Most hip hop heads have archival tendencies.Think of DJ Shadow trawling through his stacks of forgotten wax, surrounded by floor to ceiling towers of historical documents in Doug Pray’s seminal DJ doc, Scratch (2001). Or the way that hip hop producers such as DJ Premier, Kanye West, Dre or J-Dilla became curators on wax, chopping rap quotables into hooks, flipping samples, and moulding their vast hip hop knowledge into something new. A quick dip into sites like Producers I Know confirms that all over globe bedroom beatsmiths and serato scratchers continue to sniff out that elusive perfect beat.
Occasionally, however, the odd reel of 16mm celluloid takes the beat digger off his or her scent. Five Day Weekend’s DVD release of Big Fun in the Big Town is a perfect example. A documentary about New York hip hop filmed in the summer of 1986, Big Fun in the Big Town has been, until now, little known outside of The Netherlands, where it first aired 25 years ago. Made by Dutch filmmaker Bram Van Splunteren – a music journalist who, at the time, was also fresh out of film school – the documentary plunges you straight into the vibrancy and excitement of NYC’s mid-1980s hip hop scene.
“The aim was to show as much of New York and the neighbourhoods where this all started,” the director told me, “to show where this music came from.” Working for Dutch national broadcaster, VPRO, Van Splunteren had a radio show that played alternative guitar-based rock to a college-campus demographic. But after he hosted a hip hop event he discovered a previously unknown part of his audience who were attracted by the occasional rap tunes that he included in his playlist. “All these kids turned up wearing velour tracksuits. They were totally not the audience we thought we were playing for.” The Netherlands’ burgeoning hip hop culture intrigued the young filmmaker, so he pitched to make Big Fun in the Big Town as one part of a series of six music documentaries that covered different music genres – everything from Nick Cave to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Iggy Pop – and it was given the green light.
What Van Splunteren managed to capture was hip hop at a particular moment in its evolution: the dawn of the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of hip hop. The list of hip hop greats to appear in the documentary’s modest 40 minute running time is breathtaking: Marley Marl, Mr Magic, Roxanne Shanté, Biz Markie, MC Shan, Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, Schoolly D, Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J. These are the big rap stars of the day, yet significantly, Van Splunteren records each with an unforced naturalism rarely found in today’s PR-dominated interviews. “I’ve always filmed bands at the beginning of their career. It’s the most interesting point when they’re at the peak of their creativity and they’re not so spoiled by the media.”
Interviewed in the film outside the original Def Jam offices, rapper DMC illustrates Van Splunteren’s point. After an impromptu rendition of ‘My Adidas’ he states: “When we first started we didn’t put on fancy costumes because Run DMC is no gimmicks. What we wear on stage is just what all the youth wear. Dressing this way lets them know ‘he’s just like me’”. It’s a sentiment that taps into the innocence and democracy that rap music had at the time.
At one point the director visits LL Cool J at his grandmother’s house where the rapper opens up about his style and approach to hip hop as they stroll through a sunny Queens avenue. Along with these raw, honest encounters with the rap stars of the day, the film hones in on the music’s street origins, bringing to life the way that hip hop culture defined New York’s youth at the time. As high school music teacher Dennis Bell says in the film, “Kids have no place to take music any more. In the Bronx they figured out a new form of music that didn’t take any lessons. And that is using poetry and a rhythm.
In fact, Big Fun in the Big Town’s greatest asset is that it really nails the moment when hip hop is old enough to have confidence, yet young enough to develop its hopes, ambitions, winning formulas and occasional dead ends. Fans will have fun spotting those elements of hip hop history that are already firmly in place by 1986 and those that are yet to emerge. Suliaman El Hadi of The Last Poets is interviewed complaining about the music’s lack of political ambition. “Hip hop is one big ego trip”, he observes, going on to bemoan the form up for its “nursery rhymes” that don’t address poverty or issues of powerlessness and economic deprivation. Watching this scene you realise that one of hip hop’s major moments – the arrival of Public Enemy – is still to come and it’s this palpable sense of anticipation of what hip hop has yet to offer that really excites.
The film has its finger on the pulse with cuts such as Roxanne Shanté & Biz Markie’s ‘Def Fresh Crew’, BDP’s ‘South Bronx’ and MC Shan’s ‘The Bridge’ but there is so much more down the line: Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full, PE’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, NWA, the Native Tongues…and that’s just the 1980s. As such, Big Fun in the Big Town finds an immediate place in the annals of hip hop documentaries; charting the development of the genre like the next big instalment following Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style (1982) and Dick Fontaine’s Beat This: A Hip Hop History (1984).
Big Fun in the Big Town is available now on DVD from Five Day Weekend.