Hip-Hop Under Heavy Manners

The Police’s Sunday-Night Tunnel Vision

The Tunnel's Sunday hip-hop night has been immortalized in countless songs, and attracts devotees from as far as Tokyo and London. But lately it's been barraged with negative publicity, thanks both to Gatien's notoriety and to the April 9 slaying of a 16-year-old patron, Terrence Davis of Brooklyn, who was stabbed to death under a rusted railway bridge in a deserted parking lot at the corner of 30th Street and Tenth Avenue—approximately a half mile from the club—after a fight inside.

Opinion in clubland is divided about Sunday nights at the Tunnel. One former Gatien employee calls the rap parties "a gangsta fest full of thugs spending thug loot." "Be careful," another nightlife insider warns. "It's like Rikers Island in there."

But not everyone sees it that way. "Every Sunday, we get 2000 of the most influential kids in America," boast Flex, shortly after his rotund, street-regal self rolls out of his chrome-hubcapped ride and through the front door, accompanied by a half a dozen courtiers humping metal crates full of records. "These are the hip-hop trendsetters. What music they like sets the tone for the whole culture." The long-running event is commonly credited, too, as a major breeding ground for important new artists. It was at the Tunnel where such rap superstars as the Notorious B.I.G., DMX, and Jay-Z got their first big breaks. Eve, Busta Rhymes, Jah Rule, Missy Elliot, Foxy Brown, and Lil' Kim are all regulars—not cloistered away in a VIP room, but mixing with their followers out on the floor, getting all sweaty to rough and ready hip-hop, smooth r&b, and fast-chat reggae laid down by Flex, probably the most sought-after DJ in all rapdom. On Sunday nights the Tunnel is also an important location for aspiring entrepreneurs to network, a place where recording deals are sealed over expensive champagne—the night's drug of choice—served in cheap plastic flutes. Standing in the corner, major record company executives gauge the excitement on the dance floor—the crazier the reaction, the bigger the hit.

The key question is whether the bad behavior of some of the attendees outweighs the cultural import of the club. In other words, could a zero-tolerance approach to violence at hip-hop clubs produce zero tolerance for the musical movement as a whole?

Violence is inherent in carnival. Even at lovey-dovey raves full of affluent white kids, Mafia-connected goons behind the scenes use intimidation, and sometimes murder, to control the Ecstasy trade. Brawls occur at plush, up-market lounges, as well as rap events. Jazz, rock 'n' roll, reggae, and heavy metal have gone through periods where they were linked in the public imagination with criminality. But rarely, if ever, has a type of music been so closely associated with criminal behavior as hip-hop, not only among both its practitioners and adherents, but also as evidenced in so many of the lyrics. Violence has been there since in the beginning, and it's there now. As such, some police presence should be expected. But will the attempt to quell all violence at hip-hop shows end up effectively quelling hip-hop itself?

For nearly a decade, Funkmaster Flex has hosted Sunday nights at the Tunnel, in which time New York has devolved from the city that never sleeps to a town where you have to fight for your right to party. In the same period, Flex has grown from an underground favorite, best known for bootleg mix tapes, to a major hip-hop powerbroker. Like Russell Simmons and Puff Daddy, he's a key player in the saturation of hip-hop throughout contemporary America. His daily Direct Effect show on MTV, his nightly appearances on Hot 97, and his weekly Tunnel gig ensure an uninterrupted continuum between the margins and the mainstream, a profitable pipeline from the streets to the suites. He's also got his own record pool and management company, not to mention a gold-selling recording career, releasing such star-studded compilation albums as Funkmaster Flex & Big Kap: The Tunnel and 60 Minutes of Funk: Volume IV: The Mixtape. No wonder he gets called the "hardest-working man in hip-hop."

In person, Flex is more thoughtful and soft-spoken than you'd expect from the bawdy bigmouth with the permanent head cold, cursing over records at the club. "I want people to know this is a night I'm very proud of," he insists. "I wouldn't do this if I thought it was an unsafe environment. This is not a violent club. It's the safest hip-hop club to party in, due to the extraordinary security. It's not a jungle filled with savages, and it shouldn't be described as one.

"The press talks about this one incident that happened two avenues away from the club, but they never mention the dozens of nights we've had where everything is peaceful. The person responsible for that kid's death is the one who stabbed him. You can't blame Peter Gatien for the ills of the ghetto."

Violence is inherent in carnival. Even at lovey- dovey raves full of affluent white kids, Mafia-connected goons behind the scenes use intimidation, and sometimes murder, to control the Ecstasy trade.
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