KING FROM QUEENS
The next big hip-hop event I attended was the Sugarhill Convention held at the Harlem Armory. It was 1981, and rap records were becoming the hottest items uptown. On the bill were Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Treacherous Three, and several other uptown icons. I was there with two hip-hop tourists - Guy Trebay, a columnist for the Village Voice (where I was finally freelancing), and a very comely, light-skinned single lady I'll call Alma, who worked in the Voice's art department.
The stage was on the floor of the cavernous armory, with most attendees standing on the floor in front of the stage. After my CCNY experience there was no way I was gonna be on that floor. So I guided Guy and Alma up to a balcony that overlooked the floor. From there we could see hundreds of young people milling about, flirting and dancing the Patty Duke along with several other then popular dances. As the music flowed, we could look down and see little clumps of people, mostly boys, move through the crowd, bumping into people and causing little testosterone-fueled dustups. Then, like a tossed rock rippling through a pond, the crowd would part, as weapons were drawn. Two or three people would scrap. The battle would subside the music played.
After this happened two or three times, Alma praised my good judgment for sitting us upstairs.
Down below, the scrapping escalated. A gun was pulled. A shot was fired. The crowd scattered, and fear infected everyone like a dope beat. This was a time before crack, so gunplay like this still wasn't commonplace. I grabbed Alma's hand and Alma grabbed Guy's. Somehow we moved through the crowd, down a long staircase, and out into the street without stumbling, or being stomped or robbed. I was really worried about Guy, a tall, whiter-than-white man in glasses. He would be an easy target in the chaos, but he was cool and collected, and we made it out of there safely. The theme remained the same throughout the eighties: energetic crowd, cutting-edge music, random violence.
I remember feeling the same restlessness, palpable anger, and intense enthusiasm at every show I attended during the eighties. But I must admit that feeling that something could jump off at any moment was actually part of the attraction. This wasn't "rap violence," as the tabloids labeled it.
Just because something happened in a club or concert hall didn't make it any different from the violence that was escalating in the streets.
The same stick-up kids and gangsta wannabes who were squeezing off in the streets outside the concert halls brought that attitude inside. These hip-hop gigs were the perfect cover. In the darkness of a club or arena, with innocent eyes peering toward the stage, the criminal-minded could run up on a victim unseen and because of the music, unheard. This was especially true if the venue had a standing-room-only section or wide aisles between the chairs on the arena floor.
As a rule I never took floor seats at rap shows. I'd sit on the sides or in the mezzanine, so I could see the stage better. If forced to be in the standing sections, I'd spend a lot of the show watching my back, just in case a bum's rush was imminent. By the time hip-hop was playing arenas, Russell's Rush Management was booking most of the shows, so I went to a great many of the, feeling that same sense of exhilaration and dread on many nights.
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