Date of Interview: 05/14/2012
Bram van Splunteren is a Dutch filmmaker and journalist. His hip-hop documentary – Big Fun in the Big Town (1986) – captures a series of extraordinary events during an incredible week in New York: Doug E Fresh beatboxing and philosophizing on the street in Harlem, Grandmaster Flash scratching records on his living room table, and LL Cool J discussing love raps at his grandmother’s house in Queens. Twenty-five years after its initial broadcasting on Dutch public television, 5 Day Weekend has made this rare, historical footage commercially available for the very first time.
In support of Big Fun in the Big Town’s worldwide release (DVD: May 22, 2012), Bram van Splunteren spoke with Clayton Perry about his passion for filmmaking, early radio resistance to hip-hop music, and the vital support received from Def Jam publicist Bill Adler.
Clayton Perry: Big Fun in the Big Town is an extraordinary masterwork – documenting hip-hop’s emergence as an international phenomenon during its infancy. What life events served as key influences in the development of this project?
Bram van Splunteren: I was a rock journalist writing for Holland’s biggest music magazine, Oor (Ear), before I went to the Amsterdam film school. After film school, in the early eighties, I got offered a radio show where I had a lot of freedom to play my favorite music. While I was still doing radio, I started working in television – producing and directing small music shows. The bands I was getting for those shows were mostly white alternative rock bands – from Nick Cave’s Birthday Party to 80’s cult bands like The Replacements and Husker Du. But in the mid-eighties I discovered rap thanks to one of the first Beastie Boys 12 inches, “She’s On It” [from the soundtrack of 1985 film Krush Groove]. And shortly after that I got an offer to direct 6 music documentaries. Big Fun was the first to be completed and my very first documentary for Dutch national television. In the same year, I did one about Iggy Pop. Both were filmed in the USA. And in the next year, I filmed docs on Nick Cave, John Hiatt, and Liverpool. I also documented The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first European tour in 1987 as they traveled Europe in a small van. I was the first filmmaker to make a documentary about them and I filmed them on several occasions afterwards.
Clayton Perry: As a hip-hop fan living in Holland, miles and miles away from New York City, what do you immediately recall about your initial encounter with rap music and hip-hop as a larger culture.
Bram van Splunteren: I knew “Rapper’s Delight” from the Sugar Hill Gang – and played it on my radio show – but I thought it more a curiosity. The same with “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow. The lyrics of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” really touched me, but the production and sound of it was still too disco-ish for me to totally get into it. And then came The Beastie Boys. They blew me away from the start. This was before their first album Licensed to Ill. I just loved Rick Rubin’s production and the dry sound of the drums. The same with LL Cool J’s album. And RUN DMC of course I liked too, though Rubin did not produce them. Apart from the music, I knew about graffiti and breakdancing, but going to New York in 1986 for Big Fun was really my first encounter with hip-hop as a culture. I had traveled to New York before, but never been into any of the black neighborhoods like Harlem and the Bronx. And when we finally went there it was pretty scary because we were told white folks don’t go into these neighborhoods, not even in the daytime. I loved the shoot we did at the school in the Bronx, where school kids were just rapping and beat-boxing everywhere, without instruments, and with such high quality. Like the guys that do the “Michael Jackson and his white glove” rap. That’s when I really felt the culture, the whole feel behind it.
Clayton Perry: At what point did your passion for filmmaking merge with your love of hip-hop?
Bram van Splunteren: Around the time I was totally crazy about hip-hop and was playing it a lot in my originally rock-oriented radio show. I was met with a lot of resistance when I started playing all this hip-hop – from both listeners and my company. At some point, my boss didn’t allow me to play more than two hip-hop records every hour. In Holland, people weren’t taking hip-hop very seriously – especially in those days. Even the leading Dutch pop 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. So when I got the chance to make a documentary I thought I could maybe convince people to take rap more seriously, by showing them where this music came from culturally, and why rappers were saying the things they were saying. Like how great they were, what kind of big car they drive and how many gold chains they wear around their necks. To say these kind of things was considered totally uncool in the kind alternative white middle class circles in which I was a part.
Clayton Perry: What insight can you share about the pre-production process for Big Fun?
Bram van Splunteren: My radio show had already done several phone interviews with LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Whodini and the Beastie Boys. Those all went through the office of Def Jam Records, the leading hip hop record label of the time. I was always dealing with – and talking to – their publicist Bill Adler. He was very friendly and always helping me out and he knew a lot of people inside and outside the Def Jam stable. So when we started pre-production for the film I immediately contacted him. He was a great help. Without Bill we could not have made this film. We got two weeks from my company to shoot two documentaries at once. One was Big Fun and the other focused on Iggy Pop, which featured a lengthy interview on location in New York, along with a visit to Ann Arbor, where Iggy and the Stooges started out. Later, back in Holland, we later filmed Iggy Pop live in concert. Since the interview with Iggy Pop only took a few hours, I had extra time for the hip-hop documentary, which is where my heart lied. It was also the film for which I needed the most time, due to the multiple artists and locations we wanted to film. The crew was made up of only four people: camera, sound, the host and myself – directing and producing on the spot. The film was shot on 16 mm film – which was great. In those days, the difference between film and video was quite big. I remember being constantly on the phone with Bill Adler. I think the question I bothered him with most was: “When can we do LL?” LL Cool J was very busy in those days but I felt I really needed him because he was the biggest star at that moment – along with Run-DMC. In the end, we got RUN DMC and we got LL – both fortunately on location, and not in a hotel or office. I really stressed to Bill Adler that we needed to see as much of New York City as possible. He helped me out with getting the artists in their natural environment. We visited LL at his grandmother’s house in Queens, which became one of the cutest scenes in the film. But we didn’t get the Beastie Boys, who were also on the top of my list. They were constantly gone or recording or whatever.
Clayton Perry: Now, 25 years later, what you think have been the most drastic changes in music documentary filmmaking?
Bram van Splunteren: In Holland, making music documentaries has become very difficult. In the old days, the channel I worked for didn’t care about ratings. As a national television station – paid for by the government – they were just focused on making interesting shows and documentaries. They also had funding to make them – on a low budget scale. Nowadays, there is much more pressure to get as many viewers as possible, and music documentaries or other cultural programs generally do not attract large amounts of viewers. Consequently, there is now very little money to make them. The channels want to spend their money on other shows that attract more viewers. I have always concentrated on bands at the beginning of their careers, because it allows me to film with them in interesting locations beyond hotel rooms and record company offices. In the early nineties, for instance, having become good friends with The Red Hot Chili Peppers, I filmed them at home in Los Angeles – right before “Under the Bridge” [from the 1991 studio album Blood Sugar Sex Magik]. After that point, they got so big that recreating that experience was no longer possible. Although I do not make music documentaries anymore, I assume it has not become easier to film bands and follow them closely like I have done with several artists. Now, I have moved onto ‘human interest’ orientated programs, and I do not following music professionally the way I did. I just hear what’s popular and played on the radio. Of course, I know the big hip-hop names and their most famous tunes, but that’s about it. As a musical form, thanks in part to its crossover and use of pop and R&B, a big international audience has finally come to accept it, because of the use of choruses and melodies that one can sing along to.
Clayton Perry: Analyzing Big Fun in the Big Town within the context of history, explain the importance of why artists should document their sonic and visual legacy.
Bram van Splunteren: Hip-hop started as a very controversial art form and evolved into a mainstream billion-dollar business. In a way, it seems quite natural and a normal part in the cycle of life – because things never stay the same. People grow up and get older and develop themselves. And then new generations stand up, discover their own identity and do something different than the generation before them. It is important to record history, so we can learn from the past and examine the things have transformed our lives, our culture, and worldview.
For more information on Bram van Splunteren, visit his official website: http://www.bramvansplunteren.nl