Hip-Hop Under Heavy Manners

The Police’s Sunday-Night Tunnel Vision

Standing outside the Tunnel, Peter Gatien, dry as unbuttered toast and impassive as ever, surveys the ranks of law enforcement encircling his club. "Actually, I welcome the police presence," he matter-of-factly comments. "The roadblocks are going too far, but generally, I think they do a good job. My problem isn't with the local precinct, it's with the mayor's office and the New York Post."

Egged on by self-styled crusading Post columnist Jack Newfield, the city has been trying to shutter the Tunnel for years now. Revved up with righteousness, Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington, who heads the administration's nightlife task force, vowed on Rudy Giuliani's hairpiece to use the Davis death to boost the city's case before the Manhattan Supreme Court, when once again Washington will try to convince a judge to permanently shutter the venue under the nuisance abatement law. Gatien is also engaged in an ongoing struggle with the State Liquor Authority, which is trying to yank his license to sell booze.

"It's certainly true that putting on a hip-hop night is more problematic than, say, putting on a house music night," allows Gatien, who claims he makes little profit from Sundays, primarily because he spends four times as much on security measures (employing a 60-strong staff) as on any other night. In the wake of the 1998 not-guilty verdict in his federal drug racketeering trial, the stubborn businessman rejected the advice of those who counseled him that he should play it safe and nix the hip-hop night. "Rap music is such an important part of the culture, the hip-hop community deserves a place to enjoy itself," he continues. "If you can't have hip-hop on the corner of Twelfth Avenue and 27th Street, where can you have it? Look around you—there is no neighborhood to disturb. It's all warehouses and truck depots."

Gatien admits there have been some problems on Sunday nights over the years. Several stabbing and slashing incidents have occurred inside the Tunnel, though none fatal. In September, 1999, following a staredown between the occupants of two cars, a 23-bullet fusillade left two Tunnel patrons dead, in what police believe was a gang dispute. In the late '90s the police blamed a rash of car break-ins and muggings on Sunday-night attendees. One Chelsea resident, who requested anonymity, says: "It's not as bad as it used to be. A couple of years back, Sunday night, you couldn't walk your dog without being harassed by people coming from the subway to the Tunnel." In February 2000, a disabled patron claimed that an unknown assailant shot him in the leg; it turned out that he accidentally shot himself, with a gun he smuggled past security in the well of his wheelchair. Hardly a spotless record, then, but is it enough to close down a night widely touted as a pop cultural mecca?

All of this may soon become academic, however. Urged on by his tough-as-nails wife, Alessandra, Peter Gatien claims he wants out of the nightlife business altogether. The club owner is staring bankruptcy in the face. He owes millions in back rent, taxes, and legal bills. The Tunnel's insurance was recently canceled because of nonpayment. Gatien claims the only way out of this financial mess is to sell both the Tunnel and the Limelight before the city pulls the plug. (He adamantly denies the rumor that he intends to use the monies from the sale of his dancehalls to finance a secret share in a cavernous new gay club a block up from rival Twilo.)

Gatien was in the midst of brokering a deal with Connecticut club owner David Squillante when the New York Post stymied the negotiations by revealing that two of Squillante's Hartford clubs were being investigated for drug activity and an overdose death. The press-shy Squillante was appalled at the prospect of replacing Gatien as the Post's favorite folk devil, and the deal fell through.

"The city and the New York Post wanted to kill this deal and it looks like they've succeeded," says an exasperated Gatien. "It's as if they don't want to get rid of their preferred whipping boy." On cue, a Post photographer appears from nowhere: "Peter, can I take your picture?" In a blink of an eye, the ghostly Canadian—who, to compound his woes, the INS now wants to deport back home—disappears back indoors, as if in a cloud of dry ice.

Inside the Tunnel, from his DJ perch, Funkmaster Flex is stirring up the audience into a frantic whirl of pumping limbs with the M.O.P. gangsta anthem, "Ante Up." Even though most of these people live in primarily poor neighborhoods, fast money flows through the crowd. A lot of the music Flex plays is rife with references to ripping pockets, snatching chains, and brandishing firearms. Does this not contribute to a violent atmosphere? "It's not real," Flex defends himself. "It's like the violence you get in a computer game or an action movie. The real cause of violence in hip-hop begins in the neighborhood, not on the dancefloor. Kids bring local beefs into the club that have nothing to do with the music."

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