Big Fun in the Big Town

Dir. Bram van Splunteren
Holland: VPRO, 1986.

Philip Kirby

University of Liverpool (UK)

This documentary was originally commissioned by Dutch broadcaster VPRO and was filmed and broadcast in 1986; it finally gained commercial release on DVD in 2012. The director originally hoped to explore the origins and culture of hip hop with the aim of educating the Dutch TV viewer whose perception of the style may have been tainted by exposure to novelty material such as Dutch act MC Miker G and Deejay Sven’s 1986 hit “Holiday Rap”. The braggadocio and materialism of American hip hop also left some European listeners with the impression that the style had little substance and was merely a passing fad, a viewpoint the film-maker hoped to change.

The film commences with an initial sequence that sets the scene, including shots of New York and studio footage of hip hop DJ Mr Magic’s radio show. After a brief sequence of live concert footage we see the director on the phone in the hotel setting up interviews, the first of which is with Grandmaster Flash. English subtitles explain that they meet in the South Bronx, “one of the most poor and dangerous parts of town but also the place where in the second half of the ’70s the first rappers and scratchers appeared”. Although this film was made relatively early in hip hop history, it was shot thirteen years after Herc’s (now mythical) first party in Sedgwick Avenue, a period from which little archival material survives. So, although the film leaves the impression it offers a snapshot of an emerging style, there was a significant period of development that is not explored in the documentary.

Flash initially shows the film crew the site of a Bronx venue where he played as the style emerged. He then demonstrates his skills as a turntablist (in his living room) by beat juggling two copies of Bob James’ “Take Me to the Mardi Gras”. Flash explains that his key innovation as a DJ was to loop the strongest part of a record by using two record decks to extend the break section (conveniently ignoring that this technique was Kool Herc’s innovation). Flash found that by using a crew of MCs to accompany his DJing it turned the overall performance into a show and made it less like a technical demonstration of his turntable skills. Again, this is essentially a Jamaican sound system performance practice introduced by Herc, which was developed further by Flash and other DJ-led crews. Possibly due to the footage being shot in only a week, and the researcher being based on another continent, numerous hip hop innovators such as Herc are not interviewed or even mentioned, which could be considered a notable omission.

The film then cuts to Harry Truman High School in the North Bronx, where we see clean-cut happy looking kids singing and rapping in the playground. The students’ (white) music teacher Dennis Bell explains that the style developed in the Bronx, and that in many New York schools the music programmes were cut for budgetary reasons, and that due to the relative poverty of families in the Bronx private music lessons were not an option for most young people. Bell then states that as there was no musical outlet for young people, “in the Bronx what happened was they figured out a new form of music that didn’t take any music lessons, and that is using poetry and a rhythm, which has a lot of roots in African stuff”. He states that programming a drum computer doesn’t require music lessons. This is true, but a drum machine wasn’t a particularly affordable item in 1986, which somewhat negates the argument that poverty reduced the available opportunities to develop “traditional” instrument skills. Explaining the origin of the style entirely on educational cutbacks somewhat over-simplifies the origins of hip hop. This notion that the style resulted directly from a lack of access to “real” instruments is also repeated (by Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian) in Ice-T and Andy Baybutt’s film Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012). The socio-economic and cultural influences that impact the origins of hip hop culture are obviously unpacked in far greater depth in the work of hip hop scholars such as Rose (1994), George (1998), Toop (2000), Forman (2002) and Chang (2005).

The next sequence is in Harlem with Doug E. Fresh, a pioneer of the practice of human beatboxing. The director states that from the introduction of beatboxing the street kids were self-supporting, as they didn’t need to rely on a rhythm machine anymore to supply a beat to rap over. Fresh compares rap music’s status to that of rock and roll when it initially emerged to critical opprobrium, and its subsequent acceptance into the mainstream. He then contrasts the “street tough” image of rap artists to some of the more androgynous black pop stars of the period. Their names aren’t mentioned, but Rick James and Prince (amongst others) spring to mind as the probable targets of this comment.

The documentary includes footage of a hopeful crew from Chicago rapping and beatboxing outside Def Jam’s offices in an attempt to gain Russell Simmons’ attention. They deliver a slick routine critiquing gang culture after the director asks if there are street gangs in Chicago. The director evidently has a fascination with gang culture and this topic is the focus of attention at a number of points in the narrative. The film features a cameo from DMC (of Run DMC), who shows off his new Cadillac and its sound system and raps to the camera whilst on the street outside Def Jam. An edit introduces an incredibly focused and business-like Simmons in the Def Jam office, explaining the market for hip hop and his intention to sell his acts without resorting to gimmicks. This comment is possibly a veiled reference to “Holiday Rap’s” European success. Simmons demonstrates a paternal pride, noting that his artists write their own material and he states that they have more commercial talent than most pop stars. Then the film takes the viewer to Queens to L.L. Cool J’s grandmother’s house for an interview with L.L., her home located in an apparently pleasant residential neighbourhood, a striking contrast to the footage of urban dereliction in the Bronx that is standard fare in hip hop documentaries.

Suliaman El Hadi from the Last Poets is introduced and provides an opportunity to contrast the older generation of black artists with the new. He offers a critique of hip hop, as he considers the style is not addressing the realities of black life such as poverty, powerlessness and economic decline. He disparagingly refers to the average hip hop MC’s raps as “nursery rhymes”.

The footage is cleverly edited back to L.L. explaining that he doesn’t rap about ghetto problems, as he wants his audience to be able to forget day-to-day reality and have fun when they attend his concerts. When asked if it is necessary for rap to have a message, L.L. replies, “why would a kid want to pay for a ticket to hear how bad life is?” The footage then cuts back to Suliaman, who is now accompanied by one of his teenaged sons, and although his son is obviously respectful of his father and aware of the power of his thought and poetry, he admits to liking rap music. The boy says, “I do admit what I be listening to is garbage, but I still love it, I still like it, it makes me dance, you know, it gets me up!”. He comments that his father’s music “brings education” and then his father delivers an impassioned performance of Last Poets’ material to the camera.

The film finally cuts to concert footage which shows Schoolly D performing live with his DJ operating a drum machine as the sole accompaniment to Schoolly’s lyrics. When interviewed backstage, Schoolly states that his sound is raw and that he can address topics other MCs cannot as he has his own independent label. Again, rock and roll is mentioned in comparison to rap. Schoolly worries that rap will be made too “pretty” as it becomes more commercialised, a fate that he considers has happened to rock and roll.

Obviously, hip hop has evolved considerably since 1986 and has had a remarkable global impact, musically, commercially and culturally, in the almost forty years since Kool Herc’s first party in the Bronx. Big Fun in the Big Town is mainly notable for offering a snapshot of the genre in a more innocent (pre-crack epidemic) era, before the emergence of gangster rap and hip hop’s overt commercialisation. One of the most interesting aspects of this documentary is the original footage that had languished in VPRO’s archives for a quarter of a century before this DVD release. Anyone who watches a wide range of music documentaries will begin to recognise the same segments appearing repeatedly in different films; however, the footage used here is refreshingly unfamiliar to the jaded eye. The film doesn’t offer any unique insights and can be criticised for a lack of historical rigour, but it is nevertheless an entertaining addition to the available material exploring early hip hop.


Chang, Jeff. 2005. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. London: Ebury Press.

Forman, Murray. 2002. The ’Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

George, Nelson. 1998. Hip Hop America. New York: Penguin.

Rose, Tricia. 1994. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Toop, David. 2000. Rap Attack. London: Serpent’s Tail.


MC Miker G and Deejay Sven. 1986. Holiday Rap. Dureco Records (12-inch): MS 227. <>.

Bob James. 1973. Take Me to the Mardi Gras. CTI (7-inch): CTI 304. < >.


Ice-T and Andy Baybutt. 2012. Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap. USA: Indomina Films. <>.