Online Magazine Interview
Hello Sal, and a million thanks for taking time out of your schedule to speak with us. You have such a long and colorful history, we had to do a ton of research work. Since “the beginning” always seems to be the best place to start, let’s take a time-machine and shoot all the way back to NYC in the 1970’s.
When you graduated from high school in the late 1960’s, the plan was for you to go to Fordham University there in the Bronx. Instead you chose to join the service – meanwhile this was at the height of the Vietnam conflict. As you phrase it “I got lucky, because 8 or 9 months later, I got out on a medical discharge.” About 19 at that point, you began working for your father behind the bar , and became quite popular. Once you made a bit of a name for himself through the circuit as a premier bartender, you tried his first hand at promotions, a catering hall called “Marina Del Rey”, booking your first show with the Traamps (at this point he starts singing “Disco Inferno”, then chuckles). “I actually went to the streets and sold the tickets myself. It turned out pretty well, about 500 people showed up to see the Traamps perform. WHY I wanted to do that, I don’t know, sooo…”
OIM: An Italian born and raised in the Bronx, you actually opened a club aptly entitled for the 1970’s “DiscoFever” with your father. Not content with bringing in the older crowd, you went to your father with the music you’d been seeing performed on the streets – rap. At that time, rap was considered something of an underground movement, and few outside the Bronx knew of it. You literally walked the streets to get information on who was the best-known mover, and GrandMasterFlash (and the Furious Five) was all that you kept hearing. Tell us, though what even sparked your interest in this music?
SAL: It wasn’t so much the “older” crowd”. I’d seen someone rapping – I used to go to this club at like 3:00 am; the resident dj there liked to leave early, so they’d bring on this guy called Sweet G go on for the last hour or so, say 3-4 am. This was like in 1976, and Sweet G, when it would get to the “instrumental” part of a song he was playing, would start rhyming, like saying nursery rhymes over the music. I would observe this each week and see how well the crowd responded to him. It would be amazing because a lot of the people who were maybe just hanging out, not really dancing or joining the party, all of a sudden they’d be up and mingling and having a great time. As if they weren’t feeling so uncomfortable anymore. They’d all be partying as one. THAT is what gave me the idea to approach my father to see if he’d give me maybe one night at the club for this “rapping”. This is about 1976, so I’m like 25 years old.
OIM: It seems you had a hard time convincing GMF to come play at your club? So what was it that finally convinced him to give you and your club a shot?
SAL: Sweet G and I became very good friends and we started discussing it more and I began inquiring about it. Sweet G started mentioning names like “Grand Master Flash” , “DJ Hollywood”, “Lovebug Starsky”, you know, the guys he believed were up and coming. I wanted to check them out, but the only one you could actually go see in a club at that point was DJHollywood. He was playing at a place called “371”, but it was like an older R&B club. I went to check him out and liked him, but then I asked who we could get who was more catering to say, the teenagers. Keep in mind this was way before they upped the drinking age to 21, and it was much easier to get in at 16 or 17 back then. Keep in mind the 18-21 can make a big difference, because even high school seniors can be 18. SweetG wasn’t a “street” dj himself; in fact he had a day job where he worked at a City Home type place with kids who were orphaned or sadness along those lines.
However, he knew where to find them, so he directed me to the various parks where you could catch the street dj’s doing their thing. One of the parks is where I found “Flash”, and no, he wasn’t actually interested in coming into the club at all (chuckle). He was quite content doing his one party a night paid gig; house parties, school dances, community centers, etc. It took a lot of persuasion on my part to get him to believe that coming to a club would help make the music, and him, blow up. Make him a star type-thing. At that point, there was simply no actual club where you could go hear hiphop, though they did get their gigs. I WAS honest with him; I explained we couldn’t offer much money, not at first anyway, and I was still having some trouble convincing my father to give me a night at our club for this. Finally broke my father down by telling him I’d be happy to take a Tuesday or Monday night. Tuesday night, typically a lousy club night, is what I finally got. Meanwhile, now I’m still working on GMF, telling him maybe I could get him $50 for the night, and he’s not at all impressed.
Paraphrasing him, he’d be like “$50?! I get like $500 per show!” I responded that may be the case but that was maybe once every couple/few months. I was offering him a weekly gig, and a great chance to be discovered. Explained that if we were able to blow the night up, he’d get more. He responded that he’d have to bring in his Furious Five and I’d have to pay them, too. I said he’d have to pay them out of the money I was giving him (chuckle). Eventually it worked out and we began. We charged $1.00 to get in and $1 to drink, ladies were in free. That’s the prices back then – we’re into 1977/1978 now. Cheap paper flyers were handed out for about a week to promote the opening night, and even we were wowed as somewhere along the lines of 600 people showed up, mind you, this is on a Tuesday. It really snowballed from there, we didn’t have to do much else, and hundreds of people would show each Tuesday night.. My father was impressed enough that he gave me another night for it. I finally convinced my father to hand it all over to me, having all the best known dj’s coming in so you could hear hiphop/rap EVERY night at the club.
OIM: It seems this turned out to be one of many firsts for you – taking underground music and bringing it to the masses via your club. Right there, quite an accomplishment. Did you specifically have in your mind the idea to do this? Did you just “know” that “rap” was going to be big, so you just wanted to get in on the ground floor? As you mentioned above, by 1979, you had a resume of dj’s at your club that could only be deemed as “the forefathers” of rap.
SAL: Well, I wasn’t in the music business at the time, so I wasn’t thinking in terms of records and such. I did have a strong feeling it would be big just as quickly as we turned the club into a hugely successful rap outlet. I did have a sense of déjà vu, as not too long before that, I saw disco up and coming and put up one of the first discos on the block in the earliest of the 1970’s when I was working behind the bar for my father. I don’t know, for a white guy, I always really liked “urban” music. MOTOWN was my favorite record label! It was a strange dichotomy because while I did grow up in a white neighborhood, my father always owned clubs that catered to the black demographic. I also really liked playing basketball, but ending up at 5’7”, I figured my dreams of becoming an NBA all-star would go unrealized (chuckle).
I did end up having basically two lives – my regular hang out life with my white friends, and then the life I made with my black friends. So, I’d wear my “bellbottoms” when I was with my white friends, and my “playboys” when I was hanging out with the guys “from the hood”. Honestly, I was really more “urban” – I really didn’t even like rock and roll. I went to Catholic Schools in the Bronx my whole life (Immaculate Conception Grammar School and All Hallow’s High School, respectively), so that even added more color and contrast to my two identities (chuckle). Meanwhile, I played a lot A LOT of basketball, basically every day. So at that point, anyone who was anyone or who was going to become anyone in the rap/hip hop industry was either playing at the club or hanging out at the club. At this point, I also came up with the whole “open mic night” idea, as the dj would be doing his thing and then he’d pass the mic down to someone in the crowd. Just like in the movie “Krush Groove” – you’ve seen it, right? At the end of the movie where everyone is rapping under the dj booth by the bar? That was really done at “The Fever” and that’s really what used to happen. There were no battles or anything at that point, just whoever wanted 15 minutes of fame, they’d prepare with their rhymes and stuff and anyone who really wanted the spotlight would get it.
OIM: Having befriended Russell Simmons who was already using his DefJamRecordings to get “rap” out to the masses himself, he managed to convince you to start your own record label, “Fever Records”. That sounds like an interesting story waiting to be heard – what brought that on in 1982?
SAL: Yeah, Russell was a kid at the club. No, (chuckles) he never wanted to be a rapper, he wanted to be a producer/manager type for the rap, always. Yes, it was about 1982, and the one thing I had done at that point is put out “Heartbeat Rap” on West End records, at which point he started discussing with me the possibility of bringing about my own record label, which I ended up doing with SweetG who was now managing the club for me. By then the club was doing an amazing business, and the crazy thing was that almost every week, business people were coming over from Europe, even Asia, to try to convince me to let them open up “The Fever” in their part of the world.
I wasn’t interested. I was very into my club and then getting Fever Records started. All I still wanted to do was play basketball – I didn’t want to work any harder than I had to (chuckle). But the one thing I was enthusiastic about was getting involved in the community, trying to give back, and it was a pet peeve of mine. I started telling all the rappers how important this was, and they were more than happy to oblige. So somewhere around ’79 we started a basketball league, and then we were doing benefits for the UnitedNegroCollegeFund, as well as for the boyscouts, girlscouts…… We did a lot of stuff in the neighborhood. For the holidays, including Easter, we’d have parties for the kids, it was important and we enjoyed doing it.
OIM: What is that made you feel so strongly about trying to help out with the neighborhood? Was this something your family instilled in you?
SAL: Actually to some degree, yes. My grandfather had done a lot of that in the neighborhood. He was actually born in the Bronx to immigrant parents, my great grandparents, but I never really got to know him because he died when I was very very young. But I remember hearing the stories of how he’d have blockparties all the time and I guess they impressed me so much that I felt the need, and perhaps the desire as well, to do the same thing. My dad was also a pretty generous guy, though perhaps not necessarily on that larger scale.
OIM: Getting your first taste of the technical side of things, you had KurtisBlow and one JellyBean Benitez (who had really been starting to make a name for himself at that point) producing for you. Artist “Sweet G” will go down in the books as the first “Fever Records” artist. What many people might not realize is the fact that you actually co-wrote “Games People Play”. Did you even know you had that kind of creativity within yourself? And as the story goes, NY dance stations found this at the top of their singles list.
SAL: Yeah, we’re following the timeline pretty well. That would have been in 1983, after Russell, as a friend, got me into discussions about starting my own label. I mean, Russell was at the club EVERY NIGHT, as would be Kurtis Blow. Quite frankly, there were times that people would actually be living in the club. They’d fallen on hard times or the family situation would be so bad. That came about because I just came across so many people who didn’t have a family, couldn’t really go to their friends who were maybe having enough trouble trying to keep their head above water. We’d all chip in and give them money, when I could I’d give them jobs. Sometimes someone would pass away in the neighborhood and their families couldn’t really afford to bury them, so we’d take up collections. Maybe we’d charge $2 to get in and half would go towards those who needed it. It was easy to do, and was the right thing to do at that point since the club had been getting so, well, “powerful” I want to say. It wasn’t easy getting accepted as one of the only white people around. Needless to say, they figured I must have an angle, but bit by bit, I broke the walls down and they really started to trust me. Keep in mind the only white people left in the neighborhood at this point was maybe a few of the storeowners who’d been there forever. At that point the neighborhood was pure black, and then the Hispanics began coming in as well.
OIM: You were so busy and so involved in so many things. Even your philanthropical pursuits at that point, you were young to have such a penchant for wanting to help out the community.
SAL: Well, (chuckle), when you’re relatively young, no kids and single, (chuckle) you have a lot of time on your hands. As for the basketball, even at 18 and 19 I’d be coaching kids’ basketball. Especially the kids. Whenever I could help a kid out, that’s all I wanted to do because they are the ones who have so little power over most of the lousy situations they may be put into. Keep in mind again the drinking age was only 18 and it was very easy for 16 and 17 year olds to slip through. So yes, I kept being surrounded by adolescents, kids just trying to find their way, and I felt it was important to try to help, not to mention the satisfaction you get from such a thing. I think that is what helped me, and still does, to stay grounded. I was well-aware of how good my life was at that point. I’m in my late 20’s and living large – then I saw how some of these other people, the kids who hadn’t even had a chance yet, were living, and I was in a good place on my own at that time, it was only natural to trickle it down.
OIM: Keeping busy, you had married in 1980 and started having children a few years later. Meanwhile, Sweet G was actually first artist to come out on Fever Records circa 1982 in this same time frame.
SAL: Yes, that is how it went. They didn’t actually want to make the record though. Kurtis Blow had produced and was writing with some of the guys at the club who used to do his stuff. Then I had another place, an “after hours” called “Games People Play”. It had Blackjack, Poker, slot machines – you know, gambling, just a few blocks away from “The Fever”. It was absolutely illegal (chuckle), but the way that came about was because there was a gangster in the neighborhood who was really, I mean REALLY turning bad, so it wasn’t really illegal to him (chuckle). I was just trying to get him to turn his pursuits to a more positive influence. There is a method to my madness there. Being buddies with him and trying to help him out, people were aware of our connection, and weren’t going to screw around with me, you know what I mean? So one night, or should I say early morning, I was hanging out at GPP, having a good time, smoking and in a really good mood. On the spot there, inspiration came to me in the form of a song that was entitled, if you can guess, “Games People Play”. Makes sense, (chuckle), right? Well, then forget it, not even Sweet G was interested in doing a song by a white guy, and they told me so straight up. However, one of the writers heard it, showed it to Kurtis, and they loved it. Sweet G and I were then able to convince them to let him be the artist. So, Sweet G, community service guy by day and dj by night, sang it, I wrote it, Russell pushed me along with Fever Records, and there you had our record label first. Surprising the hell out of all of us, the song became a hit and went to number one on all major NY dance stations at the same time. Meanwhile, the idea of being a writer had never even been in my head, so again, just one of those crazy things. I guess that may have to do with me, though. I do like to try new things, and with some of the smaller accomplishments, once I knew I could do it, I would just move on to the next thing. But honestly, the funny part about this is me. All I ever wanted to do was just hang out, play basketball and party. If I could have just a few dollars in my pocket at the same time, so much the better – take a bunch of friends out to dinner or whatever.
OIM: But 1983 found you with another “first”: “Skate Fever” (yeah, we all laugh now, but back then, it was THE big thing) was a roller skating arena which imbibed a nightclub atmosphere. You weren’t stopping there, either. During the day, you made use of SkateFever as a recreation center, wanting to give back to the Bronx community. How did you get involved with The Macomb's Youth Association? This was also your first foray into beautifying the surroundings, as through the Youth Association, you helped restore a City Park. You even won an award for this philanthropic endeavor, the first of many recognitions for your community involvement.
SAL: Skate Fever opened up in a fairly run down part of the Bronx, but my father and I were doing great with our clubs and he scoped out the spot – it was a closed down skating rink, because even at that point, skating was really on its way out already, mostly due to an extremely unfortunate shooting incident. My father asked if he thought we could do something with it, and I had this slightly off idea. It had two levels, so why not put a dance club downstairs while keeping the skating rink available. It was an interesting concept to me, people being able to drop their kids off to hang out and skate, then they could go downstairs and have some adult entertainment at the same time. Here’s the funny thing – there was a sliding part in the building, about 40 feet worth. So we made it so that you could be at the skating rink, and if you wanted, slide down to the club below. We even had a video so that if you were downstairs, you could keep an eye on your kids. That actually turned out to be very popular! Right across the street from Skate Fever was a really rundown park – drugdealers, junkies, you know. Needless to say, parents forbid their kids to go near there. Well, that wasn’t even fair, plus it had a basketball court that had, needless to say, fallen into disrepair. We gathered up a bunch of street guys who wanted to help out as well, and we kicked all the bad guys out and started cleaning the place up. We got a lot of involvement which is what helped – from WBLS (“Mr. Magic”), as well as Kurtis Blow, Run DMC, most of the acts actually got involved. We raised money and fixed the whole park up. I was, however, still meeting resistance from many people in the community, not trusting this white guy. They kept asking “what is your underlying reason for all this” and I kept responding I really didn’t have much, but the only way you’ll know for sure is if you let us do it and help us. You know, I told them the kids should have a clean safe park, and of course, the fact that I personally loved basketball! The name of the street across the way where most of the kids lived was “Macomb” so that’s where it all came from, inspiring the people in the neighborhood so they didn’t have to feel so hopeless. During the day they used Skate Fever for parties – there were actually class trips to Skate Fever! I’d let the people in the neighborhood who were now wanting to do all they could for their neighborhood use the place as their office and all that. Again, it seemed a natural extension of everything at that point. I never was a political person at all, and never ever bothered to try to get the local politicians involved in any of it. We’d just get the idea and do what we felt needed to be done. Quite frankly, in the South Bronx, nobody gave a sh--, and neither was I administratively-inclined to start petitions and write letters.
OIM: 1984 and 1985 found you further involved in the hip hop/rap movement. From talent contests where “The Fat Boys” launched their career, to your club being the main backdrop for the movie “KrushGroove” – where art imitated life as you played a fictional character not far from your own real-life personality! Did you ever, at this time, get the chance to look around and say “Wow, I am making history here!” That’s to say, did it ever seem somehow overwhelming to you, or bit by bit, did you find yourself taking it all in stride as it was simply one step to the next?
SAL: Actually, I started the talent contests in the early 1980’s, and yes, the Fat Boys were one group of many to be discovered at “The Fever”. Yes, I did get to basically play myself in that movie. I think I got like 8-10 scenes, and the fun part is that basically everyone in the movie was playing themselves and we were all not really doing anything different from what we usually did! It should probably be in the Guiness’ Book of Records for having the most people actually play themselves in a movie! We were all so busy just doing our thing, that we never really stopped to take a look around and realize we were doing anything particularly groundbreaking or special, we were so involved in our lives and the scene, that it did, just seem like the natural progressions. It was really an entire lifestyle. Much of it was new at the time, but some of it was carried over from my father. For instance, the people we knew best, if they hung around after the club had closed, my father would let them stay and drink for free until they were ready to walk home. I did the same thing – it’s just that there were many days people weren’t leaving until noon the next day (chuckle). Run DMC, the Fat Boys, The Beastie Boys, LLCool J, among others – they’d do their first shows there and in many cases would keep hanging around. At that point I had about 150 people working for me, most of them from the neighborhood. Aside from that, as mentioned above, I was always in motion, I didn’t like being still, even if I was just playing basketball – but I was always hands on with whatever I was pursuing at the moment. It was a busy time – in many cases I was employing people who needed to be trained, and I almost always did the training myself so they’d comply to the way I liked to do things. At this point I was also getting offers to open up clubs in Atlanta, DC, LA, but that seemed like too much work for me, to be honest. I liked keeping my eye on things and my hand in it.
OIM: By late in 1985, hip hop was indeed taking on a life of its own. Along with the good in this came what may be considered not so good. That’s to say, the forerunner to many of the clubs now opening and catering to the hiphoppers, you thought it was time to take things in a new direction. Again, we ask if this was a specific change of pace? Did you see this form of dance music “Latin hip hop” or what came to be later known as “freestyle” as “the next big thing”, or were you just trying something new and different?
SAL: Well, somewhere around 1985, it finally happened that I started having trouble, a problem in the street with a drug dealer. It was getting pretty bad as the guy tried to shake us down for money, and that is what really caused “The Fever” to end. The morale of the club started falling, and rap was getting so big that newer and larger clubs were bringing in the rap crowd. Seems the “mystique” of “The Fever” had ended; hey, we had a 10 year run 7 nights a week! People were starting to not want to deal with the crowd. We were actually one of the first clubs to install a metal detector. People started thinking I was crazy and must have some “lowlife” clubs, but I knew our country seemed to be getting more violent, and I wanted to try to help deter the violence. Think about it; whoever thought they’d have to install metal detectors in schools?
OIM: Your next step was to hook up with a 16 year old Latina named Nayobe who’d won another talent show at “The Fever”. This issue, however, is a hot topic. Many will say that while “Please Don’t Go” was THE first “Latin hip hop/freestyle” song, others will debate and say that happened with the 1984 release of Shannon’s “Let The Music Play” (which was then followed up with “Give Me Tonight”).
SAL: Yes, I was at a concert and a young producer who hadn’t produced anything yet, was there, Andy Panda. I was doing a show with Sweet G and DJ Starsky – I had this young girl named Nayobe who was maybe 15, 16 at the time, she’d lived around the corner from Skate Fever. As you said, she’d won a talent show at the club, and I thought she was a fantastic singer, so I’d brought her in to do some background vocals. This young kid, maybe 18 or 19, I don’t even know how he got backstage, was saying “Oh my God, I’ve got this record that would be perfect for this singer!” I was always willing to give someone a shot, so it’s like 8 on a Sunday night and we took a ride back to “The Fever”. We don’t know each other at all at this point, but we go in and play his little demo. It was really raw, like he must have done it at someone’s house, but the music, there was some disco sound to it, and I’d been into disco, but it also had a Latin feel to it, it was very different and my DJ’s were listening to it and thought it sounded pretty cool. With Fever Records, I put them both in the studio and we put something together.
I think halfway through the recording, “The Fever” closed, and there was a new scene coming along, as the Hispanics were coming up in numbers now. With my club closed up, but my father had opened up yet another one maybe 10 miles away on Tremont West. He made it into a Latin club, but again, the older hipsters – Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, you know, like that. I saw the new Hispanic wave, so I started doing some investigating again. Meanwhile, I’m making this new record with a Puerto Rican producer and a Cuban singer, no music like this was out yet. While my father seems to have the right idea with the Latin club, again, the older crowd isn’t as willing to go out as the younger crowd. So, just like with the rap, the new guy out on the streets whose name keeps popping up is Little Louie Vega, playing at Poe Park and a few other places, “The Fever” was still open, drawing its last breaths as I’m working on the record and the movie KRUSH GROOVE is still being filmed there. I was hoping that upon the movie’s release, it might give new life to “The Fever”. Unfortunately (chuckles), the movie came out about a month after they closed “The Fever”. In the end, the Consumer Affairs’ probed me for not having a “cabaret” license. There were these two politicians, and I don’t know, I was told maybe they were jealous of me – doing all the stuff in the community and not asking for their help, you know, so they made out that “The Fever” was bad for the community.
At the hearing, even though all the good came out, they still managed to turn it around and make like the club was violent and more trouble than it’s worth, that kind of thing. It’s unfortunate, because we were open 7 nights a week, but it got to the point where we were really dealing with a gang-oriented crowd, so yes, trouble did start brewing around this time, which is a good part of why I put the detectors in. At that point, there were other things going on, so it didn’t seem worth fighting for at that point. However, I like to focus on the fact that I feel we actually helped turned a lot of kids around – those who may have gone the way of the gangs and/or violence, and we helped get them out of that and away from it, on a better path. There would be lots of fights, and a lot of times, if it came to it, I’d even do the fighting, not have my bouncers take care of it. Yeah, I got my ass kicked a few times, no question, but then a lot of times I’d go back into the club with the guy and we’d have a drink together! If it were more serious, than obviously it would be handled a different way.
OIM: With the demise of “The Fever”, you saw Latin hip hop as the way to the future, therefore opened up a new club “The Devil’s Nest”, again, the first club to cater to this new type of music that was still considered “underground”, and a very small demographic at the time. There is no debate over the fact that you gave way for the future success of SEVERAL artists whose songs are now ALL considered the “classic freestyle”. Some of who are still out there today and with whom you still, in fact, work on occasion. What was it that so grabbed your attention with this kind of music that made you start dedicating as much time to it as you did?
SAL: Yes, this time around I was much more aware of it, of the possibilities with this new Latin type music. Where as the first time around, I wasn’t really seeing the “big picture”, this time I was. I found Little Louie Vega, got him to come indoors and “The Devil’s Nest” is brought to fruition. None of the so called “freestyle” artists were out yet – not on the radio, not even in the clubs, I started bringing it into the clubs because again, it started from the streets and I was trying to help it work its way up. In 1986, I started having auditions at The Devil’s Nest, and that’s from where the Cover Girls came. The record came out in 1987, though. I feel very strongly that I developed “rap” and then developed “Latin Freestyle” in my clubs with the people who helped bring it to my attention. In both cases, the music became popular first in my clubs, and then records started coming out – the airplay and all that. With the freestyle, Andy Panda made a record called “Please Don’t Go” sang by Nayobe and put it on my label – a disco feel with a Latin sound, and that is how it was developed and started being put on records. When “Please Don’t Go” came out, it blew up like you wouldn’t believe – and the Latins started making the scene in all forms, ala Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, remember “Conga” (upon which he starts humming the tune, then chuckles). The problem is that as popular it became as I brought it into the club, then put it on record, it didn’t start getting the airplay until about a year later.
OIM: By the time 1987 rolled around, you were out of the club-owner scene as you decided to dedicate more time to “Fever Records”. Herewith started a long collaboration with “The Cover Girls” that bought both you and they much success through the early 1990’s
SAL: Yes, that was great. The Cover Girls came out with “Show Me” and it blew up immediately. Unfortunately, it was also around this time that the drinking age went from 18 to 19, and then almost immediately, it went up to 21. Now I’m tapped – the artists I discovered – Information Society, TKA, India, they were all doing their first shows at The Devil’s Nest, and on Fridays, I’d do rap. With that, maybe two months later, the club goes out of business. Part of that was a club opening up in Manhattan where they were keeping it 18 and over, but I was keeping the liquor, so what they did was make a juice bar called “Heartthrobs” to cater to the crowd that had just gotten lost in the shuffle, the 18-20 kids. They offered Little Louie like $1000 a night, and at that point, I couldn’t compete with that salary, so I gave him my blessings and he went and became very well-known and sought after. I think the fact that the drinking age became 21 is a major problem to overcome – without the teens, the TEENS, you won’t be developing any new music. ALL new music scenes start with the teen movement, and once you remove that factor, it becomes that much more difficult.
OIM: With your family growing and so much happening, in 1988 you also delved into club and concert promoting, and found yourself yet another niche within which to work and grow, successfully. You, in fact, became perhaps one of the most sought-after promoters in the area of NY and its neighbors, which is what kept you more than busy through the early 1990’s. However, you then saw that freestyle was somehow losing its edge and went back to hiphop/r&b: At this point, you went back to your roots and opened up two clubs again in the early 1990’s with your partner, John "Gungi" Rivera - “Club 2000” and “The Fever 2”: was this purely a business decision, or was there something else going on that turned you in this direction again?
SAL: I’ve got Andy Panda working with me and The Cover Girls are doing great, then I get a call to start promoting. I took another turn at that point, and I was working for “The Palladium”, “Studio 54”, “Roseland”, I became the weekly promoter, and worked with a lot of the biggest clubs, the ones that held 4 or 5000 people. Working mostly with the Latin artists at this point, sometimes we’d have birthday parties for the artists and I’d make them partners for the night, going 50-50 with them, and we did very well monetarily with that. Yeah, it was a very busy time – we were on fire. If they weren’t on my record label, I was managing them, if I wasn’t managing them, I was booking them. We were on a hell of a roll.
OIM: From 1994 through 1999, you had a big hand in signing many a rising star, and collaborated with several different people in various areas of the industry. Perhaps this would be the time to ask: Of all the various aspects of the music business with which you’ve been involved, from club owning, writing, managing, promoting, etc., what do you find the easiest? The hardest? The most challenging and/or the most fun?
SAL: My father and I were still developing clubs, too, and the “Fever II” came around – I don’t talk much about that club, but even Wu-Tang was discovered there. Biggie Smalls, Fat Joe – I was even Fat Joe’s first manager! Then there were the DJ’s who started with me – Funkmaster Flex, DJ Scribbles (who started as a hip hop dj), Tony Touch and Du Wop. They are like the four premier djs in the state right now. In this time period I had a couple more clubs, too: Exo and Downtime. I was still trying to put out some freestyle too, but it just wasn’t happening. Fat Joe and I did well, we got his first record out and played, but then we parted ways because he wasn’t happy with his record label. Part of me was waiting for the new Latin promoter to step up to the plate, because I wanted to be there with the newer Latin sound, and I’m waiting through the years (chuckle) and, STILL waiting. Hip hop took over the world, so I was still waiting, and I still am (chuckles). I do enjoy keeping my hand in it, though. I still like to book them, and I’ll do ski trips, to keep all of our hands in it still. I saw that some of the artists started catering to the Spanish language crowd, so started a label with JellyBean Benitez, “Fever/Hola”; I gave him Angel Civiles, the lead singer of the Cover Girls, Jorge Luis and another artist named Julia.
Also came out with an artist named Luis Damon., unfortunately (chuckles) “hola” went out of business and never developed. Of all the areas I’ve been involved with, I feel the most rewarding is the promoting because you get to deal with people, and when you’re having a good party is great to seeing everyone enjoying themselves – I find that satisfying, and meeting new people. I mean, I’ve been doing this so long that I am now meeting the children of my first customers – I’ve been around like 33 years now! I was at my club “The Casbah” the other night, and somehow or another, “The Devil’s Nest” got mentioned, it’s been like 17 years mind you, and wow, the place went crazy! It’s a pretty big thrill to still have so many of the same people around me, and their kids, from so long ago. As for the worst part, that would have to be the management and the record business. It seems like with that you never get the glory with it, only the blame when things don’t go right! When someone becomes a star (and remember, we took them and developed them, no one knew who they were back then), and the moment they hit, the first thought flitting through their head is “leave him”. If they flop, what goes through is “Oh, it must be HIS fault” (chuckles). Either you lose them to stardom or they blame you for their failures.
OIM: The year 2000 bought us one big party in your honor! It’s October, 2000 at Club Exit in NYC, and here you have hundreds of notables from every aspect of the industry. While Ivan Diller of DMA Magazine did an excellent write up on that gathering, the angle we’re looking for here is the emotions, the thoughts running through your mind as your own history was basically being paraded before you on stage?
SAL: Yeah, that was a great party. Going through my head, aside from just enjoying as I took it all in, was basically how I've known these people since they were kids, before anything, and wow, they have kids of their own, and I saw that they seemed to realize a lot more behind what we did for them back then, the decisions we made and why we did things the way we did. I felt good, as talking to them it seemed they appreciated me a lot more in hindsight than they may have at the time. They sang and that’s where they shone – they perhaps didn’t fully realize all the work that went behind that, the stuff we did to get them to that point. Keeping in mind most of the artists back then were purely singers – except for maybe 5-10 % of them who write and/or produce. In many cases they had co-writers.
OIM: This leads us to the next question which is to say is there any one particular incident/memory that you hold the closest to you? We could actually go wild with questions in this area, but we are aware of the fact that writer Carol Cooper approached you in 2001 with the proposal of a book regarding you and all you’ve done. We would ask how that is going and if there is any possible publishing date?
SAL: One of the first moments I hold dear is when we started the Entertainers Basketball League. The first game was at Morris Park and there were maybe 3000 people there, and I’m like the only white person in the park. My team was playing SugarHill Records, and we were losing by about 15 points, maybe 7 minutes left on the clock. Nobody really knew I could play – the coach was my bouncer and he wouldn’t let me in! I politely told him if he didn’t put me in the game, I was going to have to fire him (chuckles). So he finally puts me in the game, and I believe in miracles, because one happened. I was on fire and I swear to God, I scored the last 16 points. Meanwhile, I’m 5’7” and playing with guys who are 6’ and more. I literally got the last shot at the buzzer to give us that last point which made us win. No one could believe it, not even me! But my whole team, they lifted me up on their shoulders in front of like 3000 people, and my mind was just in a jumble, and I’m thinking “Oh My God, if there’s a sniper on the roof, he’s got the perfect shot!” (chuckles). The second best moment was at Radio City Music Hall when we did a contest – a scene in Krush Groove where the Fat Boys win the contest – that had happened in real life!
We developed a free concert and they gave me 1500 tickets and we pulled off a free show for thousands of urban kids getting in for free, and when they announced my name as one of the judges, the place roared so loud! And I just looked up, and got a tear in my eye, and I’ll never forget it. That was a great day, a great day. As for the basketball game, I really feel that is the day I got accepted into their community. Believe me, it took a lot, and I mean A LOT, to get them to trust me, so that was just amazing – it was pretty cool. As for the book by Carol Cooper, I don’t know, we started writing it and I haven’t heard from her lately. My life has led me down different paths, but it’s as if I’ve had one life within the black community, one within the Hispanic community and within the white community. I really feel like one of the luckiest people in the world.
OIM: No one can dispute that the music industry has changed dramatically over the years. As someone who has had perhaps a wider perspective, what do you feel have been the most profound changes? The 80’s might be the new CD format, the 90’s might be boy/girl bands and hip hop and 2000-present the downloading issues and corporate monopolies. What are your thoughts?
SAL: Hmmm, I guess I think the biggest change is that, well back in the day when we did music, the record companies and their people were constantly in the clubs, checking out the scene, listening to the sound, and even the artists they would always perform in the clubs. I always used to test my records at the club, to see what kind of response it was getting. Now, you can rarely get a new artist in the club. Everyone who gets a record today goes from nobody to like 15000 a show, and that is killing the business. You cannot see someone like JaRule, Ashanti, Nelly, Destiny’s Child, just to name a few. You cannot find them at a club. In my opinion, the club-goers are the record buyers, and if you don’t perform to them, you’re not going to do nearly as well as you should. I mean let’s face it, people our age aren’t exactly going to concerts. We’re more likely to go to a club once in a while to see a performance. It’s like all they want are the big 20,000 people show, and they’re not really getting it. And don’t even get me started on the pirating issues. The music industry is falling right into the Stock Market. It got built all the way up, and now the balloon is popping. Come on, the price of cds at this point, $20 a pop? A lot of these kids have enough for one, so that’s what they’re going to buy, and they will pirate the rest.
OIM: As someone who has always had the "ear" to the streets to make things happen, are you seeing anything popping up new or exciting from your view that would make you want to become more active as a frontrunner of trends again?
SAL: The next trend? It’s going to come and blow up is when some kid steps up to the plate and brings us all a new sound – something different. Eventually it’ll come around and it’ll be “the next big thing” for 5 or 10 years. Rap? I don’t know – we went through the party rap, then gangsta rap, now we’re back to the party rap seems to keep going round in a circle, sort of like fashion. I feel like clubs are dying, that “lounges” are coming in. That is, in fact, how I am promoting at this point. I’m going with smaller venues now. Any new clubs, even coming into the New York area, I think they’ll have troubles, no matter how huge they are. Right now I also find the biggest promotions are “teen nights”. It’s so expensive to go out nowadays, too. It’s like the parents are giving their kids the money to go out, so they end up having to stay home anyway (chuckle).
OIM: Having picked up on both the rap/hip hop tip and run with it, as well as the dance tip, why do you suppose that the dance community, which you helped develop, was unable to keep the loyal following the hip hop artists have? All these years later, we often see the established freestyle acts performing at clubs, but don’t necessarily get to see any of the newer "dance" artists (i.e. Amber, Diana Fox, Nicole McCloud), showcased or mixed in at these shows. Can you explain this from the p.o.v. of an experienced club owner?
SAL: I think it could all get turned around a bit if we get acts in the club. I used to have people to book like you wouldn’t believe – that’s when the clubs were flourishing. I know the club scene is much more about the DJ’s taking over now. Why were the DJ’s able to become such a force? Because you can’t get newer acts into the clubs! Goes back to what I said before – they want the big venues, not the smaller ones where they can connect with the fans. As to why they don’t mix in the older with the new so much? Maybe older people aren’t all that interested in seeing an Eyra Gail or a Reina. On the other hand, the 19 year olds don’t really want to see the older artists. You can’t really please an entire crowd – you’re either going for one demographic or another. The record label owners, the people who want to produce, they have to take it back to the streets and find a kid to groom and bring into the spotlight. A lot of the older artists, especially the freestyle ones – they were making so much money when they were so young, they were working so hard, they never got the chance to go to school and maybe learn more about the behind-the-scenes jobs. Some know enough about this or that, but it’s not what they’re used to they want to perform. But what happened is this false sense of positivity for some of the older artists, they’re in their 30’s and beyond now, friggin’ KTU comes along and starts playing old freestyle and rap again and what happens?
They get a gig here or a gig there, but not enough to make a career, but these artists, they’re thinking maybe they can do it again. I know most of them have day jobs, and that’s great, the ones who still consider this their career, any of the older music here, that’s where I feel they’re in trouble.
OIM: We understand that FREESTYLE DIVAS VOL. 2 is scheduled for a 2003 Release, again mixed by KTU's Johnny Budz. What is it about the female freestyle singers that encourages you to come out with com-pilations for them, but not necessarily the males in the genre?
SAL: Yes, I put out new compilations of my older stuff. The reason I bank on the female singers more is because there’s more material from the ladies than the fellaz. BUT, the next compilation is going to be “Freestyle Divas AND Dons”. Ok, between you and me, what I did was get some of the classic freestyle acts and actually had them re-record their most popular songs.
OIM: While you still run “Fever Records”, your main focus seems to be your clubs “The Wild Palm” and “The Casbah”. Is this to say you’ve gone into some sort of semi-retirement? Looking for a bit more relaxation? What is on the horizon for Mr. Sal Abbatiello?
SAL: Yes, I went back to the Bronx and I feel very comfortable there. I’m just treading water, man. I’m just treading water to get closer to getting out of this sh.---(chuckle). I tell you what, though, Russell Simmons is making a movie about “The Fever” and my life story. We’re not sure if it’s going to be a climactic ending or a new beginning (chuckle). The movie will be much different from the book, though. It has to be, because you can more easily write all the little details and all the little things in a book than you can show in a movie. The movie will more focus on DJ Junebug and I, and how he got murdered. You know what it is, it’s time for me to slow down. I’m really into my kids, into my family. Being involved with school and their activities – I coach little league and BASKETBALL, of course. As a matter of fact, (chuckle) that’s what I’m doing right after the interview!