It’s a typical Thursday night under the dim incandescent lighting of the Metropolis Café basement in Union Square, New York. Androgynous dancers cast gyrating shadows over a stage split evenly among a DJ, a flautist, a trombonist, and an emcee. Mixing unpredictable jazz improvisation with hip-hop beats, the group jams for hours on end to an audience endlessly willing to groove along. The existence of the dance floor is superfluous; a sea of bobbing heads and rippling limbs overflows all the way to the bar in the back of the room. Regulars order mixed drinks in cheap plastic cups under the cyan glow of a tropical fish tank. The year is 1992.
This is Giant Step. Named after the seminal John Coltrane album, Giant Step was more than just a weekly club night. It was a club, a promoting group, a management company, and eventually a record label. They didn’t create the genres of acid jazz or jazz rap, but they did make it cool.
Founded by an unassuming British promoter named Maurice Bernstein and his South African counterpart Jonathan Rudnick, Giant Step quickly became New York’s buzziest music scene. It gave a home to the jazz hip-hop crossover sound that was just getting its footing in the US. In the early stages of the artists’ careers, taste-making Giant Step threw their support behind The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, Massive Attack, The Fugees, De La Soul, Jamiroquai, Erykah Badu, and many others.
It’s a typical Wednesday night under the psychedelic projected visuals of the Airliner club in Downtown L.A. Head-bobbing, hip-hop heads and hipsters pack the room, doing their best to catch a glimpse of DJ-producers and rappers at the top of their game. High temperatures and a low ceiling don’t seem to bother anyone who stays into the small hours of the morning. People seeking asylum from the mass of grooving arms-in-the-air clubbers migrate to the crowded upper level in the back of the room. Patrons scan the room for familiar faces; secret sets by famous musicians seem almost customary as more and more in the music world find out that this is a safe space to get weird. The year is 2009.
This is Low End Theory. Named after the classic A Tribe Called Quest album, Low End Theory was more than just a weekly club night. It spawned multiple record labels, an annual festival, and dozens of artists who would affect the music world for years to come. They didn’t create the genre of electronic jazz hip-hop, but they did make it cool.
Founded by an obsessive L.A. music junkie who calls himself Daddy Kev, Low End Theory quickly became L.A.’s buzziest music scene. It gave a home to the jazz, hip-hop, and electronic crossover sound that was just beginning to understand its place in the music scene. In the early stages of the artists’ careers, the taste-makers at Low End threw their support behind Odd Future, Flying Lotus, Baths, The Glitch Mob, Thundercat, Daedalus, and many others.
Whether or not Low End Theory was directly influenced by Giant Step, it’s clear that the two followed parallel paths to success in pulling jazz back from concert halls and onto the dance floor. Keeping jazz fresh is a tradition almost as old as the existence of jazz itself, but all too often, these attempts at relevancy are doomed from the start. What made Giant Step and Low End Theory uniquely successful?
First and foremost, these clubs knew early on that jazz wasn’t only about the music, it was also about the personalities behind the music. The swagger of Coltrane, the the standoffishness of Davis, the anger of Mingus; the best jazz of the past was just as much about its legendary figures as it is about its legendary music. This poses a problem for most underground jazz clubs: when your lineup of relatively unknown performers changes weekly, how can an audience possibly gain an emotional connection to the performers?
Both clubs found an incredibly simple way to solve this issue: resident DJs. Maurice Bernstein of Giant Step hired Ron Trent as both an in-house producer and a weekly party-starter at the Giant Step club night. Trent, a bona fide product of Chicago, played wildly unpredictable sets that merged soul and house music effortlessly and gained a fan following that outlived (by a wide margin) the existence of the Giant Step’s club night. Because Low End Theory was based more on electronic music and DJ sets than Giant Step was, Daddy Kev enlisted a whole team of resident DJ-producers for his weekly club nights. This was spearheaded by William Bensussen, a.k.a The Gaslamp Killer, who quickly gained a reputation for his Eastern-inspired beats and his imposing, shamanistic physical appearance. These colorful resident DJs could draw crowds regardless of the headlining performer, and without this crucial element, these clubs couldn’t have thrived.
That’s not to say the marquee performers were any less interesting. Giant Step’s Maurice Bernstein was a Brit, and in being true to his homeland, he brought tons of talent over from across the pond to make their American debuts. Not only did Bernstein import bands like Massive Attack, Galliano, and the Brand New Heavies to play at Giant Step, but he was also influential in getting American groups who played at Giant Step to play British music festivals.
In contrast, Low End Theory prided itself on being a primarily homegrown operation featuring collaboration between local artists. Musicians seemed to fall into one of two categories: either they cut their teeth at Low End over years of performances (Ras G, Nocando) or they arrived on the scene out of nowhere with a self-mythologized stage persona ready to go from day one (Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, Captain Murphy).
Jazz music may last forever as it evolves continuously and endlessly into the foreseeable future. But jazz clubs don’t last forever, and unfortunately, Giant Step is no exception. After attracting tons of interest from major labels, Giant Step ventured into the record business itself, an enterprise that would fail after only a handful of releases and generally poor sales, despite widespread critical acclaim of the group’s releases. Giant Step then retreated from the industry, becoming a creative marketing agency that survives to this day.
However, they can still put on quite a dance party, and occasionally step out of music retirement to do just that. In 2013, without any knowledge of who Giant Step was (or even that they were the behind-the-scenes organizers of the event), I actually attended one of these parties. I’d like to think that, through that show, I got a tiny taste of what a true Giant Step party might have been like back in the 90’s New York heyday.
Next time you’re in New York on a Thursday night, take a minute and pay your respects to the lower level of the Blue Water Grill where the Metropolis Café club used to be, in honor of the crazy jazz-rap parties of days long gone. But if you want to see what those nights might have been like, and you find yourself in L.A. on a Wednesday night, make your way to Low End Theory. You’ll like what you hear.
I’ve spent the last two months diving deep into the discographies of both Giant Step’s acid jazz artists and Low End Theory’s genre-hopping beat makers, and there’s a dizzying number of parallels between the signature sounds of the two clubs’ most prominent artists. Below is an introductory Youtube playlist to discover these similarities for yourself, starting with some vintage footage of Giant Step and continuing with a song-to-song alternation between the two scenes. The pairs of songs I selected mirror each other in particular ways, which, depending on your interpretation, could either be evidence of influence or mere coincidence.
Special thanks to Love Injection Magazine (Issue 4) for the great interview with Maurice Bernstein and information about Giant Step’s early days.
Article by Matt Sater