The South Bronx Was Getting a Bad Rap Until a Club Called Disco Fever Came Along

updated 05/16/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1983 01:00AM

It's 4 a.m. Friday, and up in the deejay's booth at Disco Fever—the rap capital of the Solar System, not to mention the South Bronx—D.J. Starski revs 500 dancers into action with Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. He does it using only the first eight bars of the song, cutting back and forth between two copies of the record. When he's got the whole house rocking to the rhythm, Starski opens the mike:

"What's that word when you're bustin' loose?" he shouts.

"Juice! Juice!" 500 voices chant.

"And how do you feel when you got that juice?"

"Loose! Loose!" comes the reply. Right on the beat, too.

The beat goes on, night after night, at Disco Fever, the home of the rappers and the hottest hot spot in New York today. Located some 15 subway stops north of Studio 54 and the rest of the pleasure palaces of midtown Manhattan, Fever is the tom-tom heart of the South Bronx, one of the few places its disenfranchised citizens can go to forget the harsh reality of their lives.

The South Bronx, of course, has been the national emblem of urban decay since Ronald Reagan toured its rubble-strewn landscape as a presidential candidate in 1980 and proclaimed, "I haven't seen anything as bad as this since London after the blitz!" Things have improved some since then, but there's still as much accuracy as self-interest in club owner Sal Abbatiello's assertion that "the only things happening in the South Bronx today are Yankee Stadium and Disco Fever."

Disco Fever has emerged as the headquarters of rap music, which is usually heard on city streets. Rappers transpose street slang into chanted couplets. The words are spoken (or "rapped"), not sung, over a stark, rhythmic base and deal with topics as diverse as unemployment and birth control. The first international rap hit was 1979's Rapper Delight, and the music has so matured since then that an apocalyptic rap anthem called The Message, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, was selected by the New York Times as the most powerful pop single of 1982.

Disco Fever is mentioned in The Message, and on almost any night of the week, whether they've just finished performing at some chic underground boîte downtown or returned from a tour abroad, Flash and the Five can be found "chilling out" at the Fever in the company of other rap stars such as Kurtis Blow, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, the Sugarhill Gang and the Fearless Four. Blow (born Kurt Walker), 23, had one of his earliest club gigs there as house emcee in 1979 and still insists, "The Fever's where I go to get ideas for my albums. You get to see what the street likes." Russell Simmons, Blow's 25-year-old manager, is even more emphatic about the club's role in the business: "If a rap record doesn't go around in the Fever, it's fake."

But rap alone cannot account for the fact that the Fever has become, in Abbatiello's words, "the YMCA of the Bronx." Last fall the community-minded club raised $8,000 for the United Negro College Fund with its own 27-hour "telethon." The Fever also organizes bus rides to local prisons so that families and inmates from the neighborhood can visit. And last month the club opened its doors to some 250 youngsters for an Easter party with free admission, refreshments and gifts.

The Fever draws its clientele from a community where nearly 55 percent of the total population has been officially unemployed for so long that they are no longer considered part of the work force. With admission rarely more than $5 per person, the club is packed six nights a week (closed Mondays) from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m.

Self-described Fever Believers include people like Dino Gary, 25, who works as a cook and cashier at a local McDonald's. When Dino gets off work at 3:30 in the afternoon, he goes home and sleeps until midnight or so, then hits the Fever and dances till dawn. "The Fever's like a center," says Dino. "The music is good, and everybody here is family."

Cecily Garner, a 27-year-old mother of four and part-time cashier at a department store, tries to participate in all of the Fever's various Thursday night entertainments, like Name That Tune, The Dating Game and a Gong Show, each one fueled by local talent. Garner entered the Fever's bathing suit competition last year, "but," she reports, "I turned out to be pregnant so I had to drop out of the finals a few weeks later." Cecily considers her thrice-weekly pilgrimages to the Fever her vacation. "I don't get to go away in the summertime," she says, "so this is my summertime."

The unlikely head counselor at this year-round summer camp is Abbatiello, 30, a hip and energetic Italian-American. He is not surprised to find himself running a club where the clientele is almost totally black and Hispanic. "The nightlife is in my blood," he says, black nightlife in particular. Sal's father, Albert, runs two black nightclubs in the Bronx, and it was he who started Disco Fever in March 1978. The club failed to catch on right away, so Sal convinced his father to let him take a crack at running it the following September. His first move was to bring in rappers to perform on a steady basis. "No one else would hire them," he recalls "because they drew such a dangerous crowd." Abbatiello's life revolves around Disco Fever. He spends 12 to 14 hours a day on the Fever's business. "I separated from my wife over this club," confesses Sal. "The club is my wife now."

Abbatiello is aware of the uniqueness of his position. "Some of my customers," he says, "had never even spoken to a white person before me. Once a girl came up to me and asked, 'Can I touch your hair?' My white friends asked me how I get away with it. I tell 'em I don't get away with nothing. Just show my customers a little kindness, and they act all right."

Even so it comes as no surprise that the Fever's staff includes people like Michael Lewis, better known as Man-dingo, who at 6'4" and 260 pounds is head of security. Lewis, 35, says that he's spent almost 15 years of his life in various federal and state jails. But "ever since Sal picked me out of the crowd to work here, I've learned how to deal better with other people and I've learned how to respect myself more," he says. "This is the first time I've been on the street for four years straight since I was 12." Lewis feels that the Fever succeeds in some cases, where places like Attica and Sing Sing (both of which he is familiar with) fail. "Big as I am," he says, "I've only had a couple fights here in all that time. I feel that we rehabilitate people." This sentiment echoes an observation of Russell Simmons: "People rap to stay out of trouble, like people who play basketball."

The Fever's most enduring feature is the optimism it generates, an optimism that is often expressed in rap. One such passage occurs in Yes, We Can-Can, a single released by a group of Fever regulars, the Treacherous Three. They sing:

Although there's heavy odds
against us I still have to say
That we're not out 'cause
wherever there's a will there's a way
But the strong will survive and
the weak will die
And the only ones who make it
are the ones who try.
Because we can, I know we
can-can, yes we can-can.

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