Four decades ago, when the Bronx was famously burning, one nightclub brought together the boogie-down borough’s dancing queens, hustlers, graffiti kids, turntable ninjas, and fledgling MCs under one roof. “It was just Sal’s place up in the Bronx where it all went down, where everybody in the whole rap industry used to go hang out,” Marley Marl says. “Whenever Sal has a celebration, I’m always down to keep the Fever spirit alive.”
The club was Disco Fever, and “Sal” is Bronx-bred entrepreneur Sal Abbatiello, whose forty-year love affair with black and Latino club culture has made him a pivotal figure within the overlapping scenes of r&b, hip-hop, Latin freestyle, and salsa. This Saturday, with legendary producer Marley Marl and scratch-master Grand Wizard Theodore on turntables, a who’s-who of hip-hop pioneers, including Rakim, the Sugarhill Gang, Roxanne Shanté, Melle Mel, and Rob Base, will gather at Lehman Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate hip-hop’s ground zero.
Growing up during the Fifties and Sixties in an increasingly nonwhite section of the South Bronx, Abbatiello decided that creating multicultural havens for music and laughter was better than falling prey to the dubious career paths offered by local wiseguys. So, one day in 1977, he persuaded his nightclub-owning father to let him transform their brand new r&b bar on Jerome Avenue into a space where — one night a week — emerging hip-hop DJs and rappers would perform. The overwhelming neighborhood turnout for those first weekly parties quickly transformed his father’s r&b bar into a hip-hop palace, strategically showcasing the most competitive street DJs and emcees seven nights a week.
It’s a world Netflix subscribers may recognize from Baz Luhrmann’s early-hip-hop fantasia, The Get Down. Abbatiello certainly did: Two years ago, when he brought his first Hip-Hop Fever reunion concert to the Lehman Center, The Get Down was not yet turning rap history into a colorful fairy tale, but Luhrmann showed up at the concert looking for inspiration. “He saw me, met Kurtis Blow, met all the rappers, got phone numbers, and I never heard from him again,” Abbatiello recalls, with barely contained frustration. “Now, if you stream the show, you’ll see how he ripped off and changed the image of the Fever to put this imaginary club up there called Les Inferno.” On the show, Les Inferno is run as an organized-crime front, a far cry from the way regulars remember the Fever.
“To me, the Fever was a safe haven for hip-hop,” says Marley Marl. “It was a dope place to go just to see the culture evolving, and to see all the players that were involved in the culture.”
One of the reasons almost every rap star who matters — even those loyal to rival crews, boroughs, and labels — remain supportive of Sal is because Disco Fever never exploited its clientele, routinely gave back to the surrounding community, and was determined to remain neutral ground amid irrational city turmoil. The entrance sported both an airport-grade metal detector and a locked weapons-check area. Departing patrons deemed too drunk or unfamiliar with the neighborhood for their own safety were escorted to cabs or the subway. Nonaggression pacts were negotiated with local gangs and drug lords, as well as with local police.
“My best personal memory of Disco Fever,” recalls battle-rapper and veteran Juice Crew member Shanté, “is being in there at the age of fourteen, in the back room, doing my homework at about three o’clock in the morning because I had to go to school the next day.” Usually escorted by other members of the crew, Shanté — whose life story is set to hit big screens this fall with the Pharrell-produced biopic Roxanne, Roxanne — stresses that Sal never let anyone take advantage of her or any woman in his club. “Sal was that real man of honor among ordinary men,” she says. “And that’s why I love and respect him so much to this day.”
As Marley and Shanté attest, nightly networking at Disco Fever consolidated a dynamic community of hip-hop managers, artists, producers, label owners, radio jocks, and mobile DJs. It was a unique environment with the innate potential to elevate everyone’s game. But this was the Bronx in the Seventies and Eighties, and Disco Fever saw its share of tragedy. Surviving devastating epidemics of drugs like cocaine, angel dust, and crack was no easier for the Fever family than for the patrons of any other New York nightclub. Over the course of a decade, substance abuse, gang activity, disease, and sheer urban misadventure killed several Fever habitués and employees, both on and off the premises. Abbatiello took every loss personally, and continues to raise money for cancer victims, foster kids, and college scholarships in memory of his fallen comrades.
When assessing the historical importance of Disco Fever, Rakim, one half of Eric B. and Rakim, the rap duo famous for landmark singles like “Paid in Full” and “I Know You Got Soul,” speaks of the taste-making gestalt of the club. “If you could make Fever your home, or get some shine for a track there, it was a turning point for an artist,” he says. “Fever was this unique universe where all of the aspects of a culture that was just starting to figure itself out had an open door. It defined New York for me at the time. But looking back, I now see how it helped all these different people come together to also start to define hip-hop.”
Thus Disco Fever’s fortieth anniversary concert will present soul survivors like the Sugarhill Gang, former Furious Five frontman Melle Mel, and the “God MC” Rakim, as living repositories of iconic star power, while also commemorating the contributions of lesser-known lights of hip-hop, less prolific innovators whom Abbatiello believes deserve tribute.
“The significance of these concerts for me is to at least give credit to all the pioneers who paved the way for others but didn’t really get financial gratitude out of it,” says Abbatiello, who could just as well be speaking about himself. “These guys are the ones who broke the ground for hip-hop to be as popular as it is around the world.”
Published in: Village Voice, May 3, 2017