Not long ago, particularly during the summer season, New Jersey nightlife was synonymous with shore living. But even when the months of summer were over, that Garden State nightlife didn’t take a hiatus; it simply relocated to Hunka Bunka, a music emporium in Sayreville that has earned the spotlight as our NJ Vocabulary word of the week.
Hunka Bunka Ballroom — Noun: Hottest Club in Sayreville during the ’80s and ’90s
Example: “We were both wearing acid washed jeans when we hooked up at Hunka Bunka.”
A Hodgepodge of Who’s Who
“Bunkas” — or “Drunkas” as it became known — was where the party continued, with the same DJs, same promoters, same bartenders, and the same crowd! (Consider it the D’Jais experience year round.) According to former club-goers, the thing that made Hunka Bunka unique was the fact that people came from all over. “I lived in Brooklyn at the time and went all the way to Sayreville,” said Joanie Graziano. “I met people from Jersey, Staten Island, Philly. Everywhere.”
Part of the appeal was that there was something for everyone. There was a hip hop room/R&B room called The Velvet Lounge (where then-unknown stars like WuTang Clan and Jay-Z performed) and a main room where house music was played. A slew of party and club promoters held events throughout the years, but nothing compared to the parties that famed promoters Bon Solid & Joey Enuff threw. They were the crew that created Heat Fridays and brought DJ Richie Santana on board in 1999.
Next came “Dressed Up Saturday Night” with resident DJs Kirk Lopez & DJ Kipples, who still spins in the Garden State these days at D’Jais in Belmar. Through the years, Bunka was home to now-famous DJs like DJ Toro, a 92.3 regular. He visited the now-transformed club in 2016 and posted his tribute to Instagram.
The place is so sorely missed that D’Jais hosts a once-a-summer “Hunka Bunka Reunion Night” where former fans can relive their youth and jam out on the dancefloor to classic tracks of modern-day house music.
There was a reason Bunka was such a hit. Say what you will about the clothes and attitude of the 1990s, the club music was on point. And Hunka Bunka had some of the best club music going in the state. In the early ’90s, it was not uncommon for a freestyle star — think George Lamond, TKA, The Cover Girls — to take the stage for a surprise performance. Even more common was a radio station, like Z-100, broadcasting live from Hunka Bunka.
“It was awesome. ‘Mint’ we would say back then,” said Susan LoPresto, a Staten Island native who became a Bunka regular.
As music evolved, so did the club scene and HB was at the forefront of it. A party like Heat Fridays was one of the biggest in the tri-state area — and it was all thanks to the music.
DJ Richie Santana put together a Friday night party that made Hunka Bunka legendary (and parents mad). “Oof,” is all Caroline from Sayreville said. “I would get there on Friday and not make it home until Sunday. That party was nonstop.”
“If you knew the promoter for those big nights, you were gold,” recalled one Hunka Bunka fan. “You got in for free, and he introduced you to his guy at the bar and it was free drinks all night. All that and the best club music around. It always helped if you were sleeping over someone’s house who lived in New Jersey because you always got so drunk you could not go home. I tried to drive home once, the valet wouldn’t give me my keys. I made a giant scene outside the club. So embarrassing.”
People dressed up for Bunkas, and back in the day, that meant one thing: “Ripped jeans and bodysuits,” said Faith P. “Forever 21 just opened so that was our go-to. That and Express.”
Body suits gave way to crop tops and if you were feeling fancy, black pants would replace jeans. Sexy? Hot pants. “It was the perfect dancing uniform,” says LoPresto. “I had to wear a giant sweater out of the house because there was no way I was allowed to go out like that.”
For the guys, Z. Cavaricci pants and Bill Cosby-esque sweaters reigned for an outfit that was undoubtedly accented with more cologne than Drakkar Noir could produce in one year. Just about the time the ladies ditched their bedazzled jackets for crop tops, the dudes ditched the formal wear and went for a more casual look: White tank tops and jeans… all the better to show off their muscles with.
“I always went with my friends and they all wore the same thing. Tanks and jeans,” explains Donald R. from Staten Island. “I never felt like I fit in with that club crowd, but I went anyway because, well, everyone went. Really, that is where everyone went on Friday and Saturday nights.” And they were all dressed alike.
Speaking of scenes, Hunka Bunka was the kind of place where something always happened. Whether you hooked up with someone (or several someones), got drunk, passed out (bodies lined up by the bathroom or laid out on couches were a common sight), or had a fight — and yes, there were lots of fights — you could be sure that your night would end with a story.
“We went there to dance. And we danced all night. But that’s never all that happened,” says Graziano.
“I remember one night. I was with all my friends. Like 10 of us. We were dancing. And then groups just danced with other groups. So this group of guys starts kind of dancing with us. We didn’t care. So we’re all dancing. This guy is kind of trying to dance with me. All of a sudden, this girl grabs me and tries to start fighting me. She’s on top of me and we’re fighting.
But that was normal. There were always fights. And so the bouncer comes over and handles me like a man! He takes my hands behind my back and leads me out and kicks me out! Eventually my friends came and found me and we knew other bouncers so we were let back in. but that was how it was sometimes.”
Faith P. traveled from Staten Island weekly for Heat Fridays and always walked away with a story. “I turned 21 in 1993, so I spent a lot of time there. We always went Friday nights. We were huge people watchers, so we always made fun of everyone’s outfit.” She said the key to having a good time was to have a ‘key bartender.’ “You wanted to make sure you had your key bartenders for buy backs.” She explained that you found a bartender you liked and stuck with him through the season.
On teen night, fights weren’t so much an issue as public displays of affection were. And we’re not talking kissing. “I remember seeing two people having sex on one of the couches one night. And by people, I mean kids — ‘cause it was teen night,” remembered Melanie Mina, a New Jersey native now living out of state. If you were a teen in New Jersey, it was a rite of passage to go to teen night. “A lot of people I went to high school with were there. It was kind of… gross. Just hundreds of drunk teens grinding up on one another.”
Despite all the fights, blackouts and closings, people still went. “I loved going on New Year’s Eve,” said Graziano. “Those parties were awesome. After midnight they would come around with pizza for everyone on the dance floor. It was the best thing ever.”
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