Hip-Hop Under Heavy Manners
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."
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.
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 Avenueapproximately a half mile from the clubafter 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 regularsnot 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 champagnethe night's drug of choiceserved in cheap plastic flutes. Standing in the corner, major record company executives gauge the excitement on the dance floorthe 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."
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 youthere 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 Canadianwho, to compound his woes, the INS now wants to deport back homedisappears 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."
Flex believes hip-hop is unfairly under attack, notwithstanding the recent violent shoot-outs involving Puff Daddy's posse at Club New York, and later Lil' Kim's entourage, outside of the Hot 97 studio on Hudson Street. "From Puffy to Jay-Z to Peter Gatien, I see how the press and the authorities go after high profile figures they don't like, whether it's in hip-hop or the nightclub world," observes Flex. "I know these people personally, and they're nothing like they're portrayed in the media." Does he see this campaign as a form of racial profiling? "I don't see it so much as anti-black, as anti-young people and anti-hip-hop lovers, many of whom happen to be black. Newspapers don't understand what an expressive music hip-hop is. All they see is violence and controversy."
The truth is, going out to a hip-hop show can still be scary. Any responsible hip-hop promoter knows there is always a potential for mayhem, and takes appropriate precautions. But Flex parties are for the most part peaceful, if boisterous, affairs compared to past venues:the Times Square dancehall Latin Quarter, where '80s partygoers stored weapons in brown paper bags under parked cars and in trash cans, in anticipation of the inevitable interborough gun battle that would spill out onto the sidewalk; or Union Square, where marauding knuckleheads leaving the club would attack visiting Amish farmers setting up shop in the nearby green market; or the World on Avenue C in the late '80s, where, during a Zulu Nation reunion, a fight broke out that quickly transformed the club into a free-fire zone, despite the peace, love, and unity rhetoric emanating from Zulu Nation leader Afrikaa Bambataa in the DJ booth. On one recent Tunnel Sunday, the closest thing to actual violence came when one young fellow threatened to bitch-slap his date. Bouncers quickly separated the fractious couple. In the end, nothing much happened, except for music, style, and culture.
With the future of Flex's respected party in doubt, what happens now? "If Peter sells the Tunnel and opens another club, I'll go with him," Flex shrugs. "If he leaves the nightclub business altogether, then I'll find a new venue. This night is very important to me. I don't do the Tunnel for money; I do it for love."
Research assistance by Chelsea Peretti
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.