This Rare 1986 Documentary Is An Amazing Hip-Hop History Lesson (Video)
In 1986, one of the earliest documentaries on Hip-Hop was made by a Dutch TV company. Big Fun In The Big Town, directed by Bram van Splunteren, featured on air Belgian host, Marcel Vanthilt, traveling the streets of New York City to gain a better understanding of the burgeoning culture. The film is now a treasure trove of footage on some of Hip-Hop’s earliest acts and influencers, including Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie, Roxanne Shante, Russell Simmons and more, and is an education for fans, new and old.
Early in the film, Vanthilt meets with Grandmaster Flash, who shows him some of his old haunts in The Bronx and then puts on a DJ’ing display with the classic break from Bob James’ “Take Me To The Mardi Gras,” which powered Run-D.M.C.’s “Peter Piper.” At 10 minutes into the film, Vanthilt’s quest leads him to the home of Doug E. Fresh. After a quick display of his beatboxing talents, Doug E draws a prophetic parallel between Rap music and Rock & Roll. “[Rap] is kinda like Rock & Roll was back in the days,” he says. “The way they wouldn’t accept Rock & Roll to the fullest, but now they accepting it, and we going through the same thing that they went through.” Ironically, today, Hip-Hop is so established, it has replaced Rock & Roll as the soundtrack for a generation, and Rap stars are even included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Doug also touches on a generation gap that was already brewing between stars of the mid-80s and those that came before them. “We represent the way that the younger people feel. A lot of younger people have these older idols to look up to, and these idols look soft…They look at these young Rap stars, and they can see that we represent something that’s real. We don’t wear no glitter and stuff. Only thing that glitter on us is our gold.” Fresh’s comments were a reference to the flashy clothing that acts like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five wore, while performing. Acts like Run-D.M.C. eschewed the flashy wardrobes and replaced those clothes with what they wore on the streets.
After a performance featuring Biz Markie & Roxanne Shante (12:42), Vanthilt makes his way to the offices of Russell Simmons, who was a driving force in making Rap music more authentic, both through his management of Run-D.M.C. and with his Def Jam Recordings label. In one of the most powerful moments of the film, a group called The Mystery Crew from Chicago can be seen rapping outside of Simmons’ office on the sidewalk. Their performance is strong (18:30), but apparently was not enough to hold the attention of Simmons, who pauses briefly to hear them before heading inside. It is a reminder of how thin the line is between being a star and a footnote. Vanthilt’s visit with Simmons leads him to Run and D, and we see candid moments of them on the street and in the studio (22:22).
The film’s climax occurs when Vanthilt goes to see LL Cool J (27:48). Though LL is already a star with gold plaques, the then 18-year old James Todd Smith still lives with his grandmother in her modest Queens home. Brimming with confidence, L breaks down the meaning of “LL” with a dazzling rhyme. When he’s done, he expounds on the generation gap Doug E. Fresh addressed. While Doug E spoke about the differences in styles between the old guard and new, LL talks about the contrast in substance. “If you don’t express to somebody that you’re proud of yourself and how you’re coming off, then how are they going to know,” he asks. “What would you say if they got on the record and said ‘Yo, I’m a sucker and a punk and I can’t even fight. I don’t make no money.’ How that sound?” By stark contrast, Suliaman El Hadi, of The Last Poets, credited by many as one of the first groups to Rap on a record, is shown saying “What the young folks are saying is nursery rhymes. We like to deal with the real. Rhyming is fine, but not nursery rhymes…The guys only be talking about themselves–how much of a lover, how the women love ’em to death, how they can throw down, how good they can dance, how bad they are, nobody better not mess with me, and all that kind of foolishness that only encourages violence and madness, as opposed to encouraging sanity and progress.”
As is the case now, however, the reality is there were artists back then who represented a variety of subject matters and looks. While LL’s words may have been too flashy for some of his predecessors, artists like Schooly D, with songs like “P.S.K.” were embarking on some of the grittiest records ever made, at the same time. Schooly is the last person that Vanthilt speaks with, and the Philadelphia MC says “Our sound is raw. Very raw. We say things that other MCs wish they could say and want to say, [but they’re] scared to say because the record companies won’t let ’em say it. So, since I have my own record company, I can say anything I want.” Schooly’s words would soon become the norm for independent artists and major artists alike.
Thirty years after its release, many of the themes highlighted in Big Fun In The Big Town remain relevant. The generational wars flared in 2016 with the advent of artists who de-emphasized the importance of lyrics in favor of making up their own cadences and who were comfortable with gender fluid images. Music about partying and drugs dominated the charts, while music with a message was just one click away. If anything the film shows us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.