The Forgotten Hip-Hop Club That Spawned A Downtown Art Movement

With hip-hop’s commercial success in the new millennium, it seems almost incomprehensible that the culture once faced aversion from mainstream club scenes. In late 1980s, New York City youth who adamantly followed hip-hop culture were an afterthought in Downtown club life, as owners were hesitant about specifically hosting these type of parties outside of the Bronx and Harlem. After Area, a popular, extravagant venue closed in the wake of the stock-market crash, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and a recession; a void was felt as New York City’s kids struggled to find spaces that spoke to their need for cultural and artistic relief. It was in this tense climate that Building, the legendary hip-hop club, was born.

“Building merged elements of Area and MK with the roving hip hop parties of Crook and Moxey. Each night, Thursday through Saturday, a different resident DJ would hold forth. There was an open mic, and MCs would perform. The roster of talent would become a who’s-who of the first real golden age of hip hop: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Black Sheep, Kid Capri, and Clark Kent,” writes Alex Waxman at The Standard.

While being a solid club base for the city’s growing hip-hop heads, the party atmosphere also attracted photographers, artists, designers, Rastas, and even skater kids, creating a fascinating fusion of subcultures, coordinated by owner Patrick Moxey and Chuck Crook. “Even when we did the warehouse parties, Chuck would make sure there was a juice bar run by Rastas in the corner, or he’d put in a skateboard half-pipe with pro skaters from the streets of the East Village doing tricks in the air while the Jungle Brothers were DJing,” Moxey says. “It was that kind of atmosphere—we would have, say, slide shows from Rickster [Ricky Powell]—there was always this cultural element to what we were doing and Chuck was a big spiritual part of that.”

Building was Moxey’s first legitimate club; the hip-hop party often changed locations, from a Polish veteran center to an El Salvador refugee center. “There had been some great nights at a place called the Roxy before us. Also, Danceteria had a hip hop room, but I think, in a way, what we did with Kid Capri and some of our resident DJs was extraordinary because it really was hip hop coming downtown in a big way with a great mix of people. It felt very fresh and it was pretty special,” he fondly reminisces. “We might have had the latest hip hop groups, but then we were also doing events with Jean Paul Gaultier or The Face magazine or Pedro Almodovar.  So, you know, it was all about contrast. It was all about introducing different parts of the culture, and having them kind of bounce off each other.”

Previously, rappers coming up in New York City avoided the downtown party scene, as it regularly excluded them. Studio 54, a venue world-renowned for hosting glamorous parties at the height of the disco era, regularly denied regular black and brown kids entry into their parties. Thus, Building’s appeal for young kids who were into the rawness of hip-hop as a subculture transformed the venue into a platform for many aspiring rappers, paying cheap prices in comparison to he city’s ritzier clubs.

“It was very much a showcase for them. Hence, why De La Soul is there, A Tribe Called Quest. But also there was no gathering spot for these kids. If you look at their age, they’re just kids. There was no gathering spot in the city. No club was either smart enough or stupid enough to do it,” remembers Howard Schaffer, a general manager of Area and MK, who was also involved with Building. “There were a whole bunch of clubs, but they wouldn’t. It was an art movement besides just a music movement. And that’s why downtown was much more fascinating. Artists wouldn’t go up to 58th Street to a club even if De La Soul was performing. They just wouldn’t. We were on 26th Street. That was as far as they would possibly go.”

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Among one of the most revered guests in the party’s history were young DJs looking to make their mark on the culture. Stretch Armstrong, the cohost of NYC radio show “Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito” particularly remembers how the club helped aspiring turntable masters to flourish. “The DJs that I idolized coming up, like Clark Kent, they didn’t really talk. They were just nasty with their hands and their music,” Armstrong says. “Kid Capri was the first deejay I ever saw who would regularly turn the music off, just like oozing with confidence, and with this super loud voice just command the crowd to do stuff. He would have them in the palm of his hand and the music would come back on at exactly the right time, just as he was getting the crowd into a frenzy. There was this give-and-take that was incredibly dynamic and powerful.”

Building also made a space for house music in addition to hip-hop, creating another cultural exchange from New York to other artistic movements worldwide. “For house music: Lil Louis “I Called U”, Lidell Townsell “Nu-Nu”, Crystal Waters “Gy*** Woman (She’s Homeless)”, Underground Solution “Luv Dancin”, Frankie Knuckles feat. Robert Owens “I’ll Be Your Friend”, Jay Williams “Sweat”, Bobby Konders “The Poem”. For hip hop: Nice and Smooth “Hip-hop Junkies”, Jungle Brothers “J Beez Comin Thru”, Black Sheep “Choice Is Yours”, A Tribe Called Quest “Can I Kick It,” adds Armstrong.

The party maintained a futuristic edge by introducing new music to its audience, which hints at the practice becoming a lost art in the current club scene, according to the famed DJ radio host: “What you’ve got to remember is that back then New York was still the center of the world when it came to clubs and music and particularly hip hop. I mean, all these records were breaking out of New York on the weekend mix shows and in clubs like Building. Back then, people went to clubs to hear their favorite song, which they heard on the radio. You would go to a club, to hear records that were hot, but you’re also going to hear new music. And that wasn’t something that would frustrate people—that was something that people looked forward to.”

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