What were your most memorable interactions with rappers?
Flex and I are good friends, and, quite frankly, he deserves more credit than I do for establishing the night. I met pretty much all the rappers. It’s flattering that Jay-Z mentioned me in one of his songs. [In "Foundation", Hova raps, "Me and my operation, running New York night scene, with one eye closed, like Peter Gatien."] I wasn’t part of the party in my nightclubs. I was certainly gracious toward them, but it wasn’t like I sat down with Jay-Z or Puffy and knocked back a bunch of bottles of Cristal.
Do you wish you had?
No. After my first club, when I was 19 years old and drinking and having a good time and checks started to bounce, I concluded you have to be on the ball when you’re in the hospitality business. From that point on, I never drank in my clubs again. My staff had to respect me; if I'm not in full command of my senses, I can't be giving people instructions and expect them to carry them out.
Giuliani and the Feds eventually went after you for drug trafficking, claiming you were complicit in sales at your clubs. Did you ever get the sense, while running these four clubs, that you had lost control of a beast?
No. I gotta tell you, I never went to bed at night saying, “I could get arrested tomorrow because I’m doing something wrong.” Basically it was a case that scared the hell out of me. The federal government wins 99% of its cases, but I had a jury that was not a progressive-club-kid type of jury—probably the youngest person was 55—and I was acquitted in two and a half hours. The [prosecutors] had an opportunity to make their case and they didn’t.
Still, in the film, several former employees describe rampant drug use.
I’m not going to say there weren’t any drugs, by any means. I always felt that nightclubs, including mine, are a microcosm of society; if 20% of people do drugs, then 20% of my clientele will, and there’s nothing I can do. Limelight, Tunnel, or any of my clubs can’t be an oasis where no criminal activity occurs.
In New York City, until 1998, ecstasy was not a listed controlled substance, which meant that New York State prosecutors were not prosecuting anybody for ecstasy. And people's mind-set, back then, was ecstasy was not illegal, it was ahead of the curve. So, if New York City police department were not arresting people for it, what the hell was I supposed to do?
Do you think New York City can ever recover from Giuliani's "Quality of Life" campaign and return to the culturally vibrant era of clubbing?
Honestly, it’s impossible to say. Part of the problem is this whole War on Drugs. When you set up an organization like the DEA or all these drug squads, it becomes like a monster-out-of-control kind of thing. Giuliani, the first four years he was [in office] weren’t so terrible, but I think, beyond the first four years, when he ran out of homeless people to persecute, then it sort of became like, “OK, what do I do with all these guys now?"
In 2010, the Limelight reopened as the Limelight Marketplace. Is it more sacrilegous to convert a church into a club or into a mall?
I don’t think either one is sacrilegious because people and activity define what a space is, not the building. I’m flattered that Limelight sort of became one of those jewel properties in New York. Somebody asks you where St. Patrick’s Cathedrals is, everybody knows where it is, but to have a building the size of Limelight identified as Limelight, and a lot of people know exactly where it is, I guess, in a way, is pretty gratifying. We must have done something right.
As far as it being a mall, it’s sort of like the corporatization of New York, the gentrification. It’s just like, at one time, there weren’t that many Gaps. I guess that's why a lot of people, a lot of creative communities, are moving to Brooklyn, moving to L.A. New York has become too commercial, I guess.
After pleading guilty to tax evasion in 1999, the government deported you back to Canada in 2003 for being convicted of a felony.
I was told by the judge that when I pled guilty [for tax evasion] that this was not a deportable offense. In my mind, America is the champion of family values. You had three American citizen children, an American citizen wife, they’re legal for 30 years.... It was definitely the revenge of the Feds. It’s just very unfair, but I’m not the only one.
Do you have any interest, at this point, in coming back to the U.S.?
I'd like to have the ability to travel back and forth, which, hopefully, will happen someday. I love living in New York, but I don’t like the direction of the country. I think America is way too money-driven, and you really notice the opulence in the United States, as compared to Canada, where there’s people making money but the opulence isn't in your face. The wealth disparity is just…off in the United States now. Corporate America and special interests are just killing the middle class there. I still have friends and family in the U.S. but I like the standard of life, the quality of life better in Canada.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)