“You learn rap from the streets.” The response, taken from an interviewee in the hip-hop documentary, Big Fun in the Big Town, truly embodies what this 25-year-old film is all about.
The year was 1986. Rock journalist and radio host Bram Van Splunteren, born and raised off of Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, becomes a fan of the hip-hop scene emerging out of New York City. Convinced that hip-hop was “the rock music of the future,” Splunteren and his three-man crew took to the birthplace of hip-hop in search of its origins, and its unpredictable future.
What makes Big Fun in the Big Town (watch the trailer here) so captivating, is its authenticity. In searching for answers Splunteren travels to some of New York City’s most dangerous and impoverished locations, including the Bronx, Lower East Side and Harlem. It creates an interesting parallel — how the slums of New York City birthed hip-hop, a positive alternative to things like crack selling or gang affiliation.
This is emphasized by public school teacher Dennis Bell, and hip-hop show organizer Vito Bruno. “They [the kids] only have two ways of getting out of the neighborhood,” said Bruno. “One is by dealing crack, and the other is by showing them the way out through music.” To some of us born after the crack epidemic of the ’80s, this may seem ludicrous, but Splunteren does a great job of capturing what Bruno is talking about. Whether it be through hip-hop collectives voicing their disapproval of crack use (the “Can’t Be Stopped” crew), or billboards and street murals stating that crack is wack, the footage shows the battle between New York City’s ever-growing hip-hop and crack scene.
Splunteren should also be commended for how prophetic he comes off as. He not only tackles hip-hop’s appeal, but also what makes it detrimental, such as its braggadocio and misogynous lyrical content, and lack of female rappers. For example, Splunteren’s interviews with LL Cool J, and poet Suliaman El Hadi. LL Cool J makes the argument that he raps about topics other than poverty and economic deprivation, because “he wants to take life’s pressures off of fan’s backs.” Hadi on the other hand, believes that rappers should discuss these topics, instead of being egotistical.
I say Splunteren comes off as prophetic because, these are still issues present in hip-hop today. One could even argue that the interviewees chosen represent the two most common sub-genres of hip-hop: mainstream, and alternative hip-hop. LL Cool J would represent the former, a sub-genre known for its upbeat, party-friendly message. Hadi would represent the latter, a sub-genre known for addressing sociopolitical topics such as poverty and inequality. Splunteren’s addressing of this issue only makes his documentary that much better, foreshadowing today’s problem with hip-hop’s glamorization of the street-life, and its lack of thought-provoking lyrical content.
Most importantly, Splunteren’s documentary serves as a piece of nostalgia — an artifact that sheds light on hip-hop’s humble beginnings. The late DJ Mr. Magic hosting his Rap Attack show; Grandmaster Flash (in full ’80s attire) explaining the origins of DJing and Doug E. Fresh discussing the importance of hip-hop, while simultaneously putting on a jaw-dropping, beat-boxing performance. All of these aspects of Big Fun in the Big Town, are crucial elements to New York City’s hip-hop scene in the ’80s.
One of the most memorable scenes would have to be a performance between rapper Roxanne Shante and beat-boxer Biz Markie. Performing at a club that is filled to the brim with fans, Shante and Markie energize the crowd with nothing but two microphones, and their voices. “Oh yeah,” screams Shante as the crowd yells it back, a flurry of hands waving back and forth in the air.
“Hip-hop is about having something to believe in, and being yourself,” said Doug E. Fresh in the documentary. Big Fun in the Big Town does a great job of capturing that, serving as a reminder of hip-hop’s origins, and what it has always stood for.
“We hustle hard / No sleep.” These are words music journalist Elijah Watson lives by. Watson is currently a student at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in journalism. He also serves as senior entertainment writer for The Daily Texan, the school’s student newspaper, and a contributor to the college section of the Huffington Post. When he’s not critiquing the next big thing in music, Watson can be found listening to hip-hop, ranting about his desires to be an honorary member of hardcore punk group Trash Talk and making new friends on Twitter.