One of several taglines attached to The Hip-Hop Nucleus, a documentary on the notorious mid-to-late ’90s hip-hop parties at the Tunnel, is an invitation to “Enter the club most people feared to enter.” A chaotic scrum of thousands that could stretch blocks from the entrance at 27th Street and 12th Avenue was just one reason why. Once inside, however, a more egalitarian atmosphere prevailed, with stars hanging by the bar and attendees hyped up by the wait rewarded with an unpredictable mix of the era’s defining performers, beats, big deals, and bigger beefs.
Directed by Choke No Joke, an in-house videographer, The Hip-Hop Nucleus features interviews with the club’s extensive security team alongside patrons, resident DJs, and the occasional well-known name, with an emphasis on stories from staff. This focus makes the film feel a bit like an insider’s instruction manual for making the most of a night. More music docs should highlight these day-to-day workers and undersung contributors, even though here it means less time spent on the club’s musical legacy in favor of personal war stories. Still, it’s strange to hear security talk about the club’s patrons primarily as sheep to be fleeced, with boastful tales of lifting chains, drugs, coats, and more.
Stirling Cox, the former head of security, attributes the Tunnel’s overarching vision to “a one-eyed white guy from Canada,” AKA Peter Gatien, who also owned the Limelight and was eventually deported. The doc is full of these apt descriptions, as well as easy comparisons for folks who don’t know hip-hop: the club is variously painted as “The Hip-Hop Woodstock” or “The Studio 54 of Hip-Hop.” There are also plenty of questions asked but never quite settled; among them, Who was the best resident DJ? There’s Funkmaster Flex, DJ Big Kap, and DJ Johnnie Walker Red to choose from. Guests also spar over the true Queen of the Tunnel: Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, and Eve each get their due.
You also get a treasure trove of footage and tantalizing clips of live performances that are unfortunately for the most part muted—alas, licensing. But you see a stonefaced Jay-Z cracking up at Beanie Sigel; Snoop and Dre getting an unexpectedly warm welcome; and the Lox dunking on the Shiny Suit era—archival footage that lets you momentarily catch the club’s electric vibe. It seems inevitable a Spotify or Netflix will make a slick podcast or documentary on the Tunnel, with even more live footage and firsthand stories. But they will almost certainly miss out on the intimate sense of place that comes from The Hip-Hop Nucleus capturing the stories of so many of the club’s essential workers.