Big Fun in the Big Town
Label: Five Day Weekend/VPRO Broadcasting
Author: Emanuel Wallace
Global. International. Worldwide. All of these words have been used in
reference to the the art form of hip-hop music. It was supposed to be
nothing more than a mere passing noisy fad back in the 70s and early 80s,
but now it's an instrumental tool that has become a major point of
influence when it comes to fashion, politics and the world's economy as a
whole. I'm not sure if Dutch filmmaker Bram Van Splunteren ever foresaw
hip-hop getting to its current status in the world, but he saw something.
After hearing The Beastie Boys' (RIP MCA) "She's On It," he was convinced
that rap music was the "rock music of the future." In his native Amsterdam,
amid resistance from many, he would scour the streets for imports of the
latest and greatest in rap at the time to play on his radio show. This
included Sugar Hill Records joints like "The Message" and "Rapper's
Delight." He would also play jams from KRS-ONE and Schooly D. Splunteren's
friends were less than impressed by the American rappers and their
materialistic bravado calling it "guys boasting about themselves using
stupid drum computers."
Bram received the opportunity to help change that perception when Dutch
station VPRO Television commissioned him to produce six music-based
documentaries and gave him carte blanche as far as choosing the subjects.
Naturally, hip-hop was his first choice and he decided to head to the place
where everything started, New York City. Armed with a three-man crew and a
list of contacts facilitated by Rush Artist Management & Def Jam's Director
of Publicity, Bill Adler, Van Splunteren hit the ground running and shot
the documentary over six days in the Fall of 1986.
Nearly 25 years after the documentary aired in Holland, the film was
finally screened in New York at the Maysles Film Institute in 2010 and for
whatever reason, the film has not been commercially available until now.
Splunteren invites us to take a journey with him over these few days back
in '86, where greats like Grandmaster Flash, RUN-DMC, MC Shan, Biz Markie
and LL Cool J, among others reigned supreme. It's time to have some Big Fun
in the Big Town.
The documentary opens with Van Splunteren in a hotel room doing a bit of
last-minute research while what appears to be the 1986 Primetime Emmy
Awards plays in the background as the still-hilarious "Golden Girls" picked
up an award for something. He soon shuns the television for the radio and
the late Mr. Magic's Rap Attack show on WBLS. Also visible is a young
Marley Marl cutting up a record as they head to a break. The documentary
moves quickly at times, so at some points the action will go from MC Shan
performing a few bars from "The Bridge" and within a matter of moments
we're riding a train to meet up with Grandmaster Flash in the South Bronx
as he explains the difference in his turntablism versus just watching a
deejay spin a record and do nothing else. He believes that it's boring, but
on the contrary, when he goes to work on the wheels of steel, everyone ends
up watching him. He goes on to explain that he needed to create a party
vibe to get them off of what he was doing, and that's where the emcee came
in to play.
Next, we find ourselves at Harry Truman High School and talking with a
music teacher who has embraced hip-hop as a viable musical outlet for
students in the Bronx that in most cases did not have access to expensive
music lessons or even music programs in their former schools. In the
mid-80s, Doug E. Fresh was a god amongst men in Harlem and here we find him
surrounded by a neighborhood of admirers as he shows off his talent before
giving a few thoughts about the then-current state of rap music. He likened
rap music's plight for acceptance to the struggle of rock & roll before
them. He also touches on how hip-hop speaks for the youth and how the
youngsters of the day aren't able to relate to some people that are
supposed to be their idols. Overall, his main point is to have something to
believe in and show the world that they aren't as stupid and ignorant as
some may think.
Moving from one beat-boxing legend to another, Biz Markie and Roxanne
Shante hit the stage for a moment. The short set closes out with Shante
spitting about how crack is wack and it segues into the next scene. Van
Splunteren spent a lot of time focusing on the new epidemic of the time
period, crack-cocaine. He visited a neighborhood that had been ravaged by
the drug and asked if the music was responsible for the violence in those
neighborhoods and the answer was a resounding "No." The conditions of the
neighborhood were attributed to a lack of opportunities, funding and education.
Outside of the Def Jam office, The Mystery Crew raps on the street in hopes
of getting a shot at a record deal. Inside, Van Splunteren speaks with
Russell Simmons about the artists he represents and he talks about the
success of RUN-DMC's first three albums. Cut to DMC showing off his newly
purchased Cadillac outside and reiterating the point made earlier by Doug
E. Fresh about the gear they choose to wear. We get to see an irritated Run
and Jam Master Jay in the studio working with Papa Run on a project. Uncle
Rush then goes on about how his artists aren't gimmicky, opposed to some of
the acts overseas.
Strolling through a neighborhood in Queens, Van Splunteren walks up to a
house and rings the doorbell. An elderly woman answers and Bram asked if LL
Cool J lives here and if he can come inside and she obliges. Upon walking
in the house, there's a huge gold plaque on the wall in the living room.
Now, back outside and walking up the street, Splunteren points out that LL
is one of the few artists that perform love raps and asks him why. LL
responds by saying that he guesses that the other emcees would rather make
hard raps. He breaks down the multiple meanings of "LL" and when asked
about the lack of more female emcees, he says that it'll take time for them
to become popular but they're coming. Responding to a general belief that
rap music is full of machismo and ego, LL counters with the fact that he
also shares his daydreams and the like with the ladies. He proclaims that
he isn't an egotystical pig, but at the same time questions who would
really embrace rapping about being a broke punk who can't fight.
On the contrary, Saliamon El Hadi of the famed Last Poets calls the rap of
1986 nothing more than mere nursery rhymes. He believes that it's all an
ego trip that encourages violence and madness rather than uplifting the
community. Going back to LL, he says that he's not into rapping about the
ghetto and how bad things are because he wants his fans to have fun while
they're at a show. He doesn't want to put more pressure and burdens on them.
Things conclude with Van Splunteren making a trip to the Latin Quarter to
spend some time with Schooly D, who explains that his style is raw and he
says the things that others may be scared to say or not allowed to say. In
an almost prophetic matter, he explains how rock & roll wasn't supposed to
last but it has endured. He also points out how the powers that be have
tried to make rock & roll so "pretty" and he hopes that rap doesn't wind up
traveling down the same path.
And this concludes "Big Fun in the Big Town." It's really fascinating to
see that most of the artists Van Splunteren decided to showcase in this
documentary still have some cultural relevance over 25 years later. To me,
it seems like everyone had a feeling that rap would soon be a driving force
in the world and they all wanted to be at the forefront of the movement.
Sure, there are some issues like violence, perceived egotism and machismo,
but as LL Cool J essentially said, it comes with the territory associated
with rap music. Nowadays rap music is sectioned off to the point where you
can listen to love songs all day and not hear one repeat. Create a Spotify
playlist of songs based on "Rapper's Delight" and party all night. Rap
music is global now and Bram Van Splunteren knew it way before many of us
did. There's not really any special features or anything on the DVD so to
speak, but I would say that the video itself IS the special feature. This
documentary is an interesting representation of rap music at its core and I
recommend it to anyone interesting in the early beginnings of the culture.
Content: 9 of 10
Layout: 9 of 10
TOTAL Vibes: 9 of 10
Originally posted: May 22nd, 2012