Originally published at DetroitFashionPages.com
Man! It’s cold! It’s that bone chilling Michigan cold where the wind whips through you like a chainsaw. By most estimates, it’s the icy temperatures on this frigid February evening that have transformed Ann Arbor’s hottest hip hop night from a steamy, sweaty mass of bodies into a warm, intimate family affair.
Elevation Sundays at The Firefly was founded three years ago by two members of Ann Arbor’s Sky Children hip hop family. Martin “DJ Graffiti” Smith and Jackson Perry of hip hop phenoms Now On approached Susan Chastain, owner of the legendary A2 jazz hang out and asked for a Sunday night spot.
“Originally Jackson came in as if asking for my daughter’s hand,” Chastain beams. “I knew him as a musician from around town with a successful band [sadly defunct groove monsters Funktelligence], and he was a very good business man.”
Still this wasn’t an easy decision for Chastain. The club has won several regional awards for its jazz menu over the years, and Downbeat Magazine, the bible of the jazz world, rated The Firefly as one of The 100 Great Jazz Clubs of the World in February 2007.
“It kind of puts us in a box,” says Chastain. “People drive here from all over the Midwest on a Friday or Saturday night without checking the schedule because they know we’ll have jazz, and they know it will be good.” A hip hop night could have pulled the venue out of that comfortable box.
Of course, the ugly specter of violence that precedes hip hop everywhere crept its way into the negotiation. Chastain made it clear there could be no “rumbles” in a respectable establishment like The Firefly.
Perry assured her that violence would not be a problem. In fact, the event they envisioned was subtitled “The Chill Lounge”, and Chastain agreed to hand over the keys to her baby one Sunday out of the month.
“The original idea was to fill a void,” Graffiti says. “There were hip hop shows that would go on, but there was no regular event where you could go out and get soulful music, hip hop music: an alternative to what you would get at the normal night club. We really wanted to have more of a lounge atmosphere.”
In the beginning crowds were small. They’d see about 30 people come through the doors. “At that point, everybody felt like it was their own night,” Graffiti laughs. “It was only a few people, but it was like friends that got together to do exactly what we wanted to be doing.”
But the word got out. After four months Elevation was a weekly, and it continues to flourish over three years later. “It was a slow build, but it grew to epic proportions,” smiles Chastain. “It definitely helps us support our jazz habit, and I like having us known for something other than jazz.”
Elevation has seen some changes. Jackson Perry and Now On relocated to Los Angeles two years ago where they’ve founded Elevation West. Buff1 of AML took over Jackson’s slot as host. DJ Benny Ben and DJ Jonah share turntable duties with Graffiti each week. Then in November the Firefly moved from Ashley Street to Main Street in Ann Arbor.
But the overall format has remained the same. In keeping with their chill lounge vibe, the DJs begin with some jazz and soul, then progress from a Nu Soul groove into underground hip hop. At 12:30am there is a half hour of open mic, and then the DJs kick it up a notch with 70s and 80s dance music.
On this freezing February night, the vibe is probably a lot like it was in the early days. It’s laid back and mellow. Most of the patrons know each other. Grand C from Athletic Mic League (AML) is celebrating a birthday complete with a booty cake.
In no time I find myself chilling on a couch in a corner, sipping my favorite ale, nodding my head to the beat. Yeah, it’s cold outside, but the mood at Elevation Sundays is warm and cozy. I will be back.