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How Grandmaster Flash Started Playing at Disco Fever

By Alec Banks

Story time with Sal is an ongoing series with Sal Abbatiello about Hip-Hop history you've never heard before. In honor of All City Week Bronx, we give you Sal's Grandmaster Flash story in his own words. 

I want to tell you my journey about how I went from the Italian neighborhood to the South Bronx and how I went from disco to Hip-Hop.

It was in 1976/1977. My dad had a place uptownon Gun Hill Road and Boston Post Road called the Abbat's Golden Hour. Our last name is Abbatiello, but we cut it short using "Abbat: because of my uncle who was a great guitar player and he used the name Sonny Abbat, so we all used it as Abbat. I worked there as a bartender who also dabbled in playing disco music. But I was really into R&B and the movies like Shaft and Super Fly.

We'd get off at 4:00 in the morning. I'd go down to the South Bronx on 167th Street, Jerome Avenue, and I would go up into the Disco Fever which we also owned.  It was down the block from another club we owned, Pepper-n-Salt, which was on 167th Street but two blocks up.

It would be about 5:00/5:30 in the morning, and the Disco Fever still had a crowd in it because in the South Bronx, anything went. The police didn't come in, nobody bothered us, nobody got tickets. As long as there was no trouble, we could operate until 6:00/7:00 in the morning.

There was a white DJ that would open up, and after about 4:30/5:00, he wanted to go home. There was this guy named Sweet G — his real name was George Godfrey — who was guidance counselor that wanted to be a DJ in his spare time. When the white DJ wanted to go home early, he would make Sweet G take over until 6:00/7:00 in the morning.

Sweet G didn't even get paid, he just did it because he loved it.

He gets up and starts DJing while I'm sitting at the bar drinking. All of a sudden, he starts doing rhymes ‚ like nursery rhymes —  and the crowd is chanting back and forth.

"Say Ho!" "Ho!" "Throw your hands up in the air, wave them like you just don't care! If you hear the C, Sweet G, somebody say oh yeah." And I'm like, "Oh, damn!"

I'm sitting in the back watching the crowd enjoying it, responding, and how they were interacting with the DJ.

Sal Abbatiello Disco Fever

Credits to: Getty Images

Back in the day when the discos were open, you couldn't even have a mic in the DJ booth. You couldn't even talk; it was all about blending the music back and forth, so that people could do the hustle. But here, this was crowd response. This was people getting involved with what the DJ was doing and playing and saying. Now, you might have a drug dealer at the bar, a teacher, a regular person, a police officer.And all of a sudden, the place becomes one person. They become like this one unit all responding. And it gave everybody an opportunity to talk with each other, to interact, to look at each other and smile, because if you didn't have that interaction, who were you to look at somebody at the bar? You might get beat up or get wasted.

I went up to the DJ booth after because I was so intrigued that the entire place was involved with what he was doing. I said, "G, what is this? What do you call this?" He goes, "Yo, this is like MC'ing, it's like rapping." I go, "Well, where can we see this?" I said, "Look at the crowd, they loved it." I said, "Oh, is there other people that do it? Where could I go see this?"

He said, "Well, we could go into the streets, into the parks, that's where everybody is now. All the kids that are coming up, like Kool Herc, Lovebug Starski and DJ Hollywood, and a bunch of others. I said, "Well, who's the main guy everybody wants to see?" He goes, "I keep hearing Grandmaster Flash. Grandmaster Flash is the man that's going to tear it up and bring in the crowd." I said, "Come on."

We went to one of the parks where Flash was playing in the afternoon. They always have a schoolyard party in the South Bronx. I didn't want to go over yet.

I'm watching this guy. He's doing the turntables, he's spinning back and forth. He's turning around, he's doing his back, and he's flipping the slider, the mixer back and forth with his elbows. I mean, the guy's like an entertainer. It's like he's on stage, and the crowd is going off. And then he had these MCs called the Furious Five and they would get up on the mic and they would do their rapping and their crowd response and their MC'ing. And this just intrigued me. I said, "Oh my God, this is going to be the new thing! This was going to be the next movement in the South Bronx, these are the children of the R&B crowd, the Motown crowd, the jazz crowd. This is going to be the next movement."

I went up to Flash and I said, "Hi Flash, my name's Sal Abbatiello. Listen, I got this club uptown called Disco Fever, and we're looking to start a night like this, one of these MC nights, one of these hosting nights." And he said like, "Yeah, man, I don't know, I'm not interested. What's the name of the place?" I said, "Disco Fever." He says, "Disco Fever? I don't play no disco." I go, "No, no, no, that's the name of the club." I said, "Because disco's out. But I want you to come in and do what you do. I want you to scratch, I want you to mix back and forth. I want you to bring your MCs in the club. And I want to bring in a younger crowd."

 Back then the drinking age was only 18, which means all the high school kids would get to sneak in, and we were getting towards the summer when school was going to be out.

I went back to my dad and said, "Dad, I want to bring this new music into the club on a night." And he said, "Nah, man, I heard about that music. They talk over the music. They throw the mic down. They copy everybody's music. They talk, they don't sing. They scratch on everybody else's records. They don't have their own sound." I go, "Dad, that's the movement. That's the new sound. That's what's happening right now in the street." He was like, "Nah, I'm not interested." I said, "Look, give me one night, come on, I'm telling you. I'll pack the place, I'll turn this whole club around and make it be packed every night. Just give me one night."

He goes, "All right, I'm going to give you a Tuesday." I go, "A Tuesday? What are we going to do on a Tuesday night?" He goes, "That's it. You get a Tuesday night, make it work or not."

I run back the next day to go meet Grandmaster Flash, because I told him I'd meet him after I speak to my father. I said, "Look, Flash, I could get us into the club, your own night where you could showcase the music, where people could come see you from all over,  because ain't anybody isn't going to go down. Record executives, they're going to go down to Harlem or in the South Bronx and to parks. They'll come up to a club, though, that has security, and that's run properly with a great sound system. I said, "I got the best sound system in New York."

Finally I said, "Look, Flash, I'm telling you, I'll make you a star if you come in. You will become a star, you'll get discovered out of the club."

So now he's getting interested. "How much is the pay?" "I'll give you $150. $75 for you and 75 for the Furious Five." He said, "What, are you crazy? I ain't playing for that money." I said, "Look, this ain't about money. I'm not even open. We're going to only charge $1 to get in. We're going to charge a dollar a drink." I said, "Why don't you just give it a shot? One night." I said, "I'll do the promotion, you come DJ." He agrees. I run back. I make flyers up myself. I print up about 5,000 flyers, and I'm handing them out all over the street. Me, Sweet G, all the guys that work at the club, the busboys and everybody. It's unbelievable.

So the night comes. We're opening up at 9:00. I go downstairs at 7:00, I look down the block, the line is down the block already and it's only 7:00! We ain't going to open till 8:00 or 9:00. Wow, this was crazy. Sweet G is the manager, I'm running the door. I got one cashier, I got one bartender and Flash is in the DJ booth.

And what happens? A thousand people show up. Complete chaos. There's no cell phones, there's no beepers. I'm on the payphone and I'm calling my father up, I'm calling the other club. "Send people down to help us! Send people down."

Anyway, long story short, we do 1,000 people. The club is off the hook, it is successful, and this is the beginning of hip hop at the Disco Fever. 1,000 people, with Grandmaster Flash and the Disco Fever, and Sweet G. And man, from there on, it went seven nights a week, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and the rest is history. Hip-Hop forever.