Few genres are as intimidating to newcomers as electronic music. It's a scene that births new subgenres (acid house, broken beat, two-step, garage) at a rabbit's pace, and one in which pointy heads will ridicule you for not grasping the finer points of Intelligent Dance Music, which sounds remarkably like a toaster on the fritz.
Nitty Gritty has done its part to remedy that. The monthly DJ night at Touch Supper Club was launched a year ago as a means of infusing more frivolity into the Cleveland DJ scene, emphasizing the party over the posing that's been a part of the culture for years.
"It's a night where the music isn't meant to be elitist; it's very open," says Brad Petty, who spins under the pseudonym Misterbradleyp. "It's not a night for people to sit there, scratch their heads, and think about the music."
Held on the first Saturday of each month (this week's installment marks its first anniversary), Nitty Gritty features an eclectic mix of progressive electronic music along with more organic, recognizable sounds, including vintage funk and old-school rap, as well as rare groove and nouveau jazz. There's plenty to keep the pointy heads happy, though diverse crowds are the norm, with middle-aged soul aficionados sharing space with young B-boys, who come to hear the best new hip-hop.
In its first year, Nitty Gritty has drawn rave reviews from artists and agents across the country and beyond. On its website, downbeat favorites Jazzanova called Nitty Gritty one of the four best nights on its most recent tour, placing Cleveland alongside markets like Philadelphia and New York. (Jazzanova's September appearance drew more than 400 people, filling both the downstairs dance club and the upstairs restaurant.) And Jazzanova isn't the only one talking.
"It's definitely helped Cleveland become regarded as a good gig on the circuit now," says renowned British broken-beat DJ Seiji, who played Nitty Gritty in February. "It's considered a good night to play, and it's definitely on the map as far as DJs are concerned."
"It's great to have another outlet for our artists, another city that's open to the kind of music we play," says Andrew Jervis, DJ and vice president of San Francisco's Ubiquity Records (Greyboy, Bugs), who performed at Nitty Gritty last May. "I think a lot of labels are probably like 'Why am I going to Cleveland?' For me, it's really important. I had a good time, and I hope they ask me back soon."
Nitty Gritty was founded by Petty and fellow DJ Jude Goergen (a.k.a. Jugoe), along with promoter Shawn Carson. (Petty and Carson are employees of Scene, which sponsors Nitty Gritty.) The event was designed as an alternative to the often cold and sterile electronic sounds that have dominated the scene in recent years.
"We were tired of house music," says Goergen, who's known for his downtempo grooves. "Everywhere you go, every nightclub, when people think DJs, they think techno, drum & bass, and specifically house -- it's all we heard. We kind of wanted to bring people in that no one else would, music that's a little more rootsy -- stuff that no one was doing."
Nitty Gritty's timing was perfect. The drawing power of superstar DJs like Sasha & Digweed and Carl Cox was waning, and big-name clubs across the country were being shuttered. Clubgoers, seemingly burned out by the jam-packed, rave-style club atmosphere that ruled throughout much of the '90s, were craving more warm, down-to-earth settings and sounds.
And Nitty Gritty has served them well, bringing in the music of the underground's prime movers (Columbus turntablist RJD2, San Francisco hip-hop maestro J. Boogie, and Atlanta's Faust & Shortee, among others) while also helping to establish a U.S. foothold for lesser-known acts like San Fran Romanowski and Britain's Quantic (which will play at Nitty Gritty this Saturday, one of only two U.S. dates for the dirty funk duo).
"When people think of Nitty Gritty now, they think, 'Oh yeah, it's gonna be a cool party, with quality music and good DJs,'" says Asya Shein, a Hollywood agent for Mir-Media, which handles artists like Dead Prez and DJ Smash (who's also at this week's Nitty Gritty). "They've made it this monthly, where people are waiting and feeding for the next Nitty Gritty. I think it's a great thing. It's so necessary."