom for what I saw the character wearing, so I texted him all the things I needed from wardrobe like a kufi and an African medallion. I already had the shades, but I needed a dashiki, beads, the whole nine.
This was at midnight. We were shooting the scene the next day. So I literally only had a few hours to write the rhyme, memorize it, then film it. Any emcee can tell you how hard that is. It’s like writing a new song in the studio and then having to perform that shit that same night on stage. On top of that, I was also an extra in the scene, so, in between takes, I would go outside and listen to the voice memo on my phone like, “I gotta remember this shit, I gotta remember this shit.” When we filmed it, ours was the last shot of the night. They just kept the camera running, and I just kept hittin’ it over and over again. It was intended to be something that was comic relief, which it was—it was funny as shit to me. But the crazy thing was that we told the crowd extras, “Look, this is a real rap battle. If you hear a hot line, make noise. If that shit is wack, boo that nigga.” So, when I was spitting my rhymes, they were cheering. They liked it. That was just a funny experience in itself.
You also wrote Sig Sauer’s [Brooklyn emcee Torae] lyrics for the rap battle scene. But Torae is also known to be a well-respected emcee and writer who could have easily written his own lyrics. Can you talk a little bit about why it became your responsibility to write all of the characters’ raps instead of just Ahm’s?
That’s a question you’d have to ask the producers and the writers, but from my best estimation, it’s just easier to have one person in charge of everything. It makes things a lot more streamlined. You can have a thing where you have every rapper or actor write their own lyrics, but that’s three, four, five different personalities that you have to deal with. That’s three, four, five different deadlines you’re looking at. That’s just adding a lot more variables into the situation. When they asked me to do it, they hadn’t even cast the role of Sig Sauer. They asked me if there was anyone who I thought could play the role. Torae was the first name that came to mind. I thought he would kill it. So, in terms of the writing, they hadn’t even cast Torae as that. I just think that it was easier for them to say, “OK, this guy is the writer for the emcees of the show." It’s just easier to keep that consistency. [Editor's note: Coleman did not write for the character D. Rome, as played by rapper A-F-R-O.
In a recent interview, you said that emceeing was a process, and you described your experience as this sort of rap coach as a refresher course. What were some of the fundamental things, specifically, that you had to revisit as an emcee?
There’s the phrase “learning through teaching.” When working with someone like Antoine, who’s actually a very intuitive and smart cat, it was different to teach him the mechanics of rapping. There were things we had to go over. When he came up to my hotel room to see me—I think we ordered sandwiches or something—we talked for two hours before we even started working. Then we started going into the song, and he asked me if I had the lyrics. I said, “Yeah, I do have the lyrics, but I want you to learn it like it’s a song.” If you listen to a song on the radio or your iPod or Spotify all day, you don’t have the lyrics in front of you. Most people don’t learn the words to songs by reading them. They learn them by listening to them over and over. I wanted him to learn it that way because that way feels the most organic to me.
He had it. He was nailing it. Then he said that he wanted to do it in the mirror. So, he stood up and did it in the mirror, and he started messing up and tripping up. I said, “Man, the problem is your muscle memory. As emcees we use muscle memory. Our body holds on to whatever physical position it was in when we memorized something. Maybe, for now, just keep spitting it while sitting down because you have the muscle memory of sitting down.” So the next day, when we went to the studio to record it with Premo, Antoine actually recorded the song sitting down, which is exactly the same way that I record at my crib. It was stuff like that—tricks on how to remember stuff, inflections on certain words, how to lean into a certain syllable. I got in the booth and showed him how to lead in if he was going to punch.
We recorded on Pro Tools, but Premier very much works like he still records on tape, so he punches. I showed Antoine that if he was going to punch, if he was going to replace bars five and six, he needed to start rapping on bar two so that when he got to bar five and six he’d still be in his original voice. That’s how you make it sound seamless. Honestly, having to take him through the process was just a reminder of how much work emceeing is.