By JULIAN NAZAR
“It’s me, Killer Chuck – the best MC in the Bronx – that’s the place! Tonight is the night – move and groove! It’s also the night we say, ‘Thank you, Ruben!’”
US Senator and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s rap intro was one of many notable sights and sounds presented to viewers at a recent show at Jerome Park’s Lehman Center for the Performing Arts.
On Saturday, April 30, nearly all of the 2,276 seats at the Lehman Center were taken for “Hip-Hop Fever,” a hip-hop show starring former Bronx Borough President Ruben Díaz Jr., now Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Montefiore Health System. A video honoring BronxNet and Fever Records President Sal Abbatiello played during the show to recognize the former county president’s contributions to the hip-hop community and his support of the arts at the Lehman Center.
Eva Bornstein, executive director of the center, presented Diaz Jr. with a plaque, while Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Schumer accompanied the former borough president onstage for the presentation.
Speakers on the night of the Hip Hop Fever concert highlighted this while serving as district president, as reported by at the time Norwood Newshelped Díaz Jr. secure over $15 million for the 2017 renovation of the Lehman Center, a landmark cultural institution in the Northwest Bronx.
As reported, the former district president was presented with Lehman College’s Presidential Medal during the college’s annual inaugural ceremony last year.
Completed in 2019, the renovation brought the Lehman Center a new, visually stunning glass-enclosed main entrance and lobby, all-new theater seating, new catwalk ramps making the venue fully ADA-compliant, a redesigned box office, elevator to the balcony, and additional function rooms and toilets.
The center also received a major boost ahead of its Oct. 2 reopening last year after receiving more than $1.1 million in public and charitable funding for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, marking the center’s first season , since the pandemic caused it to dim its lights in 2020.
According to center officials, the concert hall, built in 1980, has been praised by critics as “acoustically perfect” and has presented hundreds of classical, popular and folk/ethnic dance, music and theater groups and acts from around the world.
The Lehman Center, currently the Bronx’s largest venue, also received $760,095 from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, a $16 billion federal fund that helped independent live venues, museums, theaters and arts organizations break away from the economic to recover losses suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the April 30 event, speakers also promoted the former borough president’s support of the arts through his work at the groundbreaking for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum in the South Bronx.
As also reported by Norwood News, The South Bronx’s transformation continued Thursday, May 20, with groundbreaking for the new museum, which will commemorate the history of hip-hop in the borough and is part of a $349 million development called Bronx Point.
The 22-story building will house 1,045 residential units, 542 of which will be affordable housing, while the museum itself will occupy the ground floor. Rising along the Harlem River at 50 E. 150th St., the development will include 2.8 acres of public space with access to a playground, barbecue area and esplanade along the waterfront. Housing units are reserved for low- to middle-income households.
In a phone interview with Norwood News, Abbatiello spoke about Díaz Jr.’s role in the project. “What he did for hip-hop is he was a big proponent of achieving that on the Westside Highway,” the record exec said. “He was instrumental in getting most of the funding and making this dream come true for all of us.”
Abbatiello put together The Hip-Hop Fever Show at the Lehman Center to showcase hip-hop’s pioneers and keep their legacy alive. Many of the hip-hop artists in his line-up released their biggest hits in the ’80s and ’90s. “I always go back to the original guys because it’s been like 40 years,” Abbatiello said. “A lot of them don’t get booked that often. I give them the opportunity to perform in the Bronx once a year and have their family and friends.”
PlayGirl Ari, on the other hand, is not one of the OGs [“original gangsters”] of hip hop. Abbatiello explained his thought process behind her inclusion on the show. “In almost all of my shows, the opening act is a new artist,” he said. “I gave her a chance to rap in front of a big audience to give her a taste of what it takes to get where these OGs have gone.” He added, “She’s got the eye of the tiger !“
Ari was indeed the opening act for the night and exuded confidence as he rapped to “Why Did You Do Me Wrong?”. Their breakdancers dazzled, performed the worm, multiple headspins, and other moves that seemed to push the limits of the human body’s capabilities. The rapper’s performance set the tone for a night of unforgettable moments and plenty of nostalgia.
Grandmaster Caz poetically rattled off several trends that have evolved over the years, like cell phones, Reaganomics, and Metrocards, which predated hip-hop when it first hit the market in the early 1970s. Ahead of his departure, the MC delivered the iconic line: “My name is hip-hop……and I’ve always existed!”
Black Sheep later electrified the crowd with their 1991 hit “The Choice is Yours,” and lead singer Andres “Dres” Vargas-Titus then shared a beautiful moment with Abbatiello, saying, “He helped all of us who [hip-hop] culture in many ways. I love this brother so much.”
For her part, rapper Roxanne Shante transported audiences with her storytelling and musical choices to Disco Fever, the Abbatiello dance club that opened in 1976 at Jerome Avenue and 167th Street in the South Bronx and closed a decade later. The crowd almost swooned when Shante had hip-hop DJ Grand Wizard Theodore play Meli’sa Morgan’s “Fool’s Paradise,” which was released in 1980.
When the Sugar Hill Gang was invited onto the stage, many in the audience rose in anticipation. They were the world’s first commercially successful rap group, and their 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” was the first hip-hop track to chart on the Billboard Hot 100.
Another groundbreaking hip-hop track released in 1982 was Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message.” Like the Sugar Hill Gang’s hit, it opened up the hip-hop genre to a larger audience. In an interview in Classic Hip Hop Magazine, lead singer and songwriter for the Furious Five, Melle Mel, said it was the first socially conscious hip hop track.
Melle Mel and Scorpio later performed the breakthrough hit while everyone in the room belted out the line, “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge I’m trying not to lose my head.” The crowd erupted when the two were later joined onstage by the Sugar Hill Gang to perform “Rapper’s Delight.”
At one point during the show, Nice & Smooth’s Greg Nice jumped off the stage and danced briefly with a woman who was already dancing in the aisle. Later, rapper Rob Base asked the audience if they were ready to go back to 1988 before performing “It Takes Two,” the Top 40 hit that Stephen Thomas Erlewine, an American music critic at AllMusic, called “the greatest.” hips” called -hop single ever cut.” The entire crowd roared their approval as Base finished the number.
Throughout the show, people, mostly in their 50s, poured out their hearts while singing along. Those of us in attendance who didn’t grow up listening to these beats were swept away by the wave of nostalgia that pervaded the room. In fact, it’s hard not to envy the baby boomers who got to spend a night at Disco Fever.
*Síle Moloney contributed to this story.
Editor’s Note: In the latest issue of Norwood News, Eva Bornstein, executive director of the Lehman Center, is referred to as Ava Bornstein. We apologize for this mistake.