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Remembering the Fever

by Carol Cooper

Nobody's trying to say that Disco Fever was the *only* important hip-hop club. But for various reasons, The Fever is still remembered as the most famous and most unusual Bronx based institution ever devoted to promoting the art, style, and formative attitudes of rap music.

The original Disco Fever, located at Jerome Avenue and 167th street, was bought by veteran bar owner Albert "Allie" Abbatiello in 1975. As usual, Allie took about a year to redesign and renovate the place according to his personal taste, just as he did with every other nightclub he ever owned. Born and raised in the South Bronx, Allie had lived and worked around blacks and Latinos all his life, going back to when his own father ran a small grocery store on 3rd Avenue and 169th street. So as the South Bronx became increasingly multiracial, it was little wonder that Albert Abbatiello became more and more involved with night spots which in clientele and workforce . . . reflected the racial diversity of the neighborhood.

Not far from where Disco Fever was located Allie already ran an upscale r&b bar called Pepper & Salt, co-owned since 1969 with a black partner named Jake Williams. Featuring tuxedoed waiters, occasional live bands, and a jukebox full of jazz and funk, Pepper & Salt catered to an older black crowd, and was the original template on which Disco Fever was based. But the late '70s saw some major changes in music and party trends among inner city youth, and Disco Fever first opened to the public in 1976 would soon become an instrumental part of those changes.

As it happens, Allie had hired a local youth-home counseler named George Godfrey to help build Disco Fever in his spare time. When construction was complete, young George started hanging around the deejay booth, hoping to relieve the house jock when he needed a break or wanted to leave early. It was during one of these impromptu early-morning performances that Sal Abbatiello, the owner's son, first heard rap music. George, whose deejay handle was "Sweet G" soon had typically quiet patrons at the bar up and rocking to his rhymes, giving Sal his first taste of the exhilarating call-and-response that was the earliest hallmark of rap performance.

"I'd been working in my father's bars and clubs most of my life," remembers Sal, "and this was the first style of entertainment I ever saw that completely unified a roomful of complete strangers." As Sal started to hang out at Disco Fever after spending the earlier part of the night in other bars and venues, he began to see how live rap in a nightclub setting helped keep the atmosphere jolly and sociable in ways even a live band couldn't replicate. Sweet G always offered to play the last hour as relief for the Fever's regular deejay, so between 3:30 and 4 a.m. the energy in the room would change dramatically. There was a sudden shift between the house deejay's tame Top 40 r&b, and the underground dance and funk records Sweet G chose to play. Furthermore, G talked and chanted over his beats in a hip hop style that never failed to re-ignite a crowd that an hour earlier might have been ready to go home. Sal, being in his mid-'20s, was also impressed by the youthful character of the rap underground. His father liked catering to patrons in their 30s and 40s. Sal longed to turn Disco Fever into a place where people his own age wanted to be. He asked Sweet G to expose him to other rappers and hip-hop deejays, a mission which led them from street parties to rental halls to other hot spots like Club 371, where Sal heard Deejay Junebug for the first time. Soon Sal had an idea. He begged his father to let him try promoting a rap party at Disco Fever once or twice a week to see if he could turn a profit on one of the bar's weaker nights.

It was 1977. His father gave Sal a Tuesday night. Sal hired Grandmaster Flash and did street promotion with flyers. The drinking age was 18 back then, so bars could legally cater to a certain percentage of teens. Admission was a dollar, and Sal worked the door with only Sweet G and one barmaid as staff. Much to everyone's surprise, over 600 kids from all over the Bronx tried to crowd their way into the tiny upstairs bar, making the first rap night at Disco Fever an instant success. Sal gradually persuaded his father (and the somewhat reluctant older members of the Fever staff) to add more rap nights. Rap had clearly outgrown the park scene, where cops and stickup kids inevitably showed up to stop the fun. But since most bars were worried about rap's rambunctious, underage audience, many nightclubs were unwilling to host regular rap shows. Now, fueled by Sal Abbatiello's own enthusiasm, Disco Fever soon became the only nightclub in the Bronx featuring live rap deejays six to seven nights a week. As profits poured in (even with admission seldom more than two-to-five dollars a head) Sal and his father gradually expanded the bar into a labyrinthine maze of public, semi-private, and secret VIP areas. R&B jocks played the ground floor area, while the hip-hop kids ruled upstairs.

Before long, every name deejay in the area seemed to have a regular night at The Fever. Luvbug Starski took Mondays.

Grandmaster Flash played on Tues. D.J. Hollywood held down Wednesdays, Eddie Cheeba had Thursdays; and Junebug spun for Sweet G on Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday was granted Reggie Wells, who to this day remains famous as promoter and host of r&b club parties in New York. Kurtis Blow was an early Fever believer, first as a patron then later as his rap career took off, as a regular M.C. for most of the charity events sponsored at or by the Bronx-based hot spot. Disco Fever soon attracted a host of future stars who'd hover by the deejay booth with demo tapes clutched in their hands hoping to be discovered. Future hip-hop legends like Def Jam's Russell Simmons and rap radio pioneer Mr.Magic became fascinated by the Fever scene and derived from the club much of the creative vision that consolidated their careers.

Unlike less formal party spaces like the T-Connection or Harlem World on 116th street in Manhattan, Disco Fever was considered a "player's club," straddling the atmospheric gap between a legitimate disco and a clandestine after-hours joint. Because people could hang out at The Fever from 10 p.m. 'til dawn, it became a favorite haunt of pimps and hustlers as well as college kids and aspiring rap stars. It was this diversity of appeal that most fascinated record industry people about Disco Fever. It was a magically diverse place full of mysterious excitement and a dangerous romance...not unlike Rick's Cafe Americain in the movie Casablanca.

Long before today's rap stars started talking about their diamond Rolexes and platinum chains, Disco Fever was the place to strut and floss and get connected. Charles Stettler discovered the the Fat Boys there. Run D.M.C., Salt N Pepa, L.L. Cool J, and the Beastie Boys all performed their first rap shows there. Major trends in ghetto fashion started at the Fever. Sal bought the deejays, rappers, and other members of the Fever inner circle matching gold and diamond initial rings which became known on the street as The Juice Ring. Then Mr. Magic bought airtime on WHBI radio turning this tiny FM station into the only radio outlet in New York for underground and pre-release rap tapes. Disco Fever and Sugar Hill Records ended up buying enough advertising time for Magic to keep him on the air for an entire year.

It wasn't that The Fever was the only place people could go. But Sal spent 12 to 14 hours a day inventing ways to keep The Fever special and relatively safe for its loyal patrons. Like most successful bar men, Sal wanted The Fever to have a "house drink." So the fashionable libation at The Fever became a tiny "split" of Moet champagne garnished with a straw and sometimes an extra shot of Remy. Sal brought black comedians into the club on weekly Talent Nights. He was the first hip-hop club owner to cut down on crowds by charging slightly higher admission for patrons wearing sneakers instead of dress shoes. He was the first to widely distribute VIP cards to regular patrons, and after the first gunshot death at the Fever (a bouncer got shot for refusing to allow a street kid to snort coke at the bar) Sal became the first club owner in New York to install an airport-grade metal detector at the entrance to a nightclub.

Besides live hip-hop performances (most of which were promotional, as it was considered something of an honor to freestyle at the Fever for free) there were bathing suit contests and "gong show" talent contests offering thousands of dollars in cash prizes. The club hosted annual Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas parties featuring free food and gifts for children, and by the early '80s, the Fever had also helped launch yearly "Entertainer's League" basketball tournaments. These games--which still exist as documented by cable television at various locations in New York--pitted the staffs of varous clubs and record companies against each other. During the League's first two years Sal himself was twice voted MVP. But Disco Fever wasn't only about fun and games. In the early '80s Sal contacted the United Negro College Fund and did a series of fundraisers for them headlined by rising personalities in the hip-hop world. Closer to home, Sal opened a family-oriented roller disco in 1983 at 45 Goble Place. Skate Fever was located directly across the street from the abandoned and defunct Gobles Playground. Seeing a need, Sal organized the Macombs Road Youth and Community Association then ran a series of benefit concerts co-promoted by WBLS-FM to renovate and buy all new equipment for the city playground. Because he did so much business in the South Bronx, Sal routinely initiated charitable projects in that community intended to improve the general quality of the residents' lives. If charity work also helped improve Disco Fever's reputation and the image of rap in general, so much the better.

By 1982 there were lots of little independent rap and dance labels around whose records were being "broken" by clubs like Disco Fever. In 1981 the Fever's own manager Sweet G got on the radio by doing a double-sided single for the West End label called "A Heartbeat Rap/ Rapping Your Heart Out," based on the then hugely successful Taana Gardner hit "Heartbeat." It was Russell Simmons who urged Sal to parlay Sweet G's sudden commercial notoriety into a label based around the club, and Sal soon thereafter made a pact with West End to distribute the Fever Records imprint.

Kurtis Blow and Jellybean Benitez co-produced "Games People Play", the first Fever Records release, with Sweet G rapping over the track. The 12-inch hit record stores in 1983 and before long "Games" went number one on New York's top three urban radio stations: WBLS, WKTU, and KISS. Sal loved having a record on the charts promoting the Fever name, and before long was moonlighting as G's road manager whenever he had to do track dates at other clubs. And yet each night these two returned to Disco Fever after a gig, Sal would change back from roadie to boss and G from headliner to head employee!

Fever friends and insiders like Jellybean Benitez, Junebug, Kurtis Blow, Russell Simmons, and Grandmaster Flash all produced records for The Fever label and a small stable of acts including Sweet G, Starski, and an early female rapper called Gigolette began recording and touring under the Fever flag. By 1984 tracks like Sweet G's "Games People Play" Gigolette's "Games Females Play" and Starski's "You've Gotta Believe" were still keeping Fever Records in the public's ear, but West End records--which had overspent on failing disco product--was declaring bankruptcy. The royalty checks they wrote to successful Fever artists bounced. Desperate to keep the momentum of the label going, amid increasing competition from newer rap clubs and labels in Manhattan, Sal began fishing around for a new distribution deal which came together in 1985 when Art Kass of Sutra Records decided to embrace the Fever roster.

In the meantime, Russell Simmons wanted to shoot part of a movie at Disco Fever. He'd managed to convince Hollywood that New York's rap scene had national appeal, and Krush Groove, a loosely fictionalized account of the birth of Def Jam Records, became a veical to showcase Run D.M.C., L.L. Cool J, Kurtis Blow, Rick Rubin, Fever staff and many Fever regulars. The same year Krush Groove hit national theaters Fever Records released "Bust A Rhyme" by M.C. Chill, and a new single by Gigolette roughly similar to Run DMC's "Kings of Rock" called "I'm Gonna Rock You". By this time hostile gang activity and the changing political climate in the South Bronx had forced the original Disco Fever to close, but Sal was already prepared to take his promotional instincts to the next level. Sal's father had just put the finishing touches on a new space at 396 Tremont Avenue that he planned to run as an upscale, mature, Latin dance club. When the first live concerts there failed to make any money (Tito Puente's orchestra played opening night) Sal again convinced his father to turn the space over to a younger crowd and a fresher music.

This time the scene Sal chose to cultivate was predominantly Latin--although Latinos like the late lamented Deejay Junebug had always been a big part of the Bronx rap scene as well. Suddenly teenaged deejays, singers, and producers were starting to come out of the Latin parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn with a sound just as distinctive as the hip-hop scene that had congealed around Disco Fever. Sal discovered emerging deejay "Little" Louie Vega and a young aspiring producer/manager named Andy "Panda" Tripoli, and set them up to promote the club at Tremont and Webster newly christened The Devil's Nest.

While LIttle Louie played rap, Latin freestyle, and dance-oriented rock to crowds of local blacks and Latinos, Sal Abbatiello prepared to make more records. At Skate Fever, Sal's short-lived roller disco, he'd discovered a black Cuban girl named Nayobe who could wail like a Spanish Aretha Franklin. The first record he cut on her was a dramatic street aria called "Please Don't Go," which became one of a string of so-called Latin Freestyle/Latin Hip Hop hits on the Fever/Sutra label through the late '80s. But even while he kept a finger on the pulse of Latin freestyle, Sal never gave up on rap. M.C. Chill, Gucci Man, Sweet G, and the group Most Wanted, all made rap records for the Fever label in the late '80s. And when Sal threw a tenth anniversary party for the original Disco Fever in 1986, he commandeered the Devil's Nest for an event attended by Russell Simmons, Run D.M.C., Debbie Harry, Kurtis Blow, Whodini, Lisa Lisa, Doug E. Fresh, the Fat Boys, and Grandmaster Flash among others.

In the early '90s when street trends shifted back to truly underground varieties of rap, Sal--in partnership with John "Gungie" Rivera--flipped his script again by turning the Devil's Nest into a reborn Disco Fever, called simply The Fever II. Funkmaster Flex, Tony Touch, D.J. Skribble, Bobby Konders, and Doo-Wop were installed as house deejays and once again unknown acts were able to use Sal's club to boost their careers. The emergent Wu-Tang Clan performed at Fever II, and Method Man was signed to Def Jam after his show there. Sal and Gungie became Fat Joe's first managers, and before this huge Nuyorican rapper went on to solo success Fever Records released a collaborative project between Nayobe, Fat Joe and Ravon in 1994 produced by Gungie Rivera and remixed by Bobby Konders.

In 1999 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame invited Sal Abbatiello to participate in it's first ever national Hip-Hop Conference, and solicited key Disco Fever memorabilia for the museum's permanent collection. It seems the Disco Fever legend is destined to live on into the 21st Century. This CD sampler represents just a portion of the Fever legacy as it lives on in the hearts and minds of the many people who experienced it.

Published in: liner notes, 2000