“Big Fun In The Big Town”
(Five Day Weekend)
In the autumn of 1986, Dutch film-maker Bram Van Splunteren undertook what, at the time, many of his peers no doubt deemed to be a foolhardy quest, travelling to the drug-ridden, poverty-stricken inner-city streets of New York to gain a better understanding of the Hip-Hop artists who had caught his imagination and begun to rival his passion for rock artists of the day.
Entering the Rotten Apple with a small camera crew, a list of contacts and a wide-eyed fascination with this new style of cutting-edge music that had seemingly appeared on the world stage almost from nowhere, Splunteren unknowingly captured footage of artists who would go on to become some of Hip-Hop’s most iconic figures during the early days of their recording careers. At the same time the film also shows the close connection between Hip-Hop and the streets the culture was born from by including a handful of rap-obsessed youngsters attempting to look towards a brighter future in a social environment battered by Reaganomics, the 80s crack epidemic and failing school systems.
As the documentary begins, Splunteren is seen in his hotel room flicking through a copy of David Toop’s seminal 1984 book “Rap Attack”, doing some last minute research accompanied by the radio sounds of the late Mr. Magic and a youthful Marley Marl before fully immersing himself in a week of interviews, live performances and tours around some of NYC’s roughest areas of the time.
First visiting turntable pioneer Grandmaster Flash in his South Bronx stomping grounds, the journalist is shown the already defunct Dixie Club (as seen in classic Hip-Hop flick “Wild Style”) before returning to Flash’s nearby apartment where the legend shows-off both a typically garish 80s-style personalised leather jacket and also his natural ability to “take (a record) apart and put it back together again”, cutting up the timeless “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” breakbeat whilst explaining how his first attempts to showcase his talents back in the 70s were disappointingly met with public bemusement.
Before leaving the BX, Splunteren pays a visit to the Harry S Truman High School, capturing teenage students dropping old-school rhymes in the playground, whilst an astute teacher explains how Hip-Hop had provided a creative outlet for the kids seen adopting b-boy poses for the camera at a time when lack of funds meant that music classes had been stripped out of many inner-city schools.
A young Doug E. Fresh is found standing on a Harlem street-corner, running through his beatbox repertoire whilst also predicting Hip-Hop’s rise to global prominence, before Bram makes his way to the crack-infested blocks of Manhattan’s Lower East Side to interview events promoter Vito Bruno about the supposed connection between Hip-Hop and violence.
Perhaps suprisingly, two of the forty-minute film’s most memorable scenes don’t involve any well-known names or soon-to-be legendary figures, but instead capture the hopes, dreams and fears of unknowns caught up in the excitement of being part of a cultural movement the world-at-large was still attempting to understand.
First comes a sobering moment during a one-on-one interview with a member of Manhattan’s CBS Crew, where, away from the boisterous teenage energy of his homeboys, the young Hip-Hop junkie expresses his desire to see his friends succeed in life by making positive choices, but resigns himself to the fact that, living in ghetto circumstances, there’s a strong chance some of those close to him may find themselves caught up in gangs and crime.
Then, upon arriving at Def Jam’s headquarters to meet with Russell Simmons, Splunteren encounters Chicago duo The Mystery Crew, who have travelled all the way from the Windy City to rhyme outside the label’s offices in the hope they might attract the right sort of attention and land a record deal. Delivering lyrics in a brash, back-and-forth Run-DMC style, the pair power their way through inspiring verses speaking out against social ills with a sense of purpose that hints at the fact that, even if the rest of the world hadn’t yet worked it out, these Chi-town emcees knew that Hip-Hop had the potential to change both their lives and the lives of those around them.
It’s difficult to watch “Big Fun In The Big Town” and not find yourself wondering what happened to both the members of NY’s CBS Crew and the Mystery boys. The stories of other artists featured such as Run DMC, Roxanne Shante and Schoolly D have been well-documented, but the inclusion of these moments with relative unknowns only goes to illustrate how much of a lifeline and powerful force Hip-Hop was (and still is) to anyone who felt the cultural ripples of the creative blast that exploded out of the Bronx during the 1970s and early-80s.
Another highlight is seeing a teenage LL Cool J naively discussing how he doesn’t feel Hip-Hop artists should contain messages in their music as such subject matter might alienate listeners, with Mr. Smith’s interview being juxtaposed against footage of Suliaman El Hadi of The Last Poets criticising Hip-Hop artists for not doing enough to make their audience think about the world around them, choosing instead to use their lyrics to, as he sees it, simply boost their own egos.
Call it foresight or just pure luck, but Splunteren seems to display a knack throughout “Big Fun In The Big Town” for touching on topics that would become huge issues for the Hip-Hop community in the years to follow, from the lack of female emcees in the rap world, to the relationship between rap and violence, on to the subject of artistic authenticity and the place of rappers as role models.
Although enthusiastic and obviously keen to find out more about the artists whose records he’d been buying and listening to, Bram’s interview technique and approach to his subjects goes far beyond simple fandom. The Dutch journalist treats the artists he speaks to with a respect and overall awareness of the culture’s roots that wouldn’t come from the mainstream music media for some time.
An undiluted snapshot of a burgeoning artform trying to find its place in the world, “Big Fun In The Big Town” is a timeless piece of film-making that captures everything that was exciting and fresh about Hip-Hop during the culture’s unreplicable golden-age, without ignoring some of the more serious social issues that surrounded the music.
Essential viewing for both old and new Hip-Hop fans alike.
“Big Fun In The Big Town” DVD Trailer