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Shiny, fresh-from-the-showroom Mercedeses and Ford Explorers navigate the iridescent red flares strewn across Eleventh Avenue at the edge of Chelsea. The cops have erected a roadblock and are searching cars for prohibited artillery. They hand out flyers in Spanish and English, advertising a $500 reward "for information leading to the arrest of anyone who possesses an illegal handgun." Nearby, an SUV filled with undercover heat, possibly members of the newly formed NYPD unit charged with gathering information on rappers and their entourages, cruises slowly up the avenue, stopping every so often to take down license plate numbers.
It's Sunday night. Just around the corner from Manhattan's premier hip-hop showcase, the heavy manners of Mayor Giuliani's ongoing war on clubland are in full effect. In recent memory, no other club night in the city has ever been subject to such strict police measures as this nine-year-old weekly rap bash thrown by DJ Funkmaster Flexstar of MTV and Hot 97at the scandal-scarred Tunnel disco. The combination of hip-hop and the perennially embattled Tunnel owner Peter Gatientwo bogeymen for the price of onemakes it an irresistible bull's-eye for the powers that be.
"There seems to be this concerted effort in the media and among the police to target hip-hop as a menace to society," argues Funkmaster Flex, who resents the way the local papers present his night as a persistent trouble spot. "No matter what the press says, hip-hop is less violent now than it was in the past. That's because today, the hip-hop DJs' following is made up of individual consumers, not gangs and crews. It's just, to the general public, there seems to be more violencebecause hip-hop is so big now, every time a rapper gets into trouble, it's front-page news."
"There seems to be this concerted effort in the media and among the police to target hip-hop as a menace," argues Flex. "No matter what the press says, hip-hop is less violent now."
New York nightlife is under siege at the moment. The authorities have targeted clubswhich were once accepted as important musical incubators or vital social safety valvesas wholly sinister venues that promote rampant antisocial behavior. Barely a week goes by without some new skirmish in the ongoing crackdown on clubland. The Manhattan D.A. is currently investigating Twilo for allegedly hiding drug-overdose victims in closets and using a private ambulance service to ferry comatose partygoers so as to avoid police detection. Two weekends ago, the city padlocked the venue for building-code violations.
In this climate, putting on hip-hop events is especially problematic. It's not just the police who don't want ghetto blacks from uptown or the outer boroughs traveling to newly gentrified areas of downtown. Most club owners and promoters won't go near the street art form because of its reputation for violence. Earlier this year, a Run-D.M.C. concert at the Roxy on West 18th Street was canceled because the management feared that the support act, the Roots, would attract too hardcore a crowd. Last winter, Cheetah on West 21st Street tried to stage regular hip-hop parties, but quickly scrubbed them after a gunman opened fire in the crowded club, injuring Tawjuan Ford, 27, of Manhattan, who apparently bumped into the shooter by accident on the dancefloor. The irony is that if you're white, or a black person projecting a bourgeois or trendy image, it's relatively easy to hear hip-hop at Manhattan clubs such as Spa, Speed, and Club New York, where rap is often mixed in with house, Latin, funk, and reggae. What's missing is a variety of places for hip-hop's original audience to party. Aside from the far less known N.V. on Hudson Street, the last major rap outpost that caters to the music's working-class roots remains Sunday nights at Peter Gatien's cavernous Tunnel.
Once you've cleared the blue blockade and found a parking space, the next step is to negotiate a crowd-control barrier that stretches across 27th Street. "No caps, scarves, or doo-rags allowed on the block," a burly bouncer loudly instructs the line of disbelieving rap fans as they uncomplainingly file through the metal fence. The last thing Gatien needs is gang-bangers flying colors in his club. As hatless homeboys swagger down the sidewalk, a barrage of blinding police floodlights illuminates the adjacent warehouses. The surrounding streets are blocked off by a swarm of cruisers and police vans. At the next checkpoint, your driver's license is scanned through a large machine, creating a temporary database of partygoers, useful if any turmoil surfaces.
Finally, you reach the entrance of the club, where males (all cornrows and loud laughter, jostling each other, by now impatient to get onto the dance floor) are separated from females (all new leather boots, carefully applied makeup, and freshly pressed hair). After kicking off their footwear and passing through a metal detector, everyone without exception endures a body search bordering on indecent by the Tunnel's bouncers. "Should I take my socks off as well?" a young woman jokes with security. It's difficult to imagine a predominantly white crowd out for a night on the town putting up with indignities like these. Welcome to Giuliani-era hip-hop, where going to a rap jam is like visiting a loved one in a maximum-security prison.