Q&A: Big Fun In The Big Town Director Bram Van Splunteren On The '80s New York Hip-Hop Scene
"The Beastie Boys were just silly," says Dutch-based documentary maker Bram Van Splunteren. "You couldn't do a serious interview with those guys. They were just goofing around. We had them rap down the phone but I don't remember any kind of content from that interview."
Back in the mid-'80s, Splunteren interviewed MCA, Ad Rock and Mike D for Wild Worlds, a radio show he ran. Despite the show's tendencies toward playing guitar-ased rock music, Splunteren liked to weave in rap songs when he could, not least those stamped with the Def Jam label logo. That interest in the music bloomed when he was given the opportunity to travel to New York City for two weeks in 1986 to produce a documentary about the hip-hop scene for the radio station's TV broadcast partner.
Big Fun In The Big Town will be screened tonight as part of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. Which seemed like a fine excuse to Skype it up with Splunteren about interviewing LL Cool J at the rapper's grandmother's house, checking out the Latin Quarter club, and attempting to chase down the Beasties in person.
Once you'd been commissioned to film the documentary, how did you go about hooking up with artists to interview?
Through the radio show I knew [then-publicist] Bill Adler at Def Jam very well because I'd called him several times to do phone interviews with the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. So then I called him, told him about the documentary, and asked what he could do besides from getting us access to all of the important Def Jam artists. He contacted me with street workers in neighborhoods and he gave me Grandmaster Flash's management. He was a golden contact for me. So most of the interviews went through Bill Adler.
Who was the first artist you interviewed when you got to New York?
It was probably Grandmaster Flash. All of the Def Jam artists were really difficult to get hold of: for LL Cool J I was on the phone the whole time to Bill Adler asking when we could get LL or when we could do Run-DMC. Run was always too busy recording, but then we got DMC right in front of the Def Jam office, in the street with his car. At the end of the day, we were just there for two weeksat the same time we were filming a documentary about Iggy Pop which didn't take so longso I could really use the two weeks to wait around for the big guys to come along and finally agree to do an interview with us.
What was interviewing LL Cool J at his grandmother's house like?
As you see it in the film, we rang the doorbell and his grandmother opened the door and we were surprised to see her. So I said let's do it again and we'll film the whole thing and we'll improvise and see what happens, so we did it again with the camera rolling. It was a little weird to see LL there, but at the same time he was quite boyish. But after that we talked a bit, and walked into the street, and he had his buddy there, we just improvised. He was super young, but already so busy like a superstar. He was very jumpy, but when he settled down doing the interview with us in the street, he was really cool 'cause when he talks there's a melody in the way he talks and there's a sparkle in his eyes. He was talking about what's most important to him, which was his music.
Did you sense that LL would go on to become a superstar?
I remember he was so self-assured for somebody so young; he was very smart and a very strong character, but you never can really tell. Actually, the guys in front to the Def Jam office we filmed, I'd never hard of them and never have heard of them again, but they were such good rappers and I was sure they were going to go far. Maybe they were too much like Run-DMC with the style of rapping and the second guy always echoing what the first guy was doing, but they had powerful voices and I thought they'd go far. But I never heard of them again. So you never can tell.
What were Def Jam's offices like then?
It was very small. It was a long office going towards the back, very narrow, and Russell Simmons was just sitting in the back and there was the lady with the cat who helps us and introduces us to him. It was a small place.
Big Fun In The Big Town
You filmed Doug E. Fresh beat-boxing in the street in Harlem. Did you get any strange looks from passersby?
Oh, that was just his group of friends that was hanging around there on the corner. Some kids would stop by and move on. We filmed it really up close, with the microphone as close to him as we could so we'd really get the sound of everything he was doing with his mouth. It didn't seem to be a big deal. But when we filmed nearby on the cross streets the police officers told us, "Here you're okay but don't go into the small streets." They warned us, being white guys in that neighborhood with all our equipment. So we didn't!
Schoolly D is featured performing at the Latin Quarter. What were your impressions of that club?
Well, to be honest, I was quite disappointed in that place. I had heard about it, heard it was one of the few clubs where rap artists would play in Manhattan. But I found the place to be very disco-ish and, in my opinion, the stage was way too high for the artists to really make contact with the crowd. I thought the other place we filmed in the Bronx, where Roxanne Shante and Biz Markie performed, that was a much cooler place 'cause the crowd was really close to the stage. Also, maybe because he wasn't that well known or was from Philadelphia, it didn't seem like a dedicated crowd that had come there to see Schoolly D. I guess Latin Quarter was the best they could do to find a club for rappers in Manhattan.
Did your opinion of any of the artists change after you got to meet them?
I thought DMC was like a big teddy bear. He's a nice guy. I could tell from the records that Run was the stronger rapper, he has a really strong voice, but when I met them I could tell that was also reflected in their personality: Run is a really strong character and DMC is a really nice guy.
What sort of records did you hear being played in New York during your visit?
Oh, boy, I think any of LL Cool J's record I heard a lot, and I'm thinking maybe Boogie Down Productions. It was always more the hardcore stuff. Like, for instance, in the film I use this one track from this guy who called himself Luvbug Starski, who was on Epic or a big label, and you can hear his production is more like a big commercial production. But what I heard around New York City was the more raw stuff.
Were there any artists you wanted to interview but couldn't manage to get hold of?
Yeah, the Beastie Boys! I was constantly asking Bill Adler to interview them, just 'cause I was such a fan. They were too busythey were always recording or out of town for the whole two weeks. It would have been nice to include them, but now when I look back on the documentary, I like the fact that the whole film is African Americans doing this music. I think that's kinda cool.
Big Fun In The Big Town and Wild Style will be screened at the Dweck Auditorium of the Brooklyn Public Library's Central Branch tonight.
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