A New York Tale: Giant Step

Thousands of parties, an iconic label and a strong community of musicians and fans. How a young Manchester music lover made a Giant Step to the NYC music scene. A Standard Q&A with Maurice Bernstein.
Jul 01 2013

When you started Giant Step in 1990, it seemed a lot of American musicians of the soul/jazz scene were not as popular as they used to be. Why did you start working in that direction?

I grew up in the late 1960s and 70s in the north of England in Manchester which has always had a huge appreciation for American soul music. I remember as a young kid hearing artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, The Spinners and Ohio Players on the radio. In the early 1980s when I moved to London the rare groove scene was beginning to happen, DJs like Norman Jay were playing rare soul 45s. It was this movement that brought me to appreciate these artists and also dig deeper into the genre. When I arrived in New York in 1987, I dived right into the club culture going to places like The Garage, The World, Save The Robots, The Loft and Nells. I was surprised that the music of the artists I loved was not really getting the recognition it deserved amongst my peers. When these artists came to New York (some very rarely) they would play in cabaret clubs to an older audience. I was sure that a younger crowd would appreciate seeing them live as we did in Europe. Also, at this time hip hop was heavily sampling many of these artists so the younger generation was hearing the music but didn’t know the source.

What was your main motivation to move in New York from Manchester?

In 1987, when I moved to New York, I had just graduated university in London and Margret Thatcher had just won her third term in office. Those were pretty dark days in UK, there was high unemployment and no guarantee of jobs. Although I was born and raised in Manchester, my mother is in fact from New Jersey. She got me an American passport when I was born so with the situation looking bleak in UK I thought it was a perfect opportunity to take advantage of my status.

How did you start getting involved in the NY scene?

In late 1989, I started doing my own parties at clubs like Big Haus, Red Zone, MK and Nells but these were more on the house music vibe. Around that time a party called Soul Kitchen started at a small restaurant called Brothers BBQ I used to go every week and loved the fact that it was similar to the rare groove scene I knew in UK. Seeing that party grow in popularity it gave me the confidence that there actually could be a market to do shows with soul and funk artists in NYC.

What was actually your first ‘Giant Step’ show ?

In spring of 1990 a friend of mine mentioned that I should meet a musician who was a little down on his luck and looking for help making a come back. The name of the artist was Leon Thomas a jazz singer known for his work with Pharaoh Sanders, Santana and Count Basie, and I was a big fan! I, of course, jumped at the opportunity and Leon and his manager came to visit me in my small East Village apartment. They began to tell me that Leon’s ‘comeback’ would include Pee Wee Ellis, Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley of JBs! The problem was I couldn’t pay them a lot of money so I needed to find a bigger venue and someone to help put up their guarantee.

So what did you do?

A year earlier, I met a South African who was also head of publicity at SOBs by the name of Jonathan Rudnick. He had traveled to London and knew about Rare Groove plus the now burgeoning Acid Jazz scene. Remembering our conversations I decided that SOBs would be a good venue. The owner Larry Gold agreed to put up the guarantee and we booked the show ‘Leon Thomas & The JBs’, I wanted to give the event some identity so I came up with the name Groove Academy (dedicated to the preservation of Funk). Once I got the trust of JBs I asked them if they could introduce me to other James Brown alumni and within a few months we were bringing Bobby Byrd, Vicki Anderson, Bootsy, Marva High to SOBs for Groove Academy shows.

Some of those artists did not have any proper management anymore. You said you sometimes found them in a phone book and gave them a call. Could you share with us one of those calls?

One of my favorite calls was with William ‘Bootsy’ Collins in the summer of 1990. Bobby Byrd gave me his digits and I remember nervously dialing the number in Cincinnati, Ohio. Little did I know Bootsy was actually living back at home with his mother and she answered the phone. “Is Bootsy there?” I asked and then I hear her scream “William! There’s a guy with a funny accent who wants to talk to you!”. Bootsy comes to the phone and of course talks in his trademark voice, we conversed and he told me that he unbelievably hadn’t played New York in ten years. Once we agreed on the fee, The Rubber Band and their sound system drove in from Ohio to play two nights at SOBs to a sold out audience.

Then from 1990 to 1995, Giant Step grew up and welcomed a lot of artists from the Acid Jazz scene from the UK including Jamiroquai and The Brand New Heavies. Is there any specific memory from those events that stick to your mind and could be a good summary of that time?

There are lots of memories from those days, we were all very young and UK artists like Jamiriquai where having huge success in Europe and Japan. America was a much harder market to break as mainstream media and radio were not open to the music at all. Giant Step was the first port of call and our job was to bring the artists in to the burgeoning scene we had built. One of my favorite stories is when Massive Attack first came out to promote the amazing Blue Lines album. They didn’t have an agent so I ended up booking shows for them in NY, Chicago, Detroit and Washington DC., I also put the Giant Step crew who played at the club on the bills too. However, I didn’t really understand how big America was and due to budget constraints agreed to drive. That was a hard lesson to learn.

In 1995 you created Giant Step Records and released many artists. In terms of the music business, the mid 90’s were a bit of the ‘last round’ of the ‘old school’ business, when a label could actually still make money out of the sale of records. Do you have a nostalgia for that time?

Back then your goal was to get a record deal if you were an artist. With the club and the shows doing well I was meeting bands and young artists and putting them on our bills. Also, our live musician/DJ collective at Giant Step was morphing into Groove Collective. I thought the logical step was to start managing bands, by 1993 we had Repercussions (America’s answer to Brand New Heavies) Groove Collective and NY poetess Dana Bryant all signed to Warner Brothers. Plus, I had a UK band called Raw Stylus signed to Geffen in US. In 1995 legendary record producer Tommy LiPuma took over at MCA to run GRP/Impulse and asked if we wanted to set up Giant Step Records as an imprint there. The first act I signed was Groove Collective. The second was a project that was in the works called Nuyorican Soul with Masters At Work. That album still to this day is one of the projects I’m proudest to have been involved with.

After that we moved to Epic Records, they were actually more interested in Giant Step’s skills as a marketing machine (impressed with our work with Nuyorican Soul) and that’s how Giant Step marketing was born. Our first project was launching Macy Gray followed by Jill Scott and the rest is history…

Where you still connected to the club scene?

I was getting frustrated with having an imprint deal and all the artists I wanted to sign like India Arie were not being approved by my bosses. So I decided to start releasing 12” vinyl independently and align the releases to the sound of Giant Step weekly club. By 1999 our sound had developed and the resident DJ was no longer Smash, Jazzy Nice or Nickodemus but Ron Trent. Ron would either produce or remix for us and we had great success with artist like Carl Hancock Rux, Jody Watley and Atlantis.

The last step of the label?

I started to get a little more daring and wanted to make an artist album independently and signed Atlanta soul singer Donnie. Over the next two years we made the album Welcome To The Colored Section. The release did extremely well both critically and commercially so much so that pretty soon Motown was calling and wanted to do a joint venture. This for me was pretty much the last hurrah in the record business and I could see things changing. However, I felt it was going to take a while to work out how to navigate the new reality and to be honest I didn’t want to be the one to try. Instead, Giant Step’s focus turned to marketing and working with brands.

What do you think is the most exciting thing about the NYC music scene today?

I think the growth of Brooklyn as a competitor to NYC and in many ways has over taken it is really exciting.

If Giant Step was a book?

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, because you need to be one to get into this business

And a movie?

Do The Right Thing by Spike Lee, because I’m always struggling to reach that goal.

Giant Step is now a monthly Monday party at Le Bain. Previous have featured FaltyDL, Onra, Ron Trent, Danny Krivit and King Britt. Next party is Monday July 22nd featuring Rich Medina.