In 2012, it seems inconceivable that rap, or its umbrella monicker hip-hop, was once little more than a burgeoning musical genre with a modest listenership outside of the African-American community. But that was definitely the case when Dutch journalist and hip-hop junkie Bram Van Splunteren shone his spotlight on the New York rap scene in that epochal year of 1986, as Run-DMC’s raucous cover of the Aerosmith chestnut “Walk This Way” crashed Billboard magazine’s Top 10 Singles chart, the first of its type to do so.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that hip-hop was still an underground phenomenon at the time, as nothing could be further from the truth. The sound was definitely mushrooming by the mid-‘80s, as Run-DMC’s “Rockbox” had already aired on MTV, Breakin’ and Beat Street had been sleeper hits at the box office, and the Beastie Boys’ snarky Licensed To Ill was about to drop. Still, the controversial genre was small potatoes compared to the mainstream powerhouse it would become, influencing teenagers from Seattle to Srebrenica, Manhattan to Melbourne.
Big Fun in the Big Town, shot in New York over six days during the autumn of 1986, reveals a pre-“gangsta” paradise during this transitional period in America’s hiccupy digestion of rap, as Van Splunteren chats up Grandmaster Flash, an indisputable innovator of the field. Flash demonstrates scratching, a seminal component of rap’s early architecture, and his erudite, urbane twang is a marked contrast from the countrified drawl later exemplified by West Coast rappers, most of whose roots were in the American South. Flash also makes it clear that hip-hop is a product of the streets, not a tony Julliard education. Ghetto kids of color who couldn’t necessarily afford musical instruments, and perhaps felt alienated from slick Motown or Philly International grooves, developed their own sonic tableau – a sort of musical graffiti – using street corner braggadocio and a surprisingly rich urban lingo.
He’s joined by Doug E. Fresh, who reportedly developed the astonishing technique of using one’s throat as a beatbox. Importantly, Fresh also draws parallels between rap’s emergence and the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s, and Eisenhower-era parents – both black and white – definitely looked askance at Chuck Berry and his ilk – as millions of middle-aged parents have snorted at hip-hop in more recent times. From an ideological and temperamental perspective, I tend to situate rap as an urban doppelganger of punk rock; progenitors of both styles eschewed musicianship in favor of a bratty DIY ethos. Of course, punk, along with its more eclectic successor, post-punk, sprang up more or less during the same period as hip-hop, although it would find widespread recognition earlier, particularly in the UK.
It’s suggested in Big Fun in the Big Town that hip-hop culture may also serve as a distraction from criminal activity, no small matter in the pre-Giuliani Big Apple of the ‘80s, when violent crime rates continued to surge, despite the New Money’s sudden gentrification of Manhattan. The explosion of crack cocaine was another fearsome specter that New York’s black community had to contend with. It does seem sweetly innocent, in retrospect, to posit hip-hop as an antidote to urban ills, considering how frequently violence has claimed the lives of rappers, not to mention the glorification of “gangsta’ living prevalent in contemporary hip-hop. Nevertheless, I don’t doubt that countless inner-city youngsters have been able to use rap as a means to rise above their station, much as their white British counterparts used music to rescue themselves from the dole, while thumbing their noses at the class system.
The embrace of gratuitous consumption in hip-hop is hinted at when Van Splunteren pays a visit to the headquarters of Def Jam Records, just tasting platinum numbers with Run-DMC. Two young wannabes queue up outside, showing their skills, as they wait to meet the maestro, Russell Simmons, then on his way to becoming a giant impressario in this brave new world. His label’s offices are faintly gritty, ensconced in a cramped townhouse, the walls covered in exposed brick. We also chat with Daryl McDaniels, nee DMC, jubilant over his new Cadillac, yet another foreshadowing of the growing celebration of materialism – both in hip-hop and American society - not to mention the immense riches rap would bestow on its biggest stars.
Big Fun in the Big Town then makes a brief detour to Queens’ St. Albans neighborhood, and we’re introduced to a charismatic 18-year-old, one James Todd Smith, better known by his nom de plume, LL Cool J, an acronym for Ladies Love Cool James. Cool J had already enjoyed a million-seller the previous year with his debut LP, Radio, and he exudes an optimistic, motor-mouth energy, as if he knows he will be a keystone figure in hip-hop for decades to come. It should be noted that his socioeconomic background is firmly middle-class; born in Bayshore, on Long Island, then raised in St. Albans, historically, the home of numerous seminal figures from the jazz world – there’s even a tour spotlighting their former residences – as well as my childhood dentist, who drove a Bricklin SV-1, a limited-production sports car with gullwing doors.
In fact, much of the best rap music has emanated from middle-class African-American enclaves in Queens and Long Island, from the subversive rage of Public Enemy to the neo-flower power stylings of DeLaSoul. No one doubts that hip-hop emerged from the ‘hood, but it’s never been exclusively wedded to those environs.
Fittingly, Van Splunteren’s documentary concludes with the notorious Schoolly-D, arguably the godfather of gangsta rap, a man who defends – in this film—shocking imagery in rap, probably oblivious to how central such repertoire would become in the ‘90s. An interesting counterpoint to his rhetoric is that of Suliaman el Hadi, a prominent “street poet” who laments rap’s avoidance – at the time – of pressing social issues, its apparent willingness to be no more than an “ego trip”. Grandmaster Flash’s groundbreaking “The Message” notwithstanding, it would be years before hip-hop would tackle the problems – think KRS-One or the scabrous Public Enemy - of its earliest constituents.
However, let’s consider that el Hadi and Schoolly are on the same page, if maybe in different columns. Schoolly might proclaim that presenting harsh images is tantamount to creating a discussion which would lead to social change; el Hadi might complain that Schoolly’s policy merely aestheticizes and glorifies negativity. This debate continues to burble in popular culture, but occasional flare-ups of violence in the hip-hop world are lending more weight to el Hadi’s philosophy.
Big Fun in the Big Town is a thoroughly engaging time capsule of an essential period in American pop history. At its best, it captures a street-level authenticity of hip-hop poised between its origins and its entry onto a wider cultural canvas. It never stoops to explaining or de-mystifying rap through a white suburban mouthpiece, but instead allows its inventors to speak their own truths. Yes, Van Splunteren is as far from the source – culturally and racially – as can be, but sometimes an outsider provides an objective vibrancy needed for this kind of documentary. I’ve not seen any of the docs Bram Van Splunteren produced in the wake of Big Fun in the Big Town, but he’s set a high bar for himself.