If Hip Hop was your thing in the early 80’s there were a few things you understood: The hottest spot in the city at that time was Studio 54 in Manhattan, and you weren’t getting in there; but the club Disco Fever was in the Bronx; and if you wanted to be a legend in hip hop at that time, your ass had to play the Fever.
The Fever wasn’t just a club; it was the club, not only was it the place to be but it was an experience, if you performed at the Fever, and you rocked it, that meant that you were somebody. You were among the elite. For legions of rap fans at that time it was the Mecca of the South Bronx. It was a star- studded time for many in the 80’s. It was a time when fly girls, b-boys, stick-up kids, coke dealers, hookers, thugs, gamblers, home boys and the everyday man could party in style with the ghetto celebs of that period.
The wall behind the stage, emblazoned big red and black with big bold gold graffiti lettering displaying the names of the legends of that time: DISCO FEVER THE HOME OF: Lovebug Starski, Junebug, Grandmaster Flash, Sweet Gee, D.J. Hollywood, Sugar Hill Gang, Eddie Cheba, Kurtis Blow, Sequence, Brucie Bee, Furious 5, Reggie Wells, Kool Kyle, Disco Bee, and Star Child. Those were the names of some of the immortals that blessed the mikes and the deejay booth; that’s where you wanted your name to be.
“When I went there, the vibe was definitely celebratory”, says Fab 5 Freddy, who at the time was the Ambassador between the hard-core underground hip-hop scene and the downtown art and punk rock scenes. “You definitely got hit with the aroma of cocaine burning with cigarettes or weed; you smelled angel dust being smoked once you got in the club. It wasn’t like going to the Dixie or somewhere like the Smith Projects, although that hard-core element was there, the vibe was different. It was more of a celebration.”
“The Fever was way different from Krush Groove” proclaimed Grandmaster Caz, “There wasn’t no Fat Boys and RUN-DMC and LL all in the Fever, it was mother fuckin’ drug dealers man, all they showed was the front room, they didn’t show the back room!”
“We played whatever was hot at that time”, boasts George “Sweet Gee” Godfrey, who was the clubs manager as well as a deejay, and later recorded the classic 12-inch “Games People Play”. “On any given night seven days a week, you’d come in there and hear something like “Catch the Beat” by T Ski Valley, or “All Night Long” by the Mary Jane Girls; “Catch the Beat” was definitely a club classic!”
In the Beginning
"When the Fever first opened up, we couldn't get in, because we were too young, only Flash and Lovebug Starski were able to get in", so says rap pioneer Mele Mel of the Furious Five, who, once he was able to get in, was treated like royalty.
Mel couldn’t get in because initially, the club catered to an older audience. In the 60’s and early 70’s the Abbatiello family owned a jazz bar in the Bronx called the Salt and Pepper Lounge that catered to a mostly adult black clientele.
“Sal’s dad, Ally, was a musician, and he used to have all kinds of people come down to that bar for jam sessions, people like George Benson for instance, he used to come in and jam 3 or 4 nights a week”, said Sweet Gee.
“Every once in awhile, my dad would sit in with the band and play his trumpet”, said Sal Abbatiello who owns and operates Fever Enterprises.
In the movie ‘Casablanca’ Humphrey Bogart played a smooth, tuxedo-jacketed, cigar- smoking, tough-talking yet sensitive character named Rick, who’s connections with the underworld and cops alike made him the man to go to in Morocco; Sal Abbatiello was the Rick character of the South Bronx.
“People used to come around the clubs and say to each other “Who’s the white kid?” Like I came from somewhere else, when, I didn’t. I’m from the South Bronx; I was born and raised in the Bronx. My family is from the Bronx. We have been involved and owned nightclubs here for years. So all of my dealings have been with black people. At my dinner table, during holidays, there were black people at the table with us. So, you see, I was no stranger to Black culture’, said Abbatiello.
“In 1978, my dad decided to buy a bar down the block from the “Salt and Pepper Lounge”, said Abbatiello.
“When Ally bought that bar, I was there when it was being built, I’m talking literally, I mean I had a hammer and nails and was helping them build that place”, said Sweet Gee.
“So one night we were out at Sal’s dad’s house in New Jersey and a commercial came on for a new movie called “Saturday Night Fever”, and it came on while we were trying to think of a name for the club, and all of a sudden Sal’s mom said, “Hey, why not call it “Disco Fever”? And we all looked at each other and said: “Hey that’s it!” said Sweet Gee.
“So the club is up and going, we had a white deejay there at first playing Top 40, cause you gotta remember, we were still catering to an older clientele”, said Abbatiello.
“Well, this white guy, he used to get tired and want to quit early, it would be 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and he’d be ready to go”, said Sweet Gee adding, “So when he would leave or take a break I would take over. Now, I’m not a great deejay or nothing, but I had watched Flash and all of those guys and knew all of the hot break records from that time like Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real”; I would turn down the music and talk between her singing like she would sing: “What you find…I’d say: “Sweet Gee”, she’d sing… “What you feel,” I’d say: “D.J. Junebug”; what you know: “Disco Fever”, and that was my routine”, said Sweet Gee.
“Well, one night I’m there at the club and I see Gee go into this routine, and I’m saying, “What in the fuck is Gee doing? He was saying things like “Throw your hands in the air and wave ‘em like you just don’t care” and all of this other stuff and I’m looking at the crowd and I’m noticing that he’s bringing people together, and then it clicked: This is what the club needs. So I talked my dad into letting me have a night and after a while he agreed. He wasn’t sure about this rap stuff, but he let me try, so I went out to find the best: and that was a guy named Grandmaster Flash”.
“I tried to promote other nights there before I got Flash, I even had Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes there, but people didn’t come, you know why? Because no one believed that Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes would be in some club in the South Bronx. So when I got Flash to play, we charged a dollar and there were only four of us working the whole club – 600 people showed up that night. I was calling home and the Salt and Pepper Lounge pleading with my dad, “Dad, Dad please, send more people; we’re swamped in here.”
The Place to Be
To be sure, hip-hop was not born in the Disco Fever, its birthplace is said to have been 1520 Sdgwick Ave. in the West Bronx. What the Fever was was the hot spot where the stars of that era went to chill and be seen in high fashion.
Hip-hop fashion at that time was different from what it is today; there was no specialized hip-hop designer gear, because people in general didn’t have a lot of money back then. Party-goers wore leather bomber jackets, sweaters, mock necks, Polo shirts, leather pants, British Walkers, Calvin Klein or Lee jeans, and Kangol hats; hip-hop fashion has come a long way since then.
Even though it has been said that the Fever had a dress code, according to promoter Van Silk, then known as R.C., “Yeah right the Fever had a dress code. Do you know what the dress code was? It was money. If you had enough money in your pocket then you could get in there regardless how you were dressed. But you knew you were going out that night and you wanted to look right, so you wore your leather pants.”
According to Silk, “I was one of the first promoters Sal let in there do his own night. As a matter of fact, me and Sal were trying to start a video show out of the Fever; it was going to be called ‘Video Fever’. This was before MTV. We had Nyobe and some other people on that show. Sal has it to this day on a beta tape”, said Silk.
“The Fever was like a second home to us”, said Mele Mel, “We could be overseas in Italy or Germany or somewhere like that and we would be calling the Fever, right into the deejay booth, and would be talking to Junebug on the phone, we would be like, “Yeah yeah, so what’s going on over there, who’s there tonight? If we were in New York, like say, the Roxy, we would hang out at the Roxy and then leave there at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and then go to the Fever when we were done. No matter where we were we always ended up back at the Fever.”
“People that went there regularly they were called “believers” – “Fever believers”, said Grandmaster Caz adding, “And then the girls that used to come all the time but they ain’t look all that hot, we used to call them “Fever blisters”.
As hot as the Fever was there were certain pioneers that didn't play there, most notably: Afrika Bambaataa. “Bambaataa did not play the Fever, nor did he play Harlem World,” said Van Silk, “You have to understand something, 125th St. was Harlem, and Bam came from the gang days, there were still groups out there with that kind of mentality. Bam is not a violent man. Now, the people around Bam were violent. So Bam didn't travel everywhere, anything beyond 225th was Uptown, and that's when you get into some ‘Warriors’ type shit.”
Unlike other hip hop spots at that time like the Ecstasy Garage, The Dixie, and the T Connection; the Fever had the style of a downtown club – uptown.
“Yo there were three kinds of cats in the Fever: there was the rappers – the emcee’s the hip hop cats, the drug dealers and then there was the regular pedestrians I like to call them”, said Grandmaster Caz, “They would be in there with their eyes wide open, but there weren’t that many of them in there because everybody was pretty much somebody. The Fever wasn’t like a big, big, club – you know what I mean? The regular crowd of people would pack the club alone, it wasn’t about any outside people coming from out of town and shit like that, they wasn’t fitting in in the Fever.”
“The Fever crowd were the type of crowd that liked to sing a long with the record”, said D.J. Rockwell who spun there from 1980 – 1985, “I would mix something like “Do You Wanna Rock” by the Funky 4, and the crowd would be singing along and then I would go into “Before I Let Go” by Frankie Beverly, from there I would go into “I Found Love” by the Fatback Band and the crowd would lose their minds. That’s the way the Fever crowd was.”
“I held down a night, Brucie Bee had a night and Disco Bee had a night too. A lot of times when people thought that it was Flash spinning there – it was really me, because Flash would spin for an hour or so and then stop, and when he stopped, that’s when I would come on”, said Rockwell.
For Sal, the one night that stands out for him that made him see just how popular the club was. “One night, I’m outside looking at the line and there’s this guy out there who wants to get in, he’s a young guy, good-looking guy, somebody taps me on the shoulder and said, “Yo that’s the guy with the hot record out”, I said “Let him in”, turns out, it was Kurtis Blow.”
Junebug the Baddest Deejay Ever
“I could be at the bar sipping a drink or whatever, and all of a sudden Junebug would play the Philadelphia Orchestra’s version of McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now”; and that would be my cue for us to get into our thing”, said Sweet Gee.
Out of all of the deejays from that era, the name Junebug is mentioned with reverence. He was a young Puerto Rican deejay from Manhattan, who had a bearded face and a long Afro with a neck full of gold chains and the sort of playful smile that only a mother could love. “Nobody could do what Junebug did. He was the absolute best. Flash was bad, but Junebug was better.”
“I agree”, Sal added, “all the other deejays scratched or just threw a record in, Junebug, mixed records in, and he did it extremely well. He didn’t really need headphones. I used to go to Club 371 and check the deejays out, and Junebug, was one hell of a deejay. He was D.J. Hollywood’s deejay. I stole him from them [Club 371], and made him the main house deejay along with Sweet Gee.”
“As far as a club deejay – Junebug was a really nice”, says Grandmaster Caz, “But really, when I went there, I thought all of the disco deejays were the best there: Junebug, Starski, Starchild, but yeah, I have to say Junebug stood out. Sweet Gee was the host, he’d be the voice, he’d be biggin’ up everybody in the spot.”
But that wasn’t all that Junebug was best at; he also made his money on the street. According to Sweet Gee, “Junebug had two apartments: one for where he lived; the other, was where he kept his stash.”
“He was a nice guy,” Mele Mel says. “He would give you the shirt off his back, he was a stand up dude, he just happened to be a deejay who also sold cocaine. You know, he, like the rest of us, we all got caught up in something that was bigger than what we could deal with at the time”, said Mele Mel.
The Other Bronx Disco
“When the Fever opened up there was an immediate rivalry with Club 371, I’m talking about a heated rivalry,” said Sweet Gee, “You have to understand, once the Fever opened the owners of the place started looking around and they noticed that most of their black clientele was disappearing, this became a major problem.”
Club 371 was the spot where four deejays from Manhattan bought Harlem’s smooth style to the Bronx. Deejays: Reggie Wells, Hollywood, Junebug and Eddie Cheeba had all been spinning R&B since at least the early 70’s; two of them: D.J.’s Hollywood and Eddie Cheeba were godfathers of rap.
“When I was first investigating the rap scene, Club 371 was one of the places I went to. When I went there I was in awe of this big fat guy, with this golden voice and he had absolute control over the crowd. He was the best entertainer ever; this guy rapped and sang, he mixed, he was a star, I mean a real star, even back then: his name was D.J. Hollywood. He had a Spanish deejay that used to spin for him named Junebug; I wanted both of them at my club. At first, only Junebug came over, but Hollywood didn’t; it took a long time to get him [Hollywood] to come over. He didn’t think the Fever was the right spot for him, I guess it was because he was used to playing for older adults who listened to a more R&B type music, he used to tell me “I don’t know man, I don’t think that’s my kinda crowd; but I’d tell him “Yo, all you gotta do is come on down and play for them. They’ll love you”, said Sal.
“When I first got to Club 371 in 1978, the owners were looking to expand the place, Hollywood was so popular at the time, and they needed somebody just as good as he was”, said Eddie Cheba, “So they built an upstairs – but nobody was going upstairs – Hollywood was so good nobody wanted to leave that part of the club, so they got me. So, upstairs it was me and my deejay EZ Gee and Reggie Wells, and downstairs it was Hollywood and Junebug; people were running downstairs and upstairs all night.”
“But eventually I got Hollywood”, Sal says. “I got all of them: Eddie Cheeba, Reggie Wells, Junebug, and Hollywood; we were doing it then.”
“It got to the point where the fire department would show up and we’d have to empty the place out because somebody called and said that there was a fire. After this happened a few times, we figured out what was going on, we found out it was the guy’s that owned Club 371 that were calling the fire department on us, and it was on from then on. For a while there, we played a game of one upmanship with them meaning: they called in and said we had a fire, we’d call the cops and say that there was a bomb in their place. This went on for a while, and got even worse when Sal stole Junebug”, remembers Sweet Gee.
“After a while the two owners made a truce and the beef was over. Their owner came over to our place for drinks; Sal went over there for drinks, everything was good.”
Chillin' V.I.P. Style
“You have to understand the neighborhood; I’d have a pimp here, a doctor here, a lawyer here, a hooker here and gangsters all over. So, once we started frisking people – as a matter of fact, we were the first with the metal detectors, once we started frisking people, we started turning up guns. People thought I was crazy, they were saying things like, “Sal, what kind of club are you running? Come on, metal detectors?” Now in this neighborhood, certain people needed guns. There were just certain people whose guns you couldn’t take away. So, we started a gun-check policy. Our thing was: Ok, you have a gun. However, you may not bring that gun in the club. So, we would take the gun and lock it – and the ammunition – up in the office”, said Abbatiello.
“People were getting high snorting coke out in the open and shit, so we created a room, the “get high room” for them to do that in, it wasn’t like we could really stop them.”
“This was the cocaine era”, Grandmaster Caz reminds us. “Girls would come in from Connecticut cause they knew all the rap cats was gonna be there, they knew that the drug dealers were gonna be in there, this was the cocaine years baby – pre crack.”
Patterned after the speakeasies of the 1920’s, the VIP areas were an elaborate set of walls enclosed in walls. They also set up red alarm lights behind the bar, in the deejay booth, and in the offices in case the cops raided the place. “When the red light went off, the deejay would make an announcement: Code Red. That meant hide the blow. Code Blue meant the cops were gone, go back to doing what you were doing”, Sweet Gee recalls.
“All kinds of stuff went on back there", said Mele Mel, "If you were back there, you were royalty. You got the best that the club had to offer. I would leave that place at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning with 2 or 3 females and depending on what was going on: if we were gonna do our thing locally there was the Alps, which was a little roach motel. Or there was the Courtesy in Jersey which had rooms with Jacuzzi’s and mirror’s on the ceilings and all that kind of stuff”, said Mele Mel.
“Things were going so well that after awhile, there was this place around the corner from the club on Burnside Ave. that I made into an after hours spot I named it “Games People Play”, we had gambling and all that kinds of stuff going on over there. That’s where the name of the record that Gee did came from”, said Sal.
“The V.I.P areas were strictly for celebs, we had one room for the artists, where they would be sniffing coke out of dollar bills; or they had a gram of blow or something and they had a female with them, that was the spot for them for all that”, said Sweet Gee, “Now, in the other room we reserved that for the high rollers, I’m talking about guys that were dealing with more than a 8 ball of blow, they were the one’s dealing in some serious weight.”
Sal puts it bluntly, “You’d go back there and everybody would be back there, I’m talking about your Russell Simmons, your Lyor Cohen’s; everybody that was in the rap business back then was who you could find back there with their noses open – including me.”
RUN-DMC LIVE AT THE FEVER
For close to a decade The Fever had been the Mecca of Hip Hop, it was the place where Mele Mel was king, Kurtis Blow was a star, Flash was a legend and Lovebug Starski, made you a believer. But there was something new on the horizon.
“I was with Run and them all that day when we performed at the Fever”, said Spyder D, whose hit record “Smerphies Dance” was a Fever classic. “I was there every step of the way that day. It was me, Run and D and Larry Smith. It was just like the song said: “Larry put me inside his Cadillac”, that literally happened that day.”
Spyder continues, “To be from Queens and to perform at the Fever was the highest honor. You have to understand, Uptown cats didn’t respect Queens cats, and so for us to be performing there, that was a big deal, because, previous to that, if you were from Queens, you got no love.”
When the three ambitious MC’s from Queens stepped into the Fever at 2 o’clock in the morning, they were immediately in awe of the club, the mystique of the Fever had more than met their expectations. They had all probably secretly dreamed and privately whispered to friends what that moment would be like, and they weren’t disappointed.
They had all performed earlier that day at gigs around the city; their first show had been a disaster: While he was performing, DMC’s glasses fell off of his face and fell flat on to the stage. Run, full of nervous energy could hardly control himself. According to Spyder, RUN DMC’s producer and mentor Larry Smith screamed at them on the way to the Bronx, “If y’all niggas are anything like that tonight at the Fever, you’re gonna get shot. New Edition performed there last week and niggas were turning over tables shooting at them. You mother fucker’s better get it together. I was like, “Yo, yo Larry man iksnae on the guns man.”
Spyder remembers that night like it had happened last week, ““So we get there, and Starchild was the deejay that night, we stepped in there and it was like, “Yo, this is about to go down.”
Performing after a “Smerph dancing” Spyder D, Run and D, were not quite yet the black leather-jacketed, Stetson hat b-boys yet. “You should’ve seen them in those checkered jackets and turtle-neck sweaters”, laughs Spyder, “It was a far cry from the RUN DMC of the future.”
“I watched them from early that afternoon when they were like, these two total amateurs who were too scared to be on stage, to that night at the Fever, when they turned that place out. I saw D and Joey become: RUN-DMC, right before my eyes, and I’ll never forget it. They were rookies coming into that night but they were superstars by the end of the night – that’s how fast they transformed”, said an emphatic Spyder D.
Performing “It’s Like That” and “Sucker MC’s” before a stunned late-night, coked- up Bronx audience, Run and D were laughed at by a couple, fronted on by a few, but warmly received by everyone else. A few coked-out Bronx veterans that were there that night peeked out of the VIP section and dismissively said: “Who’s them niggas?”
They were the future. The days of the Bronx being the Mecca were coming to an end.
The Party is Over
As the 80’s progressed the record industry machine rolled closer and closer toward the tiny sub-culture from the Bronx. Deals were being made and labels were being born at a dizzying pace. A new breed of hip hoppers was coming into being. The older crowd was slowly being phased out.
“One night me, Junebug and Mr. Magic were supposed to go to the movies together”, recounts Sweet Gee, “I called Bug’s house all that day, and got nothing. I called Sal and told him, “Man, something ain’t right, I’m worried, I haven’t heard from Bug all day, this ain’t like him. So the next day somebody went around to his stash house to go and check on him and there he was, somebody had killed him.”
“When I was writing ‘White Lines” I was thinking about Junebug”, Mele Mel says, “This was before I got hooked on cocaine. I used to buy it; I used to buy it more than I actually used it. I think I was just hooked on buying it. When I wrote the song I was thinking about Junebug, he wasn't the inspiration for the song, I was thinking of him because even though he was a deejay he was our little connect. He was the dude that we used to get our little packages from. I remember thinking to myself “Yeah we gonna have some fun when this comes out.” But, a couple of weeks after “White Lines” dropped Junebug had gotten killed”, Mele Mel remembers somberly.
“I grew up around wise guys all of my life, they were in our clubs and everything, so I was no stranger to that kind of element. There was this notorious gangster in the Bronx named Crazy Eddie who used to come around to the club, he had my back against this guy Tommy for a while, and then, Eddie and I had a falling out. Oh man, shit was hectic”, Sal remembers remorsefully.
“I was having problems with this gangster named Tommy; he was trying to shake me down for a whole lot of money. For a year and a half I was walking around wearing a bulletproof vest. It was crazy. I wasn’t able to be around everyday to run the businesses, so things started to go bad. Everybody that worked for me was strung out on coke. Things were really going bad”, remembers Sal.
Things eventually worked themselves out: Eddie shot Tommy, Tommy shot Eddie, and things went back and forth until eventually they both ended up going to jail.
As bad as things were looking, it looked like the Fever was about to get a second life, the movie Krush Groove was being shot there. Hollywood had aimed their cameras at the Bronx. Things were looking up. That was, until the last day of filming.
“We were celebrating Mele Mel’s birthday party at the club, when all of a sudden I get in trouble for not having a cabaret license. It was all a result of that year and a half of being on the run; my paperwork wasn’t being kept up. We finished Mel’s party in the street that night. The cops put a lock on the front door, but that didn’t stop somebody from coming along later and breaking in through the roof and stealing everything. All I did for the neighborhood, and that happened.”
“You gotta understand, there were many nights that people came to me and asked for help paying rent. I’m talking about people from the neighborhood that attended the club, they would come to me and say, “Sal, Sal we’re about to be evicted, can you help us? And I would. I can’t tell you how many abortions I paid for – that I had nothing to do with - young girls would come up to me crying and shit talking about they’re pregnant, and how their mother was gonna kill them. I’d reach in my pocket and give them the money. I cared about the neighborhood. I really did”, Sal says.
Between 1976 and 1983, guys like Mele Mel and Lovebug Starski were the toast of the streets. They ruled in the period before trunk jewels and the bling era. They were ghetto celebs at a moment when hip-hop wasn’t fabulous. Time and circumstance cheated them out of the pot of gold that is said to over the rainbow. When their reign came to an end, so did the Fever’s. Every generation has that moment in time when their youth is celebrated, when their child-like innocence becomes the food of legend, before grown-up realities create jaded adults. Today, men well into their forties get misty-eyed when they recall their heyday of twenty-five years before. They weren’t ready to leave the scene, but time dictated that they must.
Mele Mel breaks it down like this: “You know people don’t understand that we came through a rough era back then. Yeah, ok, we would be in the V.I.P. section of the Fever, but we would be back there with cats like Corley and Supreme and Fat Cat and them from Queens. Now these were some thorough brothers back then. We’d be back there with gangsters like that. A lot of us got lost in that era. A lot of people didn’t survive from all that went on back then. If you survived all that and you got it together now, you a strong cat. Because you had to be strong to come through all of that.”
By Mark Skillz
This feature originally ran in Wax Poetics Journal