Reviews

Livin' In a Pre-Gangsta's Paradise: 'Big Fun in the Big Town'

MC Shan in Big Fun in the Big Town

Hip-hop's bratty DIY ethos marks it as an urban doppelganger to punk rock.


Big Fun In The Big Town

Director: Bram Van Splunteren
Cast: Grandmaster Flash, Doug E. Fresh, Russell Simmons, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Roxanne Shante, Biz Markie, Schoolly D, Suliaman el Hadi
Length: 42 min
Extras: n/a
Year: 1986
Distributor: Five Day Weekend
Release date: 2012-05-22

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.

8
Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Film

'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

Keep reading... Show less
9

South Pole Station is an unflinching yet loving look at family in all its forms.

The typical approach of the modern debut novel is to grab its audience's attention, to make a splash of the sort that gets its author noticed. This is how you get a book deal, this is how you quickly draw an audience -- books like Fight Club, The Kite Runner, even Harry Potter each went out of their way to draw in an audience, either through a defined sense of language, a heightened sense of realism, or an instant wash of wonder. South Pole Station is Ashley Shelby's debut, and its biggest success is its ability to take the opposite approach: rather than claw and scream for its reader's attention, it's content to seep into its reader's consciousness, slowly drawing that reader into a world that's simultaneously unfamiliar and totally believable.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image