26 years after it was filmed, Dutch director, journalist and rap aficionado Bram Van Splunteren’s Big Fun in the Big Town is finally being released to worldwide audiences. While it’s easy to think that a film kept in the dark for so long might have limited relevance to modern audiences, that couldn’t be further from the truth in the case of Big Fun, a documentary on the origins of hip hop filmed by Van Splunteren in New York in 1986, just as the genre was getting noticed—but not, notes Van Splunteren, being taken seriously—on an international scale. Featuring interviews with pioneers like Russell Simmons, Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash, Doug E Fresh and LL Cool J—who, in a somewhat ming-boggling moment, chats about his craft in his grandmother’s house, where he stilled lived at the time—from before they became household names, Big Fun is a time capsule of one music’s most influential genres.
Van Splunteren took the time to chat about how his love of rap music led him to make this long-buried film—debuting for the first time on DVD tomorrow, May 22nd—and what he’s struck by most watching Big Fun now, over a quarter-century since he first directed it. As a treat for MM readers, we’re giving away a few copies of Big Fun in the Big Town, so head on over to our Play to Win! section for a chance at winning your own copy of this slice of history.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): What were your plans for the footage while you were shooting it back in 1986? Why was the film unavailable for so long?
Bram Van Splunteren (BVS): In Holland people weren’t taking hip-hop very seriously in those days. Even the leading Dutch music magazine was calling it a ‘passing trend.’ Just a couple of kids talking—not even singing!—over the sound of drum machines and boasting about themselves. I had a radio show back then on Dutch national radio, and I felt this exciting new music could be the new rock and roll. I wanted to play lots of hip hop on my show but was met with a lot of resistance. My boss didn’t allow me to play more than two hip hop records every hour. So when I got the chance to make a documentary I thought I could convince people to take rap music seriously by showing them where this music was coming from and why rappers were saying the things they were saying.
The film was never really noticed outside of Holland, until YouTube came along. Although I remember being told that the members of the band Sonic Youth saw it somehow and really liked the scene with LL Cool J.
MM: Why release Big Fun in the Big Town now? What do you want audience members watching all this amazing footage of rap pioneers—many of whom are still active in the business—to get from your film?
BVS: We were contacted by an American company, Traffic Entertainment/Five Day Weekend. They had seen clips of the film on YouTube, and someone over at Traffic had known DJ Mr. Magic and was surprised to find out that we had shot footage of this New York radio legend. By the way: The title of the film was taken from Mr. Magic; he used it as a slogan to introduce his show before Marley Marl would spin the first record.
I would want people to just enjoy the pure force and energy of these young kids that started this whole new musical movement called rap. They all had the music in themselves, and the love of music; in practically all the scenes of the film you can see it oozing out of their bodies. And it’s all very pure, no gimmicks, like Russell Simmons says in the film. What you see is what you get, and most of that is pure magic.
MM: What do you feel watching the film now, over 25 years after you originally had those conversations with Grandmaster Flash, Russell Simmons, Run-DMC, LL Cool J and the rest? What’s the number one thing that strikes you?
BVS: Again, the purity of it all. I personally hate it when things feel staged—like a lot of TV does these days—and I love the films of John Cassavettes for their “natural” feel, and Bob Dylan’s music for the same reason. Old-school hip hop also has that pureness. A lot of the rapping you see in the film is just performed in the street, without any instruments; things don’t get any purer than that.
MM: Was Big Fun in the Big Town the first music documentary you did? Have you found that the process of making them has changed over the years—in terms of the difficultly, getting access to musicians, having to deal with managers and red tape, things like that?
BVS: Yes it was, and yes of course, things have changed a lot. The moment a band or genre becomes very popular there [are] so many media [outlets] that want to cover it. So as a filmmaker or journalist you are relegated to doing interviews in hotel rooms or other unexciting places, where it’s hard to get something “real” from the artists you’re filming or interviewing.
When we were going to shoot Big Fun we were very keen on filming the artists in the streets of New York and the urban neighborhoods where rap had started. So I worked very hard to do interviews and scenes out in those streets, and we were lucky enough to get upcoming stars like Run-DMC, Doug E Fresh and LL Cool J to come with us into the streets to be filmed. I very much doubt that these days, as a film crew from Holland, we could get a famous rap star to come and be filmed out in the streets. Let alone film him at his grandmother’s house, like we did with LL Cool J.
So what you have to try to do as a filmmaker is be there when a band or artist is still up-and-coming, before they’re totally surrounded by promo men, managers and lawyers.
MM: Is there anything you’d like to add?
BVS: The release of Big Fun in the Big Town on DVD more than 25 years later is an incredible honor for me. I remember the conviction with which I made that film. I was a man with a mission, I really wanted to show people (in Holland) the roots of rap, where this music came from and what it came out of. The fact that the film can still have that kind of impact now, on rap fans all over the world, is kind of mind-boggling to me.
For more on Big Fun in the Big Town, being released by Five Day Weekend and Traffic Entertainment, visit www.fivedaywknd.com.