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.