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Tunnel Vision

Hip-hop's ground zero is "thug paradise."

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On a rainy sunday night in April, young black men are lining up at the Tunnel's metal detector, outfitted in typical hip-hop-wear: Mecca hats, Avirex jackets, FUBU jeans, and . . . white socks. White socks? Has hip-hop gone sock-hop?

Not exactly. Welcome to New York's hardest of hard-core hip-hop parties, where shoes are inspected for drugs and weapons, ballpoint pens are contraband, and fights decide hit records. "It's thug paradise in here," says D.J. Cipha Sounds, who, along with Funkmaster Flex, provides the Tunnel's soundtrack on Sunday nights. "This is the toughest crowd in the world. The Tunnel is like boot camp for D.J.'s."

It serves as a kind of boot camp for the hip-hop industry too. "Music-industry executives go to the Tunnel to play catch-up with the streets," says Gabrielle Peluso, a publicist at Def Jam Records. The Tunnel's street-cred stamp is invaluable to multi-platinum artists like Nas, Puff Daddy, and Method Man. The gritty black-and-white clip for DMX's "Get At Me Dog" was shot here in February 1997; soon after, the rapper's CD It's Dark and Hell Is Hot debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, effectively ending the Puff Daddy-dominated "jiggy" era and paving the way for the crossover success of street rhymers like Noreaga (whose "Superthug" is a Tunnel anthem) and Jay-Z (whose "Money, Cash, Hoes" dictum is spray-painted on a banner at the club).

"This is the Apollo, but on a hip-hop level," boasts Born True, of Flex's Big Dawg street team, looking combat-ready in his head-to-toe olive drab. Most promoters spurn the kind of crowd the Tunnel pulls in, which in many ways is a throwback to the days of rough-and-tumble B-boy nightspots like Union Square and the Latin Quarter. Even the ordinarily affable Funkmaster Flex seems sinister in these environs: He cues up TLC's take-no-shit anthem "No Scrubs" and then, a few seconds later, stops the record and angrily shouts into the mike, "Where my niggas who don't give a fuck about a broke bitch?" The crowd roars its approval, and Flex spins "Pigeon," a misogynist answer record by Sporty Thievz. (There are only a few women present -- and this is ladies' night, when the first 500 are admitted free. Those who brave the scene are often groped or, in a kind of clubland version of whirlpooling, bounced between men.)

Tonight, Nas's single "Hate Me Now" is eliciting the kind of drink-tossing, shoving matches, and outright fistfights that first greeted Juvenile's hit "Ha" months ago."If a fight breaks out to a record," says Sounds, "you know you've got a hit on your hands.


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