Looking for Sugar Hill

A burly man opens the door and greets Annie with a cheerful “11162.” While this guy had his number memorized, I had spent over twenty-five minutes flipping back and forth through the archives in pursuit of the number that I too would tell Annie. In the collection, out-of-print classics shelve beside digital editions, #11142 Four Seasons  – “Working My Way Back to You Babe” in the company of  #11142 Rihanna – “Work.” #11553 DJ Snake – “Turn Down for What” is neighbors with #11555  Gloria Estefan – “Turn the Beat Around.”

And the difference i-i-i-i-iis,” Annie effortlessly rifts,” you-u-u-u-uuu.” Seasoning her sound with perfectly controlled flourishes, Annie corrals her voice in and then floods the room, breaking the levies that defined whatever you thought you may hear tonight. The instrumental backing-track ends.

“What a difference a day makes,” Annie exhales.

“Thursday night karaoke at Sugar Hill Disco,” she says.

“Not only do we do karaoke, but we carry on. I’m just so happy to be back. I was gone for a while. But I’m back, okay? Alright now – Daryl, you go do your thing.”

Daryl, Mr.11626,  takes the stage. He holds the mic between his two palms. With the start of the unmistakable arpeggio, Daryl takes flight in an off-key and wildly staccato interpretation of Radiohead’s “Creep”: “But I. Mah. Creeeep. I. Mah. Weird. Doh- oh – oh. What thehellamI. do-in-here. I don’t belong here.” Daryl continues his synchronized attack of the syllable, as highlighted on the karaoke screen.

He takes a rare breath.  “I wish I was special. So very special.”

“You’re going to have to do something to make me remember you. I’m probably going to forget who you are,” Eddie Freeman, the 76 year old owner of Sugar Hill Disco and Supper Club, says to me when I was at the club on Saturday night a week earlier.

I image that nobody struggles to remember Eddie Freeman. Looking out at Sugar Hill’s jam-packed back bar on a Saturday night, among the crowded conversation, booming laughter, and Michael Jackson’s “Man In the Mirror,” I wonder just how many people knew each other, knew Eddie?

“Oh, they all know me. This is my 37th year here. They know me,” he assures.

Over 37 years before today, on November 17th, 1979, Sugar Hill Disco opened its doors in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, just less than two months after Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop record to reach the Top 40 charts, and perhaps the inaugural hip-hop jam. The opening-day flyer broadcasts “A Disco Party & Buffet with the latest in Disco Lighting, Lit-up Dance Floor and Star Burst.” While the disco was initially fueled off the music, energy, and crowd, the early space, a simple wide room with a dance floor and chairs,  left Eddie with much to be desired.

After all, Sugar Hill had to respect its namesake, the historic Sugar Hill district in Harlem, where wealthy African-Americans resided in the 1920s.  Despite modest beginnings, the club achieved enough success to expand its enterprise. In 1993, Eddie purchased the neighboring paint shop to become Sugar Hill Disco and Supper Club, which remains a favorite soul food haunt for locals and foodies throughout the city.

In the new space, Eddie meticulously assembled the elegant decor of the Disco and Supper Club. Ornamental chandeliers dangle over the back bar and tables. Panel mirrors line the walls like abstract art as you ascend the stairs, refracting your own image into itself.  The second floor restaurant is wrapped by bay windows that Eddie handmade, overlooking Dekalb Avenue, transforming this Bed-Stuy staple into something like a beachside property. During its heydey in the early 90s, Eddie remembers lines of people that would curl around the corner of Nostrand.  V.I.P. customers such as Mike Tyson and Mary J. Blige were granted special exceptions to cut the line.

Hillary Clinton has even used Sugar Hill’s enduring and multi-generational social position as a strategic political move, deciding to the launch the New York City leg of her Senate campaign at the Disco. A picture of Hillary and the Sugar Hill crew is propped up in the Supper Club. In an act of compositional genius, somebody placed the photo behind a see through statute, engraved with the words “Eddie Freeman, the Donald Trump of Bed-Stuy.”

Through its timeless music, delicious food, and familiar community, Sugar Hill has established itself as the longest running disco club in New York. Or at least this is what Eddie and others claim. I’ve encountered amended versions of this ranking (i.e. the longest running black-owned disco club) online, not to mention that this historical accolade  is ambiguous  (what do we define as a disco today?). Eddie tells me I can “look [this fact] up anywhere,” but the truth is very little information exists online about Sugar Hill.

The club, in many ways, still exists in another era, neither operating a website nor developing much of a social media presence. Its digital disconnect actually perpetuates a nostalgic imagination and colonialist sense of “discovery” among newcomers who come in contact with it, people like myself. At the same time, perhaps this distance from the virtual network  is precisely what makes the relationships with people at Sugar Hill plentiful and strong. Perhaps this is why Eddie feels like everyone knows him.

It certainly didn’t take me long to get to know Eddie. In fact, he was one of the first people I talked to at Sugar Hill on Saturday night.

Before the two times I went to Sugar Hill that week, I had attended a special electronic music event hosted in the space about a year earlier. At the show, Floating Points and Four Tet, two of my favorite electronic music artists, performed a joint set organized by MeanRed, a leading event production agency. MeanRed specializes in hosting ‘alt-edm’ parties in ‘offbeat’ locations, including dim sum parlors and  ‘secret Brooklyn warehouse popups,’ catering to 20-somethings of a certain class and  taste demographic. MeanRed advertised that “you will be able to eat fried chicken on the dancefloor at the longest running black owned venue in the borough!”

As excited as I was for this opportunity to dine and dance in this a legendary place, I was painfully aware of me and the mostly white concertgoers potential (or definite?) cultural appropriation and/or colonization of a history and space that wasn’t ours to define, loot, or claim. I considered whether MeanRed, known for its unusual venues, was exotizing a space that was so real to many people. Did they want us there?  Did they like  our music? Most importantly, I wanted to know just who is the amorphous “they” I speak of.

A  year after the Floating Points/Four Tet show at Sugar Hill, I decide to return. I  take the F to the G and get off at Bedford/Nostrand Ave. It’s a long commute for me – and I am drinking Prosecco from a Vitamin Water bottle. I had made plans with my friend to meet me at the club, but when I get off the train, she tells me she’s not feeling well. I experience a pang of social anxiety before entering this club. I just wish I could observe and not have to impose on anyone.  My eyes rattle around the room — ricocheting off the aluminum foil serving platters and a mirror mounting the entire length of the wall. I tiptoe through the mingling mass, hurrying to find a seat at the bar to calm down and get over myself and the fact that I’m under the age of 35 and I’m white and I think I really stand out right now even though no one is looking at me or cares whatsoever.  

An older gentlemen pours what looks like a gallon of  Hennessy through a funnel and into another bottle of Hennessy. Amused and distracted from my own self-consciousness, I sit down next to him. I soon learned that this Hennesey scientist was none other than owner Eddie Freeman.

The small flat screen TV next to the bar plays a live performance of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” I’m pretty sure, however, the person in the video is not Michael, but rather somebody doing a cover of the song.

“Who is that performing?” I ask to the couple next to me, confident that it wasn’t one of the most well-recognized people of the 21st century. They casually reply, “Michael Jackson.”

I am relieved that the most embarrassing moment of the night has already happened.

Eddie then asks me what brings me to Sugar Hill tonight by my lonesome. I tell him the full story, that I had been to Sugar Hill for the Four Tet show about a year earlier, but I only felt like I was seeing Sugar Hill for the first time tonight. I also told him that I was interested in writing about the space for the final essay that you are now reading, and asked if there might be a chance that I could  take him out to dinner to interview him and learn more about Sugar Hill. He suggested that we go to his favorite barbecue spot in Williamsburg on Monday. He told me to call him tomorrow to confirm, and assured me that he’d probably forgot who I was when I called.

While not a particularly gregarious or warm fellow, Eddie expressed a comforting indifference towards me. He didn’t think I stood out (despite my young female whiteness) but he also seemed to welcome any attempt to stand out if I so pleased. After the chance encounter with the head honcho on Sugar Hill quelled my anxieties, I headed out to the main room.

Sugar Hill’s main hall is comprised of a large dance floor with a dozen tables around the perimeter reserved for birthday parties. Sugar Hill hosted five birthday parties that Saturday night, punctuated by a birthday tradition that celebrates each of the guests of honor in front of the entire club. The MC takes the mic, and announces the ritual in time with Memphis Bleek’s “Do My”:

Do my ladies run this motherfucker? “It’s time for birthday roll call!”

Yeah yeah, come on.   “When I Call your name and get down on the dancefloor!”

Do my thugs run this motherfucker? “Let everyone see you.”

Yeah yeah, come on. “Tiwana, Tanisha! Happy birthday!

Do my ladies run it “Big shouts to Frank! Happy Birthday!”

Fat asses and flat stomachs “CeeCee where is CeeCee? Happy Birthday!”

Throw a hand in the air. “Big birthday shout going out to Pat, wheres Pat in the building?”

During this procession, everyone in the club is on their feet screaming, a few standing on chairs. Afterwards, the fanfare quiets down and the folks go back to their drinks and dances, and catch up sessions with old friends. I noticed connections that existed between the different birthday parties as well, suggesting an umbrella Sugar Hill network.

For Sugar Hill is not just a disco or supper club, it is an enduring community space, a symbol of fearless “Bed-Stuy: do or die” strength and autonomy in a community where much has been lost to cultural and economic pressures.  There’s good reason to mourn the loss of the Bed-Stuy of the 1980s: rent was 1/10 of the current price (even after adjustment for inflation), African-Americans represented 75% of the neighborhood instead of today’s 60%, and the community’s now softer street culture once pumped out some of the hip-hop movement’s masters, from B.I.G. to Lil’ Kim to Mos Def to Jay-Z.

As Marvin, Sugar Hill’s resident DJ for over twenty years, puts on Jay-Z’s “Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up),” hip-hop still seems alive in the community. However, as we listen to the CEO Marcy Avenue over the sound system, Brianna and Yvette, Bed-Stuy natives and childhood friends who had followed their own parent’s footsteps into the Sugar Hill Disco from the age of 18, proclaim Bed-Stuy’s hip-hop culture dead.

The women give their stump speech for Bed-Stuy’s King of Hip-Hop.

“Biggie is from here. B. I. G. I’m not a Jay fan. Biggie was more authentic than Jay. If anything needed to be done in our hood, Biggie would’ve gotten it done. Biggie was hard. He was himself. I miss him,” said Yvette.

“Yeah – you can blow up now if you’ve done shit in the streets. The hood is not the hood anymore.”

Brianna and Yvette bring me to the dancefloor, seduced by the “Filthy” riddim. One of the most identifiable dancehall riddims, 1998’s “Filthy” is a dancehall classic, everywhere from Mr.Vegas’s megahit “Heads High”  to early Sean Paul’s “Nah Get Nuh Bligh” to  Tanya Stevens’s  “Draw Fi Mi Finger.” Getting on the dance floor at Sugar Hill was like going on this sonic ferris wheel that might not come back down again. The main dance floor is equipped with the classic disco light up tiles that I had only seen in photographs. A floor-to ceiling mirror wraps the wall-edge of the dance floor, and it makes you feel like a baby undergoing stade du miroir, confronting and accepting yourself for the first time. Hey self! Your nae nae isn’t half bad! The dance floor that night includes large groups of women who dance in clusters, a few couples bumpin’ and grindin’ and a few men and women dancing alone looking directly at themselves in the mirror.

Above my head is one of the golden lamps once nearly destroyed by aggressive Pitchfork readers like myself. The Brooklyn Vegan’s Bill Pearis Free Williamsburg reported an incident during a Parquet Courts concert held at Sugar Hill in the summer of  2014. The articles cast doubt on both concertgoers’ ability to respect Sugar Hill’s non-venue space and whether Sugar Hill was a suitable venue for live performance overall. Sugar Hill’s elegant yet fragile furnishings are not suited for the chaotic or aggressive nature of live performance, especially rock or hip hop concerts. During Parquet Courts’ set, people in the crowd began to mosh and crowd surf, despite emails that had told them to refrain from such activity out of respect for Sugar Hill. The tight security team, whose full pat downs and denial of reentry had caused frustration, tried to curb the punks’ behavior. Security’s heavy handed approach ultimately caused the opening-act Protomartyr to declare, “This is like a hipster jail!”

Eddie, the owner, claims to have not felt these tensions or witnessed any disrespectful hipster activity. He candidly describes how these post-ironic gentrifiers are a strong pillar for his long-term business strategy. When I ask him about how the changing neighborhood has affected his business, he establishes that the changes in the community have only been positive for Sugar Hill, citing the rise of hipsters with disposable income.

“The hipsters come here now with 1400 people, and there’s no problem ever. I like the hipsters. I like the music they play. I love house music,” Eddie affirms, and shakes my world view.  

What about how hipsters participate in consumer models  that disempower and exploit laborers and consumers worldwide? Did he forget about hipsters’ leading role in the gentrification of Bed Stuy, which preys upon and exacerbates systemic disadvantages and births segregated societies? What about the fact that house music has been stripped from black urban identity and repackaged in white form?

I try to approach some of these issues through carefully worded questions in an interview with Eddie at Sugar Hill on Thursday night. Eddie had postponed the tentative dinner interview we made for Monday, to Wednesday, to Thursday, until he suggested that I just come by the club to interview him.

I enter Sugar Hill at around 9PM, and approach Eddie sitting at the back bar, where I had first met him. There is about fifteen other folks mingling about and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” blasts. I ask him if we could find a quieter space for the interview. He groans, but brings us to the main hall.

I take a seat at one of the large banquet tables that seated birthday party attendees on Saturday night. He stays standing and remains so even after I politely ask if he would like to join me at the table.

Eddie keeps physical and mental distance during the interview.  Though he is a living encyclopedia, when I ask him a broad question, such as how the shifting demographic of Bed-Stuy has affected culture within and around Sugar Hill, he instead gives me the voiced silent treatment of “nothing’s changed.” His short answers are followed with “Okay – are you done with your questions?”, “next question”, and “have the paper ready to ask me the next question.”

His eagerness to escape me and my questions as quickly as possible totally flusters and saddens me. Quite frankly, I think he hates me, and I feel terrible that I intruded into Sugar Hill, the comfort and community of his own creation, in the first place.

I end the interview, leaving most of the questions I wanted him to answer unresolved. I later found that Eddie seemed to know what I wanted from Sugar Hill more that I knew myself.

We leave the main hall, returning to the back bar, busier than before. I gather my things and begin internally drafting my apology to Eddie about my intrusion or cluelessness about the space and community. I want to say all these things because because my white liberal guilt told me I should.

I don’t say these things because Sugar Hill proves that the new doesn’t always have to be an affront to the old.

I don’t say these things because Sugar Hill proves that it’s possible for the new to find home and community in the old.

I don’t say these things because as I’m about to, Eddie turns to me to ask, “So, what are you going to sing? You better pick something good!”  

Despite singing being my favorite thing but an audience my least, I get up there and do my darndest. I don’t really feel like I have a choice.  After I finish “#15429 – Superstition,” Eddie tells me that he was “pretty impressed that I could sing like that,” offering a rare smile, maybe a peace gesture, maybe a symbol that he now has something to remember me by.

All I know is that it’s Thursday night karaoke at Sugar Hill. Not only do we do karaoke, but we carry on.