PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.