Mauritania-born, Maryland-raised actor Mamoudou Athie was best known for playing Grandmaster Flash on the flossy now-canceled Netflix hip-hop origins series “The Get Down” for the past two years. In his latest role, the Yale School of Drama alum mans the turntables again playing the elusive DJ/producer Basterd the Anti-Christ in Sundance darling “Patti Cake$.” The film centers around an aspiring white female rapper in suburban New Jersey and her motley crew, which includes her Nana, and was picked up by Fox Searchlight for theatrical release.
“It did make me laugh that I was essentially playing two DJs but they are like worlds apart,” shares Athie via phone. “They’re both hip-hop related, but they’re also polar opposites in terms of character. Flash is like this very wow, outspoken, confident like superhero essentially in “The Get Down” and Bob [Basterd’s government name] from “Patti Cake$” is a very quiet, sensitive, contained, emotional guy that just kind of keeps to himself. He has only just recently started to make friends. That’s like Patti, Nana and Jheri.”
In real-life, Athie is making quite a few friends. In addition to being close to his “The Get Down” co-star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who played Cadillac, Athie is now cool with Samuel L. Jackson, with whom he stars in Oscar winner Brie Larson’s directorial debut “Unicorn Store,” which is headed for the Toronto International Film Festival next month.
“It was amazing because he’s a theater guy. I grew up in theater and, when I first met him, I was like really shy and nervous,” Athie says. “And then we started talking and I was just like ‘Oh, this guy is awesome’ and he’s been just so supportive like recommending me for things.”
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And though Athie doesn’t play a DJ in “Unicorn Store,” a comedy about a young artist forced to work at a temp agency after getting kicked out of art school, he now has a skill for life courtesy of the legend Grandmaster Flash himself.
“Grandmaster Flash actually taught me,” he chuckles. “People laugh every time I say that. It’s kind of an absurd thing once you say it out loud. I was very scared of him because I was playing him and I was so uncoordinated.”
And Athie had good reason to be. “He got to the position he’s in because he’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met,” explains Athie. “Whenever I thought we were done, it was just like a quarter of the day. I can’t listen to “Good Times” anymore. Every time I think about it, I just think of how many hours I spent [on that record].”
That experience gave him a greater appreciation for Grandmaster Flash and his contributions. “He totally changed the turntable. He made it an instrument. It was unbelievable. I don’t know how he did what he did,” Athie says.
“The Get Down” educated Athie about hip-hop and opened his eyes to how innovative and essential early pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, whom Dave Chappelle helped introduce to a new generation on his “Chappelle Show,” truly were.
“There are so many things about hip-hop that I didn’t really know up until I did “The Get Down” and now I have like a whole newfound respect for how these guys started it,” Athie says. “They really haven’t gotten their proper due. They really pioneered something really wonderful.”
Patti Cake$ is in theaters now.