Club Negril was a dive reggae bar on the corner of Second Ave and 12th Street. The occasion was my first look at hip-hop: Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Romantic MCs promised to “rock the house.” South Bronx meets the East Village.
If I’d learned anything about New York by that point, I knew not to arrive early for a nightclub performance. So I watched the late news and Johnny Carson’s opening monologue on my brand new b&w TV ($43 at Uncle Steve’s) before shoving off. The 14th Street bus deposited me two blocks from the bar just as the big clock on the Con Edison building silently pointed to midnight. Witching hour. It was unseasonably cold, clear, sometime in November or early December 1981.
Inside, Club Negril boasted a small stage, a compact dance floor, and a long bar. The décor consisted of Christmas lights and a few fake palm trees. The joint was packed with people, shrouded in smoke and dim yellow glow. I forked over a very reasonable $5 to the wary Rasta acting as sentry at the door. “Nah reggae tonight.”
The funky beat pulsating from the PA system sounded vaguely familiar and utterly foreign, exotic, at the same time. Literally the music here functioned as a siren song, sweeping any stragglers toward the dance floor, myself included, though up to that point I hadn’t seriously danced since the senior prom.
Recognizing the loopy bass line of “Flashlight” by Parliament, I tentatively swayed with the rhythm, rotating my broad shoulders to the beat. Surrounding me was a writhing sea of humanity, evenly split between the downtown set (white bohemians in their twenties) and the uptown crowd (black and Hispanic teenagers). For New York, in my admittedly brief experience, this ratio was extremely rare. Make no mistake: it was the music that put all of us at ease.
Unlike the discos and rock clubs, where people essentially danced alone in a narcissistic trance, here everybody moved in tandem with everybody else in an ecstatic collective frenzy. Grand Wizard Theodore, a short, solidly built black guy maybe 20 years old, occupied center stage behind two turntables. The soulful groove emanating from the big speakers on either side of the room ebbed and flowed with the fluid assurance of a long-distance swimmer switching strokes in mid-stream. I’ve never felt so compelled to dance yet I kept stopping in my tracks, trying to divine the source of the celebratory, fresh sounds.
Just as I’d felt with Sonic Youth a few weeks previous, the earth seemed to shift under my shuffling feet. Only this wasn’t punk rock – it was a party. Theodore expertly manipulated the crowd’s energy with the records he played, dragging the needle back-and-forth in rhythmic scratches, teasing the dancers with climatic snatches – a honking gutbucket saxophone riff, a thunderous jungle drum break – that triggered mass hysteria.
Around 2:00 AM a space cleared at the lip of the stage for the five Fantastic Romantic MC’s. They were smooth and sure, rhyming in unison and individually, gamely attempting Temptations-style choreography, yet the rappers appeared as an afterthought, a sideshow to the three-ring circus. The main attraction was the DJ, not to mention the action on the dance floor.
At times during the night the dancers would intuitively pause and pull back, making space for the boogaloo crews to athletically twist and twirl their limbs in robotic contortions. But the vision that has stayed with me ever since is not this early sighting of break-dancers but rather the kids dancing around them. I loved the loose-limbed way the b-boys and fly girls bobbed and swayed. Unconsciously I soon found myself duplicating their moves. The sound of hip-hop stimulated a reflex I didn’t know I possessed.
When I reached 14th Street a few minutes after the show ended, the crosstown bus sat at the stop, engines idling, doors open — as if the driver was waiting for me. For the second time in the same night, miraculously, I managed to be in the right place at the right time. As the bus crept westward, I interpreted the evening as a hopeful omen. I couldn’t help thinking that my luck had turned. Finally.