I got this bucket list I’m chipping away at. In no particular order, I’ll get to cross off something personal like visiting the New York Public Library monthly. Then I’ll tab over to the collage of sticky notes on my desktop and get into a staring contest with the words, “build a website.” Cue face palm. Hours pass by, I made a bunch of jab steps on Squarespace, nothing published.
The sun is going down behind the New York City skyline, and it seems like I’m actually going to start my day. Without hesitation I taxicab uptown Manhattan’s West Side Highway to an adidas party. It’s unlike any other brand-sponsored event held tonight because they rented out The Tunnel Nightclub. Yeah, I didn’t stutter. The landmark where hip-hop’s royalty famously commanded a stage of thousands on a weekly basis in the 1990s; the club whose security detail arguably set the precedent for the Transportatiotn Security Agency’s series of metal detector screenings and invasive pat downs at airports nationwide; where D.J.’s BIG KAP (R.I.P.) and Funkmaster Flex became legendary; where people had to tuck in their chains; where the bathrooms were unisex; where Nas and DMX walked in slow motion under black light in the opening scene of Belly; where I’ve dreamed of one day seeing with my own eyes.
Since The Tunnel closed down in 2001, it has become a place of lore. If you weren’t there, you just wouldn’t understand. I had the pleasure of co-writing about it with UPNORTHTRIPS for Mass Appeal [Ed. Note: UPNORTHTRIPS & Stretch Armstrong have co-authored a book that chronicles NYC nightlife through promotional flyers.] I fawned over stories by my man Dreamer who religiously hit the Tunnel every Sunday night. I distinctly remember the nights he would call me from the line just to shoot the shit. Our conversations helped him pass the time waiting to get inside. He would give me a play-by-play of the queue. A fight might have happened just steps ahead or behind. He’d have side conversations with ladies fixing their hair or their outfits, or he’d survey the crowd about whose performance was about to shut the place down (i.e. DMX, Jay Z, The L.O.X.). Dreamer once handed the phone to a lady and eventually she’d ask me why I was at home and not coming to to the Mecca—The Tunnel’s original namesake. I would soon have canned responses. “I don’t have a fake I.D. yet,” “I have school the next day,” “I’m going to Club Speeeed.” To be fair, when I finally got my fake I.D. and started going to Speeeed—then known as the baby Tunnel—I was only partially satisfied.
Flash forward to August 4th, adidas reopened The Tunnel for one night only. By day Chelsea’s Terminal Warehouse Company Central Stores Building is a food court. Like most things go in New York City, they go from a place by the people for the people, to a corporate-run commercial space with no soul. They don’t build community. There’s no culture, no history left to be made, just a profit. “New York is filthy with loss and nostalgia, with fossils of things loved intensely yet discarded unceremoniously,” said a writer for the Village Voice about the loss of Chinatown Fair, the diamond in the rough in NYC’s storied era of video game arcades dating back to the ’80s. As far as nightclubs go, The Tunnel is one of those treasured gems too.
As the club filled, I walked around transposing memories of movie scenes in the Tunnel to my current real life experience. The support beams and brick walls were the foundation, unmovable infrastructure to the building. If those walls could talk, they’d speak of the way songs rang off: “If You Think I’m Jiggy,” “The Benjamins” or “Whoa.” I listened to the DJs Clark Kent and Kitty Cash play these hits from the ’90s studying how they banged through The Tunnel’s acoustics. Records at that time were made to fit the aesthetic of The Tunnel. Their bass had to boom. The highs had to carry at a pitch that would pierce through the layers of bodies without getting muffled. Granted I was listening on a different sound system recently. The original PA system that was installed for the resident DJs was most likely removed after The Tunnel shuttered. Plus, times have changed. The technology is different, so a new sound system makes sense for The Last Encore.
The most important takeaway from the special adidas event was a gallery-style installation. In between the two champagne open bars, headphones snaked from a canvas showing the outline of a cassette tape. The audio on the headphones played interviews of former Tunnel patrons. Their stories were the oral history of a place they once called home.
I got chills listening to voices speak about Jay Z having the best performance—whenever he was going to take the stage, security doubled. The bar was the longest bar some had ever seen. The Tunnel was the Studio 54 of hip-hop. Then the late-great BIG KAP’s voice declared he was the best D.J. in the club. He not only played rap records alongside Flex and Cipha Sounds who opened with reggae/dancehall, but KAP was the voice of the Tunnel. He was from Brooklyn. BK arguably represented the biggest constituency of the Tunnel. Months ago after we lost BIG KAP, my uncle told me about this cool cat Big Keith Carter from Tilden High School, and how proud he was going to see him rock The Tunnel. There was something magical about this place that could never be imitated. But adidas replicated it with the honor and integrity that an O.G. could respect.