The Oral History of the TunnelPosted by Ross Scarano / Aug 21, 2012 10:02 am
The story of the biggest club in hip-hop history, as told by the people who lived it.
The year was 1993. Jessica Rosenblum, OG hip-hop head, party promoter, and arbiter of downtown cool, had just found a permanent home for her Sunday night rap party, Mecca. It was the perfect place for Funkmaster Flex, the DJ she was managing at the time, to further expand his following. Peter Gatien, the godfather of NYC nightlife, had a year prior acquired a freshly remodeled 80,000-square-foot nightclub, originally the historic Terminal Warehouse Company Central Stores Building (1890-91) where entire train cars would park and unload. It was known as the Tunnel. What happened next, no one could’ve predicted.
Rap was in its adolescent phase, a marginalized teenager with energy to burn and people to piss off. Thousands of young fans arrived every week to run the gauntlet of security between the sidewalks of the West Side Highway and the long, narrow venue on 12th Ave. and 27th St. The shields of the 10th Precinct never stopped hassling them, and the kids never stopped coming because Mecca was the only party that mattered. This was where the records were breaking, where the bottles were popping, where everybody who was anybody in hip-hop had to be. Though maybe the blue suits were onto something—talk to anyone about the Tunnel and eventually you’ll get to the ugly parts: the beatdowns and snatched chains, the razors tucked inside hat brims.
How did this hip-hop party become one of the most successful and legendary nights in the history of American nightlife? No one person has the whole answer, but talk to enough of the participants and a story emerges—a story about an unstoppable underground force ascending to heights it had always boasted about, but had never quite experienced. The story of the Tunnel is the story of hip-hop.
Everyone is listed with his or her relationship to the Tunnel first, followed by their current title.
Jessica Rosenblum - promoter/event producer/doorgirl; owner of JRose Agency and JRosenblum Events
Peter Gatien - club owner
Funkmaster Flex - DJ/promoter; HOT97 radio personality
Cipha Sounds - DJ; HOT97 radio personality
Chris Lighty - security/doorman/promoter; head of Violator Management
Joie Manda - doorman/promoter; President of Def Jam
DMX - performer; rapper
Prodigy - performer; rapper
Juvenile - performer; rapper
Jadakiss - performer; rapper
Glen Beck - security; co-owner of Emissary Security Group
Rob Scagnelli - bartender; manager of adult nightclubs in the NY area
Derrick Parker - NYPD officer; author of Notorious C.O.P., and co-owner of Emissary Security Group
Mimi Valdés - journalist; founder of Mimi Media Inc.
Michael Rapaport - clubgoer; actor
Joie Manda: My first memory of the Tunnel—I went there on a Sunday, when the party was called Mecca. Jessica Rosenblum was the promoter, Funkmaster Flex was the DJ.
Cipha Sounds: Jessica invented Mecca.
Funkmaster Flex: Jessica, who was my manager then, put that night together because she wanted a place to be my home every week. We copied the format from Red Alert and his club Latin Quarter.
Jessica Rosenblum: I created the party for Flex in 1992—I was his manager at the time—so he could get a bigger following. The name popped into my head one day, and it seemed like the right one for the party. At that time, I was one of the few people that could get venues and do hip-hop parties downtown, so it was like all roads lead to Mecca—I had the answer for everyone that was craving hip-hop. The first Mecca party was at the Supper Club. It moved around to the Grand and the Arena [before it got to the Tunnel].
Flex: I met Jessica in 1990. She used to organize the parties that Kid Capri and Clark Kent would spin at. They were making a name for themselves, getting big. I started to ask around: “Who is doing those parties?” Clark Kent did a couple of Jessica’s parties, and then he got a manager; Kid Capri used to do all of Jessica's parties, and then he got a manager. I figured if I could do a couple of her parties, I would let her manage me. She put me in those rooms to prove myself. She brought light to me.
The club worked for a couple reasons: I was the biggest DJ at the time, Jessica was the biggest promoter, and Peter was the biggest club owner.
- Funkmaster Flex
Chris Lighty: Jessica is the original hip-hop hipster. She’s this nice Jewish girl, and you just wouldn’t think she had a love for hip-hop, for nightlife, when you first came across her. She was able to mix it up with everybody, and everybody felt comfortable coming to that party.
Rosenblum: I would say being a woman—particularly back then—was a bigger issue in hip-hop culture than my being white. I would be saying hi to a guy I know on, say, 125th Street, and the girl he was with would be giving me a stank, stank face, like, “Yo, who’s that white bitch you’re talking to?” All they had to say was “That’s just Jessica.” Everybody knew my name; it was like, “Oh, okay. It’s the white girl that throws all the hip-hop parties.” I was the original doorgirl at Nell’s, where I supported hip-hop by letting in people like Russell Simmons and the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J—they loved the downtown scene; they were way ahead of the curve. Then I threw Heavy D’s platinum party in 1989. [Heavy D had] the first rap album on a major label that was acknowledged to go platinum. That party crystallized my credibility.
Lighty: The Supper Club had that cool vibe, but Mecca outgrew the space.
Rosenblum: The party changed and evolved, but any party that runs for multiple years changes. The Supper Club was so pretty, the mix of the crowd, the room, the lighting—you could have every prominent industry executive, every up-and-comer, and you would seat them all at tables, these cool, downtown, hip-hop people. By the time it got to the Tunnel, the venue was so major, I’d say 95 percent of the people coming to the club on Sunday—and the Tunnel was a popular club that had big nights during the week—had never been to the club before. In the beginning, it was exciting, it was epic, it was like no other space anybody had been in. Industry was in the Tunnel heavy, but so were the streets. The artists were in there heavy—not booked or being promoted, they were hanging out.
Lighty: I think when Peter Gatien gave the day and time [Sunday nights] up, he thought he was giving away a dead zone. If something came of it, great, but he had no idea that it was going to become this legendary party.
Rosenblum: Hip-hop wasn’t part of mainstream culture like it is now; it was considered undesirable. On top of that, it was very difficult for clubs to make money on a Sunday night. They obviously weren’t going to give me Friday or Saturday, which were their big nights, so if I could say, “Hey, I can make you money on a Sunday,” they were going to be more open-minded to do hip-hop.
Lighty: The Tunnel was bigger, had more security. There was more money to be made—the bigger bar turned it into a real business, and that’s how Jessica pulled me into the security side of it. We didn’t think of it as “I’m the head of security” or “I’m the co-promoter.” It was Jessica’s thing, and I was her friend. But if you wanted to come into the Tunnel, you were going to have to deal with me. If there was an issue, they’d call me over to resolve it quickly.
Flex: Mecca was a party that never stayed in one space for long, so [the first time it was held at the Tunnel], I thought it would be there until the next space. But the club worked for a couple reasons: I was the biggest DJ at the time, Jessica was the biggest promoter, and Peter was the biggest club owner.
Rosenblum: I had been promoting nightlife in New York for many years, and I had done a lot of events and business with the Palladium, which Peter owned. I had been going to clubs he owned since I was 17. If I didn't have this downtown standing, I would have never got in the door, and there never would have been hip-hop at the Tunnel.
Peter Gatien: Anybody thatʼs been involved in the industry as long as Jessica has—especially as a woman—speaks volumes about her abilities, her talents, her energy. Not an easy gig.
Flex: I think Peter took a chance by putting on something on a Sunday night that had a chance to be super cool, that ended up being super cool. He didn’t have to do this night.
Rosenblum: If Peter Gatien was willing to put up with whatever crap was going on in the neighborhood, with whatever crap the NYPD was giving him, whatever drama was going on in the club, when he already had a successful club that ran other nights of the week with house music, white people, gay nights, whatever, obviously there was a financial reward that made it worthwhile.
Gatien: Even though the talent wasnʼt that expensive, the night was expensive to produce because of the security and everything else that went along with it. We certainly made money from it, but it cost a lot to produce.
Flex: Peter believed in the night. He liked hip-hop, he liked the artists; he understood the artists, understood their personalities. And he was a rock star to them, with his eye patch. He was wielding just as much money as them, so he held his own. The artists had a tremendous amount of respect for Jessica, too.
Gatien: I was a fan of a lot of music, and my focus for nightclubs is that we have to be cutting edge. By 1993, rap was becoming more mainstream—thereʼs no doubt about that. It was important to me, catering to all the niches that comprise New York.
Cipha: The club was on 27th and 12th, at the corner. The line started at 27th and 11th; to get from 11th to 12th was like going between East Berlin and West Berlin. The street was blocked off with barricades along the side of the building where you’d wait on line. Then there were barricades perpendicular down the street so you couldn’t go around and walk down the street.
Lighty: The police put it on us to get the block cleared, so we would have to spend almost as much time keeping the outside of the club secure as we did trying to keep the inside of the club secure.
Manda: The police would randomly search people who were walking to the club. They’d pull their cars over a block away, making it hard for people to gather, because, I guess, it was such a large gathering of young black people. I don’t know how else to say it. They didn’t love that.
Lighty: Try and put 2,000 kids into a club quickly when you’re searching them the way that we had to search them—like they were entering Riker’s Island: “Take off your shoes. Oh, you have a gun? Take it back to your car. No knives. No weapons. No weed. No drugs.” Tupac came to the club, and I had to send him back to his car, telling him, “Sorry, Tupac, but you can’t come in here with a weapon.” He gladly went back to his car, put his weapon away, then came back and partied.
Glen Beck: We had search teams, both male and female, and whenever someone would come into the club, you would search them for weapons, drugs, et cetera. They all came in—male and female—into the same room for the search, an area after the entrance. Eventually, someone came up with the better idea of splitting them apart [by gender], which gave them room to bring in more male and female searchers. I was a searcher [at first] because I was a lot smaller. Eventually I became a bouncer. I put on a little more weight, became a martial arts instructor.
You carry a gun into a club, there’s only one reason for that.
- Glen Beck
Cipha: You had to bang your shoes together, then you’d go through the metal detector and get patted down. I had to open up all of my crates; they did a thorough search of everything. Sometimes there would be cops, and they would have pages of mug shots. They would hold the pictures close to your face to see if you matched one. They would grab people right there. It was crazy.
Beck: This guy came in one time, walked up to me without so much as a hitch, wasn’t favoring one leg, no noise from a weapon clicking. He gave me his boots, and I had a horrible feeling that something was wrong. I searched his boots, put them to the side, then I told him, “Take everything out of your pockets.” When you take your thumb and press it against your hand, your muscle bulges. Let your hand loose, that’s the natural stance. For your thumb to be pressed against your hand, that’s not natural, unless you’re holding something between your thumb and forefinger. When he was putting stuff into the counter I searched next to, I saw the muscle bulge. I put him in a wristlock; he had a bullet in his hand. I took the bullet and asked if he had any more bullets. “No.” I asked him if he was lawfully allowed to carry a gun. “Yes.” I said, “Do you have a gun on you?” “No.” One of the security managers came over. I told him what was happening and he told me to finish searching him, but the guy started arguing with me. I knew in my gut that something was wrong. I said to my friend Damien, “Do me a favor and search him top to bottom,” because I wanted my hands free in case I had to grab him. Damien went to search him and as I was watching, one of the other guys pushed someone toward me to search, and I diverted my attention for one second to tell that person, “Sir, do me a favor and step back.” While I turned my attention, Damien yelled, “Gun!” The guy tried to spin where he was standing, trying to yank his sock off. He was wearing two pairs of socks on his right foot, and the gun was between the pairs. The guy turned and got twisted, and as he got twisted, I stepped in, grabbed his wrist, and took him down to the floor. I popped his wrist and dislocated his shoulder. Damien had the gun, a two-shot Derringer, over-under, .45 caliber. We took him to the back, and still he’s trying to get away. We got him into the back, where there were a bunch of us, and he’s yelling, “I’ll hit you off, I’ll hit you off,” so that we’d let him go. We called the cops to turn over the gun. There was someone in back who popped the shoulder back in and the guy screamed, then passed out. The cops came; we explained [what had happened]. The cop went to arrest him, put his left hand behind his back and cuffed him, and when the cop went to put his right hand behind his back, his shoulder popped back out.
Prodigy: Chris Lighty and the white girl, Jessica, would be at the door and they’d get us in for free. We’d get free drink tickets.
Lighty: The out-of-town kids would try to come in with a ruckus, acting out of line, so we would say, “Oh, you want to get in? You and your boys, you gotta spend $1000 per person.” Because the Tunnel was so hyped and the energy was so amazing, people paid it.
Manda: You would get some out-of-towners, and the occasional Japanese hip-hop kid.
Rosenblum: The Tunnel proved that hip-hop in a nightclub was a financial force to be reckoned with.
Michael Rapaport: Jessica, she was a pain in the ass, one of those cliché door people who felt that their shit didn’t stink. She’d be at the door with her long blonde hair and short skirt, and she’d let me and my people in, but it was never with a smile—it was always begrudgingly, which I never appreciated.
Flex: Jessica wasn’t stuck up; she probably didn’t let him [Rapaport] in one time. She had an understanding of what the club should be, and how she wanted the night to be. Every good club, every great night, has a tough person at the door.
Prodigy: We would have connections at the door, and they used to meet us in the bathroom with a backpack full of shit: razors, screwdrivers, guns. I’d pass out the shit to everybody, then we’d go have fun. It was just to protect ourselves. We used to wear a lot of jewelry; we were Mobb Deep. In case somebody thought something was sweet, we needed weapons.
Beck: You go to a nightclub, you carry a knife in your pocket, I understand. You carry mace—I swear to God—I understand. You carry a gun into a club, there’s only one reason for that. You carry a straight razor under your tongue or inside the headband of your hat, in the cuff of your pants, underneath the sole of your sneaker, so that you can go into the bathroom and hold it in your hand—there’s only one reason for that, and that’s the difference between self-defense and offense.
Flex: The first night Mecca came to the Tunnel, I remember thinking it was a very awkward space, very narrow with the train tracks.
Beck: It was just the main room [on Sundays], the big straightaway. They wouldn’t open up the small rooms in fear of God knows what could happen in there.
Mimi Valdés: When Mecca got to the Tunnel [in 1993], there was still some exclusivity, but it was such a huge space, much bigger than the Supper Club—now all the boroughs were represented, and they had different areas where they hung out. Bronx people stayed on this side, Brooklyn people stayed on that side.
Manda: There were no tables. It was all people dancing and congregating around the bar. This was before bottle service.
Prodigy: The bar was crazy long.
Robert Scagnelli: I worked the bar at the Limelight, the Palladium, and eventually the Tunnel on Sunday nights. Peter wanted some guys behind the bar because the crowd could get rough. We had bouncers behind the bar as well. The bar was maybe 75 feet by 15 feet. They’d staff six to ten on a Sunday, and you needed it.
The coed bathroom had urinals and stalls. The girls liked it, the guys liked it. Weed was being sold, people were having sex.
- Funkmaster Flex
Manda: At the bar, you’d say, “Give me a bottle of Moët,” and you would pay cash. “Give me a bottle of Cristal, give me a bottle of Dom—no glasses.” Watching a thousand people holding bottles of Cristal, Dom Pérignon, or Moët at one time was kind of amazing. The club constantly sold out of champagne. Remember, this is the Bad Boy era; Puff Daddy was king at the time. It was pre-Jay-Z. Jay would be there spending tons of money, but this was the Puff Daddy era.
Valdés: Walking around with an entire bottle to yourself? That was definitely a Puffy phenomenon; he was very flashy in the club. It was also a measure of the time—hip-hop was becoming this phenomenon, and people were making so much money. It was time for hip-hop to celebrate and say, “We’ve made it. We’re not struggling anymore. We’re out of the hood.”
Jadakiss: Bad Boy had its time at the Tunnel where we had it on smash, but Nas came through, Mobb Deep—everybody had their light at the Tunnel.
Scagnelli: Once the bottles were finished, people wanted them up on the bar in front of them to show how many they’d bought.
Gatien: There were nights where you would have competing groups trying to see who could have more Cristal sitting on the bar.
Flex: Diddy and Jermaine Dupri used to go bottle for bottle in there.
Rosenblum: Puffy and Jermaine Dupri were at the bar every week—there was no such thing as bottle service. There were no ice buckets. There were no tables. They were buying out champagne at the bar, and we had to serve it to them in rubber busboy trays, because we had nothing to put champagne in. It wasn’t like now, when somebody buys a parade of Dom Pérignon or Moët Rosé, and it comes out all lovely at your table with sparklers and shit—that didn’t exist. We were literally piling up champagne in those containers busboys would go around the club and throw dirty glasses in.
Scagnelli: Bartenders would walk out of there with $400, $500 in tips.
Rosenblum: I think the same things that made hip-hop and hip-hop culture exciting back then were the things that made the party exciting: it was brand new. It was unknown. Nobody had even been in a hip-hop party with this many people, this much energy, this many bottles, and this many artists.
Flex: The Tunnel was the last club that Eazy-E went to before he died. He and Ice Cube, they talked in the Tunnel for an hour the Sunday before he died, the first time they’d spoken in years. I didn't know what Eazy was doing there, I think he just wanted to see it. He had on a hoodie, and he didn't look well.
Manda: The artists mixed with the crowd; there was no VIP. It was a party that everyone felt was important; artists felt like they had to come. This was before rap played all day on the radio, before the Internet. This is where people met, this is where the records came from, where you heard them first, where you heard them 20 times in a row.
Flex: From the DJ booth, you saw everyone that walked in. The club could do 3,000 people; 4,000 on a holiday weekend; it would become impossible to control.
Rosenblum: If I was hanging out inside the club, I mostly stayed in the DJ booth, which had this spectacular location: it was at the end of the bar, slightly raised overlooking the dance floor. You could see everything. It was easy to sit there for hours and watch the room.
Jadakiss: I’d chill in the front for a while, chill by the bar for a while, then I’d go to the bathroom, then before I’d leave I’d go to the back. All the way in the back was love—all the people that were really enjoying the music were there. But to get to the back you had to walk through a long line of Brooklyn niggas, all types of incredible shit—you never knew what was going to happen on the way. You could get your chain snatched, you could get sliced with a razor, anything. From the front to the back was a whole adventure. That’s why I’d do that last.
Valdés: You felt that it was such an important moment for hip-hop because we had never seen this before. We had never been in a club where [hip-hop] was playing on a consistent basis.
Rosenblum: There are a couple things that make a great party: it’s the music, it’s the women. If you have the most famous artist in the world, and the club is packed but it’s all dudes, who wants to be at that party? And one of the best security measures in the world is to have more women than men. It keeps the guys from fighting—they’re too entertained by the women.
Cipha: Girls were usually free until 11 p.m., so for the first part of the night I would play R&B. To this day, girls come up to me and say, “I used to come to the Tunnel early and you played the dope R&B.” Total, Case, and all that shit.
Scagnelli: The crazy thing at the Tunnel that everybody liked was the unisex bathroom. There was a small circular bar right in the middle. Two people would work it, back to back.
Flex: The coed bathroom had urinals and stalls. The girls liked it, the guys liked it. Weed was being sold, people were having sex.
Rapaport: I was in my twenties, and you think you’re an adult, but you go into a bathroom with girls and you almost feel like you’re in high school. It’s like, “Uh, what the fuck are you doing in here? This is the men’s room.” But it was unisex. At the time I thought it was sexy, all the pretty girls in there.
Lighty: If you go back to the video for LL Cool J’s “Doing It,” there’s a girl putting on lipstick, and LL walks up to her—that was shot in the Tunnel’s bathroom.
Prodigy: You’ve got the ladies and the fellas in the same bathroom, so you know niggas is fucking. You wouldn’t walk in and hear people fucking, but you could see two sets of fucking feet in a stall.
Jadakiss: I used to do at least an hour in the bathroom every time I went. It was a bathroom but the party was still going on in there! That was crazy! Wherever Peter Gatien is, I send him all my love—I hope he ain’t die or nothing—because that was incredible, to put a coed bathroom in there.
Valdés: I made sure that I did not have to go to the bathroom when I went to the Tunnel.
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
Cipha: Flex 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.
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.]
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.