THE DJS

Cipha: I can play anywhere because of what I learned at the Tunnel. It was so intimidating. One time this dude threw ice at me; he hit me in the head with ice. And it wasn’t that he didn’t like what I was playing; it was that he wanted it louder. I was playing a Nas song, a single vinyl. 12” singles are louder because the grooves are wider. That’s why the albums started to be pressed on double vinyl—two pieces of vinyl for one album, so it would be louder in the club. The Nas track I was playing was too low, and dude said, “Yo, turn that shit up.” I said, “It’s up all the way.” So he threw ice at me. I told him, “You throw ice at me again and I’m going to jump over this booth.” He threw it right away, didn’t even blink. I had to jump off the side of the DJ booth, got into a huge fight. Security pulled me off, said, “Ciph, what are you doing?” They threw me back up into the booth, and that guy disappeared.

Flex: My mic skills weren’t up then like they are now.

Cipha: Flex didn’t talk as much then as he does now; Big Kap used to be on the mike the most. I used to be a purist. I blended the records so that the heads wouldn’t stop nodding. Flex would just fucking crash them in, and it was exciting. What I did, it sounded pretty. I thought that Flex was sloppy. But I found out the hard way that he was right. He controlled the room.

Flex: Reggae DJs used to pull records back and make the club go crazy. I would pull the record back and Big Kap wouldn't yell “Pull up” or nothing, he'd just say, “Oh, my God—it's fucking crazy in here!” He would acknowledge the moment. The reggae DJs didn't really acknowledge the moment, they acknowledged the song. But Kap would acknowledge the moment in the club.

 

He hit me in the head with ice. And it wasn’t that he didn’t like what I was playing; it was that he wanted it louder.
- Cipha Sounds 

 

CiphaFlex and me had this thing I called “The Shoulder.” He would always come early, even though he didn’t get on right away. I would be playing new records. I remember playing the Lost Boyz’ “Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz & Benz.” That was the b-side to “Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless,” which Flex was playing at the time. I played that record early one night and the crowd went crazy. Flex came over and put his hand on my shoulder. He didn’t say anything, but it meant “Don’t play that record next week.” I was the tester.

Flex: Memphis Bleek’s “My Mind Right,” Tha Alkaholiks' “Only When I’m Drunk,” Nas’ “Hate Me Now,” Jay-Z’s “Ain’t No Nigga—all those records broke out of the Tunnel.

Cipha: The remix to Craig Mack’s Flava in Ya Ear,” Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya?,” Akinyele’s “Put It in Ya Mouth,” Busta’s “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” the remix to Biggie’s “One More Chance”—all those were big records. The first time Flex played one? A minimum of 20 minutes. Maybe more. When “It’s All About the Benjamins came out, Flex played it for an hour. One song for one hour.

[Ed. Note—Check out Cipha's list of the 75 greatest Tunnel bangers for more music.]

 

THE SHOWS

[Ed. Note—The Tunnel closed in late May 1996 when Gatien was indicted on drug charges. The club reopened in October of that year with Flex as the sole promoter of the Sunday night party.]

Rosenblum: Mecca was my party. The club closed, it reopened, and they continued the party without me.

Lighty: [After Jessica and I left] Flex promoted the party straight from his [Hot 97 FM] show and it didn’t have that same downtown vibe. It had a harder hip-hop edge, and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that.

Flex: As the music became more commercial, the club became more commercial. It changed exactly as the music changed. I just happened to be a DJ that was a downtown DJ, and as the game was changing, I got on the radio. I was becoming a more commercial DJ on the radio station. The kid that was coming to see me at the Tunnel in the early ’90s was a different kid now, as we got to ’96, ’97, when the party wasn’t called Mecca anymore. Now, it’s probably a commercial head who listens to me on the radio, but they don’t know that I came from downtown with Jessica.

Rosenblum: After I left, the party became reliant on Flex booking acts. When I did Mecca, it was the way I’ve always worked—it was about the excitement of the party that I create.

Flex: I never paid an artist to perform at the Tunnel. It was never even a discussion. Artists were begging [to perform].

Gatien: Flex is a brilliant business person.

 

Diddy lost his Rolex that night, just wildin’. You know how 'The Benjamins' was. Somebody walked out of there with an $80K Rolex.
- Jadakiss

 

Valdés: A lot of times, I would leave [before the performances began] because they were always so damn late. They were supposed to be at 12, and then they wouldn’t start until 2 a.m. I would think, “All right, I’m done. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow.”

Flex: You would have one crowd that would come at 10:30 p.m. and leave by 1:30 a.m. because they had to go to work. Then all the money niggas, all the drug dealers and the fly chicks would come at 1:30 a.m., 2 a.m., and be there till the end, at 4 a.m. I would play music until 4.

Cipha: On a regular Sunday, it was packed by midnight.

Prodigy: Performing there, if felt like, “This is our club. This is our home.”

Jadakiss: Bad Boy hosted a night at the Tunnel just as Diddy was breaking [the Lox] open. We did “Benjamins” for the first time [live] there and it was a madhouse. Flex pulled it back two or three times and we just kept rocking it. There were other people on the bill, but after we did “Benjamins” it was a wrap. They didn’t go on. The club was shut down. Craziest thing I’ve ever seen. Diddy lost his Rolex that night, just wildin’. You know how "The Benjamins" was. Somebody walked out of there with an $80K Rolex. I felt like in New York, the ice was broken for us [with that performance]. Because you got the media coverage that Monday. Then everybody’s talking about you.

DMX: I knew that “Get At Me Dog” was a hit at the Tunnel, and I knew what that meant. They told me: “When this shit comes on at the Tunnel, motherfuckers go crazy.” But I’d never been—until I performed there, when we shot the video [for “Get At Me Dog”].

Flex: On the radio I stop and start records, but I never did that until I played the Tunnel. One of the records where I started doing that was “Get At Me Dog.” The biggest night with that record in there, I pulled [the song] back, and this kid started burning hundred dollar bills. He was waiting at the bar to buy alcohol, and he just lit it up. I don't think he was a drug dealer or nothing, he was just so hyped.

DMX: It was hot as a motherfucker, and the stage was crowded. The Lox were there, Onyx was there. Everybody in the crowd had those leashes, the kind that make it look like you’re walking an invisible dog. When I performed—and it’s the only time I’ve ever done this—I performed one song at least 12 times. One fucking song. Each time I did “Get At Me Dog,” it was like the first time. I only had a few songs at that time anyway. But the energy was up, so I just kept giving it to them: “Where’s my dogs at?!” I was wearing overalls, and when I finished, the shit was around my waist.

Jadakiss: The “Get At Me Dog” video was shot during a regular night at the Tunnel. The turnout of extras and family members and Ruff Ryders—the shit was amazing.

DMX: It was because of the video that I got the opportunity to do Belly. [Ed. Note—Hype Williams directed the music video and the film.] When we shot Belly, I got to spend a lot more time at the Tunnel. It felt like a second home. Up until that point, I hadn’t spent that many days in one place, besides jail. On the first day of shooting they brought the strippers in [for the film’s opening sequence]. I don’t remember what club they were from and I don’t remember their names, I just remember that I tried to fuck ’em all.

Juvenile: All weekend [before my performance], people had been telling me that they would boo you off stage. They told me it was the hardest club to come to [from out of town] and do a show. I had it in my mind that I wasn’t getting booed off stage—I was going to be the realest nigga. When I did “Ha,” everyone started taking their shirts off. I did “Ha,” like, three times. After that, I can’t remember everything. I was drinking Hennessy, and I was in a wild mood, man. Hennessy makes you crazy. I think I went into the crowd... [Ed. Note—Thankfully, footage exists of everything Juve did that night. Watch it here.]

Jadakiss: Going there performing and going there partying, there was a difference. [Partying] you’re just out in the crowd seeing the melting pot of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Jersey, Connecticut, Staten Island, Long Island, all the beautiful women, but it was also very dangerous sometimes. Fights broke out. Miscommunication—it could get ugly. You really had to be on your Ps and Qs. Most of the time everybody wanted to have a good time, but when it got ugly, it did get ugly.

 

THE FIGHTS

Prodigy: Man, there would be fights every week at that motherfucker. For no reason.

Rosenblum: [The club’s reputation for fighting] is not unfounded at all, but it was true for any hip-hop party from that era. I do think that it got progressively worse [at the Tunnel]. But if you look at the volume of people we were doing, it’s probably not insanely disproportionate. And here’s the other thing: I couldn’t prove this, but there was much more violence outside of the club than inside.

Derrick Parker: In the 1990s, I was a troubleshooter for the NYPD. I would go to all of the clubs and give opinions to the brass about which were the most detrimental. The Tunnel was the biggest club for hip-hop. And the rap game was the new drug game. People leaving the club to go home would get into disputes. Or disputing crews would be in the club, and a crew member would see some other crew member who he had a beef with over a drug thing, or something in the borough—an argument or disagreement.

Rosenblum: If you have a hugely successful party, with people who have money and expensive cars, and it’s all migrating to one neighborhood, it will attract additional things. It has nothing to do with the event.

Beck: Our team searched so diligently, it was ridiculous. We were a tight crew. There would be roving teams of three men together. They would have posts, radios. It was a work in progress, and no one had all of the answers at first. You had to learn as you went along. Whatever was going on in the street was going on in the Tunnel. It was a tough place to work, and it was a tough place to leave at night. Bouncers went home together, just in case. We’re not talking about some punk dudes; we’re talking about really tough guys who would leave together and go home in the same direction.

 

One lieutenant in the 10th Precinct kept a bottle of Pepto-Bismol in his desk just because of the Tunnel.
- Derrick Parker

 

Gatien: On Sundays, we used to have anywhere from 60 to 90 security people from different neighborhoods that knew who the troublemakers were. And we did an exhaustive search. In all the years we were there, the only shooting incident was some guy who snuck in a gun with his wheelchair and shot himself in the calf.

Rapaport: The Tunnel was one of the first places that had goon security, football linemen dudes who didn’t look human. They looked like they should be playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. One night, I was standing there by myself; my friends were walking around, somehow we got separated. The thing about the Tunnel was you never knew when beef would pop off, so you would always have your little crew. You would always mind where you were. But that night I was just standing there and four of those guys picked me up off of the ground—I’m 6’2”, 200 lbs. They picked me up like I was a baby and threw me into a corner. They were saying something like I touched a girl’s ass, or took something out of her purse. I said, “Yo, you got the wrong dude.” And one of them said, “You’re the dude from Higher Learning.” I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “All right, well, be careful.” And they had me so held up, they could have done anything. I didn’t even understand who they had mistaken me for, because on that particular night, and on most nights, there weren’t many people that looked like me. There wasn’t that many white dudes on Sundays.

Beck: If there were three fights and you hadn’t been in any of them, [the rest of the security team] would call your name out [at the end of the night]. “How come there was a fight and you were standing against the wall?” Guys would call each other out, and guys would take each other’s money. If, at the end of the night, you were just a punk in the corner and someone got wind of that, we would take your money. And what would you do? You’d already proven that you’re afraid. And these are the guys who are not afraid, monstrous, battle-tested warriors.

Flex: Nobody followed the rules from another nightclub [in regards to fights.] The rules were made in there.

Cipha: Things are strict now because of what happened at the Tunnel. For instance, Capone-N-Noreaga had their reunion concert there after Capone got out of jail. They were doing “Bang Bang.” Capone had on a mink hoodie, and somebody threw a drink at him. Without hesitation, he dove into the crowd. Once he went in, his whole crew dove in, and it was a brawl. After that night, we got shut down for a couple of months.

Flex: Every now and then, we got shut down. We would get advised [by the police], “Hey, it's getting a little too rough,” and we would shut down.

Parker: One lieutenant in the 10th Precinct kept a bottle of Pepto-Bismol in his desk just because of the Tunnel. He’d come in Monday morning saying, “All right, what happened last night?”

Gatien: The cops told my police liaison flat out: “If Peter stops doing these nights, weʼll stop bothering him.” A club’s responsibility is to create culture. These people were not coming from Mars; they were New Yorkers, and should have been able to go and dance and enjoy themselves and network.

Cipha: Some security were posted at the door, some at the bar, some on the dance floor. Then there was a team of floaters, ten guys in a train holding onto each other’s shoulders, moving through the crowd. They dressed in all black. And a lot of them had FUBU jerseys, because FUBU gave them out as marketing. They wore gloves and army pants, with the pants tucked into their boots.

Rapaport: I felt unsafe when there were fights in other parts of the club, because then the pushing would start. That terrible incident at City College, at the party that Puffy had thrown—I was aware of that. [Ed. Note—In December 1991, nine people were killed when the crowd crushed them at a celebrity basketball game organized by Diddy and Heavy D.] So when there was pushing, you were always anxious.

Beck: Everybody in there was a lion. Nobody was a sheep. I’m not just talking about the bouncers. Fights happened all of the time. When there was a call to security, we would roll through in a bouncer train. Ten to 25 guys right behind each other saying, “You’re in the way, you’re in the way.” And the train was rolling through 2,000–2,500 people to get to a fight all the way in the back.

Prodigy: Security would snatch niggas’ chains. If you got into some shit, and you had a chain on, they were gonna fuck you up, take your chain, and then kick you out.

Beck: It happened, [chain snatching]. You didn't need licensing [to be a bouncer then]. Whoever was tough enough to work, you wanted on your side. A lot of bouncers were guys that had come home from jail and had trouble finding work. It was a gladiator academy—this is what they were good at. I’ll say it today, I’ll say it tomorrow, and I’ve said it yesterday: These felons, guys that went away, made the best bouncers. They would get into a fight and know how to control people. They were fearless, and when push came to shove, they knew how to rock ‘n’ roll. Today, you have guys that say, “Oh, I’m a bouncer.” Good for you. Half of them want to prove something, and the other half are afraid to prove anything. There are always going to be fights [at clubs], there are always going to be bouncer issues, but nothing will ever be like the Tunnel.

Prodigy: One night we were in the Tunnel mad deep, 50 or 60 of us. We had just walked in and were walking to the dance floor. Coming toward us was Wu-Tang, like 60 or 70 of these niggas. The rappers knew each other, but the crews from the neighborhoods didn’t; it looked like the 300 fight was about to go down. I was walking in front. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was in front of his crew, and the nigga was mad sweaty. He grabbed me and just hugged me. That shit was disgusting, this nigga sweating all over me, saying, “I love you, P. I love you.” He kissed my cheek. I showed him love, but the shit was so sweaty.

Gatien: We ran it as professionally as we could for a night that—letʼs face it—could be very problematic. We had the foresight to understand that having the proper ratios of men and women would make it a much more docile night than if you had a 90 percent male crowd. We always made sure that the women got in without a problem, and at the end of the night, when there was no more room, the women always got in and the guys didnʼt.

Rosenblum: I’m sure there were a million things that went on in there that I don’t know about—because I knew that I didn’t need to know, and it was probably smarter that I didn’t.

 

THE ENDGAME

Flex: The last few years, Peter was in trouble. We had seen what he was going through emotionally with the drug charges. And then the government kept the Tunnel open so he could pay back his taxes.

[Ed. Note—In 1996, Gatien became embroiled in a federal investigation that tried to link him to the sale of drugs in his venues. He was acquitted of all charges in 1998. Less than a year later, he pleaded guilty to state tax-evasion charges, leaving him with $1.88 million in back taxes and fines.]

Gatien: When I got acquitted on the drug charge, I should have folded my tent and moved out of New York, and not been naive enough to think that I could beat City Hall. I had a 20-year run, and quite frankly, it ended with the feds charging me with the drug thing, though I was acquitted. The campaign thrown at me was relentless. There was a period where, in 14 months, we were closed down twice, and both times went to court. Being closed for months, all of your expenses—rent, insurance, all that stuff—are still being generated. Let me put it this way: We never closed for a lack of business.

 

We didn’t really know it was amazing while we were doing it. We thought there’d be another club.
- Funkmaster Flex

 

Flex: Once the money was paid off, the club closed [in June 2001]. By then, there were more clubs open on Sunday nights, there were more black parties popping during the week and on Saturday—the game had changed.

Gatien: My clubs closed because of an aggressive campaign by the city, state, and feds to topple me. It’s that simple.

[Ed. Note—In 2003, Gatien was deported to his native Canada under the 1996 Immigration and Naturalization Act.]

Cipha: The club probably closed down four or five times all the years I was there. So when we closed that last time, I thought, “Oh, we’ll be back.” But we never went back. There was no grand finale. It just closed.

Flex: We didn’t really know it was amazing while we were doing it. We thought there’d be another club. But by the end, I was tired. Other clubs wouldn’t touch me on account of the Tunnel. For years they didn’t let me play at the Roxy—a club I always wanted to do my birthday at—because it was in the same [police] precinct. The Tunnel was a curse. I walked the streets and all I heard was “the Tunnel, the Tunnel, the Tunnel.” I wasn’t upset when it closed.

Parker: It was definitely a weight off the NYPD [when the Tunnel closed]. The crime stats in the 10th Precinct went down a lot. Most of those [earlier] stats could be attributed to the Tunnel—the slashings, the shootings, assaults, larceny.

 

THE LEGACY

Manda: I think rap is still great, but it’s more homogenized now. It’s on the radio all day, it’s immersed in pop culture. [During the time of the Tunnel] it was still underground. Even though Bad Boy was mainstream, the lifestyle was new.

Rosenblum: People waited all week long until Sunday to go to Mecca, to go to the Tunnel. It was something to look forward to. Hip-hop is pop music now, it’s part of mainstream culture and it’s available everywhere.

Gatien: The Tunnel had a vibe like nothing Iʼve ever seen before. It was the kind of night where almost nobody left alone. There was so much networking, whether it was business networking, or people networking, or girl-boy networking, whatever. So much talent came through, so many deals were made. What other night in New York can people still reminisce about almost 15 years later?

 

The Tunnel symbolized my entering into hip-hop. That was the last era of real hip-hop, when performing at a club made you official.
- DMX

 

Flex: LIV, in Miami, is built on the Tunnel format.

Rosenblum: Mecca started hip-hop on Sundays in America—it didn’t exist before. But almost 20 years later, look at what it is—LIV on Sunday is the ultimate result of that.

Cipha: Bottle service killed the clubs in New York. It changed so much after that. I hate clubs now. I hate them with a passion. They’re tiny, and they’re fucking filled with tables and bottles.

Beck: It was a fun place to be. It was exciting, it was dangerous. As far as nightclubbing, you were part of a legacy, because I doubt there will ever be another Tunnel. Anyone who would let that happen is absolutely foolish.

Gatien: I donʼt see the possibility of ever doing a large event again, at least in Manhattan. Whatʼs developed over the years is zero tolerance for any kind of illegal activity that may occur in a nightclub. But if it happens in Madison Square Garden or almost anywhere else, thereʼs an accepted tolerance that if you get 2,000 people together, stuff happens. The standard that the powers that be—specifically police enforcement—hold clubs to is just unobtainable. Nobody is responsible for everybodyʼs behavior, except in a nightclub.

DMX: The Tunnel symbolized my entering into hip-hop. That was the last era of real hip-hop, when performing at a club made you official. I miss hip-hop.

Parker: It’s really the strip clubs that are like the Tunnel: Perfection in Queens, Sin City in the Bronx.

Flex: Sometimes I like the strip-club parties, sometimes they’re boring. But that’s where the game is at now. It might change again.

Rosenblum: I miss all kinds of kinds of things from back then—I miss Biggie, I miss the people I worked with. But I don’t believe that you wallow in the past. People say, “Oh, nightlife is not like it used to be.” That’s the most boring conversation you can have. I hate when people come up to me in the club and have this conversation. I’m like, “Shoot me, because now you’re really ruining nightlife, tonight.” Wherever you are, whatever the era is, whatever the party is, make it the most fun you can.

Juvenile: I feel good knowing that I had an opportunity to rap on a stage where some of my idols did shows. When I walked in, I knew the history; I knew it was a train station turned into a club, and I knew it had a lot to do with hip-hop. It was the biggest club in hip-hop history—I don’t think you could put any club in front of the Tunnel.

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