In 1999, Rockstar Games co-founders Sam Houser and Terry Donovan teamed up with John Davis, the promoter of the Sunday afternoon New York party Body & Soul, to envision a new club night — one that would stand apart from the vacuous, celebrity-filled parties that dominated the city. It would spotlight underground artists and even require guests to answer a questionnaire over the phone before the venue was revealed. They named it Rockstar Loft.
Starting a club night was arguably a strange move for a video game company. But Rockstar wasn’t trying to be your typical video game publisher. Its founders wanted the company to be a lifestyle brand, with hopes that its other creative endeavors, like organizing nightclub parties and selling clothes at Urban Outfitters, would translate back into awareness of its games.
Moving to New York
In 1998, five Brits — Terry Donovan, Jamie King, Sam and Dan Houser, and Gary Foreman — moved from the UK to New York to form a new label under the video game publisher Take-Two Interactive called Rockstar Games. The five men had previously worked together at the media company BMG (Bertelsmann Music Group) in London, across its various subsidiaries, including BMG Interactive — publishers of Grand Theft Auto (1997). But, in 1998, after BMG folded its interactive division, Take-Two acquired BMG Interactive’s assets and approached some of these key staff members to cross the Atlantic.
The founders of Rockstar Games moved into a set of offices at 622 Broadway and picked up where BMG Interactive left off. They continued supporting the Dundee developer DMA Design as it worked away on the sequel to Grand Theft Auto and the unconventional platformer Space Station Silicon Valley. After hours, they visited popular nightclubs, trying to get a taste of the culture — but they were underwhelmed by what they found.
As Donovan told NYMag’s Ethan Brown in September 1999, “When I arrived in New York last November, I found the scene here so disappointing […] I thought, Hold on, this is supposed to be one of the most vibrant cities on earth. What’s going on here?” In another interview with the New York Times’ Julia Chaplin, he elaborated, saying: “People spent the whole time looking over your shoulder hoping to spot someone more important to talk to.”
Donovan wasn’t the only person at Rockstar disappointed with the shallow celebrity culture that was starting to emerge. In the same interview with the New York Times, Sam Houser also took aim, asking ”How many times do you have to be ignored by celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio at some horribly trendy club to know that it’s not going to make you a happier person?”
With that said, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Donovan was particularly impressed with Body & Soul, a no-guestlist, no velvet rope party that was run out of Club Vinyl. Speaking to Brown in NYMag, he told him it was “the complete club — elite in both its musical taste and audience.” And he wasn’t the only one at Rockstar who was impressed.
“There was this amazing fucking nightclub on a Sunday afternoon in Tribeca called Body & Soul,” Jamie King tells me. “It would be like three in the afternoon, you’re standing in line outside whatever warehouse it was, and you can’t hear anything. Then you get inside and you hear this [thumping bassline]. It’s dark, and suddenly you’re in a big room and it’s packed. Heavy gay [vibe], neon’s everywhere, and Francois K.’s DJing.”
King says that Rockstar’s co-founders became close with the team behind Body & Soul, including its promoter John Davis, who, along with the French-born DJ Francois K., had started Body & Soul just a few years earlier in 1996. At the time, Davis was looking into launching several new club nights, including the Sunday night party,“Heartbeat.” Rockstar, meanwhile, was trying to establish itself in New York and wanted to generate some publicity for the new label. As a result, Davis, Donovan, and Houser started talking about a potential collaboration — one that would eventually produce Rockstar Loft.
The Anti-Elitist Elitist Club Party
Donovan already had some experience with clubbing in the past, having been a resident DJ at House of God in Birmingham in the UK — one of the longest-running techno clubs. He knew exactly what he wanted this new night to be. In the interview with NYMag, Donovan positioned Rockstar Loft as an alternative to exclusive clubs where guests were “bulldozed by security” or “charged $8 for a drink that costs 75 cents.” He also ruled out video game installations, and put an emphasis on the music, highlighting some of the artists they were getting in touch with to play. The message Rockstar was putting out was simple: it was serious about the party business.
This wasn’t going to be your run of the mill corporate event, but an underground alternative to New York’s megaclubs. It also fit in quite nicely with Rockstar’s broader aims, mainly rehabilitating the image of gamers and raising its profile. “Part of what we’re trying to get away from is that image of the lone, girlfriend-less pizza-ordering fat guy in the bedroom,” Donovan explained in an interview with Ray Gun Magazine’s Eric Gladstone, “which isn’t really relevant.”
“There was a whole stereotype that games were for kids and socially nerdy, awkward young white men,” King points out. “[…] So we had to be a bit gnarly. We didn’t have a million dollars for TV back then in America. It was a lot of money to run ads every thirty minutes, so it was like guerrilla street teams, fucking fly-posters, stickers everywhere. And we had to really lean into the mystique and the lore. […] In New York, you had Puff Daddy blowing up, you had these rich Jewish girl PR firms that were like on it, and you had Supreme and Stööki. Everything was super cool, so we had to be super cool and get everyone’s attention. The loft parties were one way of doing it.”
As Chaplin noted in her New York Times’ article, The Anti-Elitist Club Party: Ready or Not, some of the thinking behind the event seemed to slightly contradict Rockstar’s purported aims. For one, the name seemed more befitting of a private members club than a dance party. Then there was the attitude towards its clientele.
Rather than selling tickets in advance, Rockstar directed would-be partiers to phone a number where they had to answer seven questions as a way of gauging their personality. These questions ranged from what their favorite DJ was to the best movie they’ve seen in the last two years. If the person on the phone liked what they heard, they would send a pink ticket out in the mail. If not, they didn’t want them.
Chaplin had some fun with this. She wrote in the New York Times, “I said I enjoyed attending film premieres with celebrities like Julia Roberts, and going to bars like Moomba where I might see Donald Trump. I said my favorite D.J.’s were ones who also modeled. I started making other plans for Saturday night, but to my surprise, two pink tickets appeared in the mail.”
Both of these decisions — the name and the policy for distributing tickets — were strange, but were likely references to a series of long-running New York parties called The Loft, which were invite-only. But whereas The Loft’s founder David Mancuso always saw his creation as non-commercial and a way to foster a more diverse community, Rockstar saw its own Loft as a potential business investment and revelled in its exclusivity.
“Me and [the producer] Jennifer Kolbe were on the door, and there were some proper A-list celebrities [who turned up],” King tells me. “[One] turned up with a wig and five girls and I was like, ‘No, you can’t, I know who you are, but you can’t’ and it killed them. But it was all part of the same thing.”
The first ever Rockstar Loft event took place on October 30, 1999, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. The area was home to the historic nightclub The Sound Factory, as well as its successor Twilo. Rockstar booked Body & Soul regular DJ Andi Hanley to do a set, as well as DJ Bob Sinclar (pre-Love Generation); and Dimitri from Paris, a French producer who had released his debut record, Sacrebleu, a few years earlier in 1996. Dimitri was already familiar with the New York Club scene, having played a few nights at Twilo with a group of French promoters called Respect is Burning. His set at the time consisted of a mixture of lounge, house, and 50s and 60s soundtracks.
“Because John Davis was familiar with Twilo, and I was friendly with Francois K., they pitched me the event,” Dimitri tells me over the phone. “I thought, this sounds great. And it was pretty much how they described it. […] A lot of the time people will sell you something as, ‘Oh, it’s going to be super underground,’ this and that, and then it just ends up being another boring corporate event.
“It felt like I was chosen for music that would suit the people that were there,” Dimitri adds. “So it wasn’t like the, ‘Can you play something I know?’ every two records type of crowd. Not at all. It felt like I was playing a proper New York club, even though it wasn’t a club. It seemed like people were down with the music.”
Chaplin, who was in attendance on the night, praised Dimitri’s set as “perfect for dancing,” but wasn’t keen on the venue — and was surprised by just how empty the place was. “Our hosts were taking the anti-glamour theme seriously,” she wrote in the New York Times. “For snacks, there were fruit plates set out on folding tables with white table cloths. Guys in baggy jeans and record label T-shirts hovered around the D.J. booth. One guest with spiky hair and a Nike sweat band around his head compared it to a ‘Silicon Alley launch party.’ Most disconcerting, there was only one bar, which was mobbed seven layers deep. I got in line. My friends got out their cell phones.”
Rather than hang around for the night to pick up, Chaplin left Rockstar Loft for Lot 61 where musician Donovan Leitch, and models Kirsty Hume and Amber Valletta were hosting a party, but managed to convince her friends to return later that night. When she came back, she found the doorman handing out the once exclusive pink tickets indiscriminately to get people inside — not exactly the image you want for your super trendy nightclub.
Chaplin later posted her write-up of the night on November 7, 1999, warts and all, and needless to say Rockstar’s founders weren’t happy with it.
As detailed in Jacked: The Unauthorised Behind-the-Scenes Story of Grand Theft Auto, Sam Houser responded, “It took one article for me — one journalist to say a bunch of dot com yuppies in Ralph Lauren T-shirts [sic] in our parties, some really irrelevant bitchy remark.”
Despite the review, Rockstar Loft was not a one-and-done. According to my sources, one later event took place on February 19, 2000 and featured appearances from French Techno producer DJ Deep and house duo Pete Heller and Terry Farley.
“The promoter who booked me for the night was John Davis, Body and Soul’s promoter,” DJ Deep tells me via email. “I loved it and had a blast. At first, I did not know what Rockstar was and felt the name was delivering a little bit of a different vibe from say ‘Body and Soul,’ but then my friends Frankie Feliciano and Kerri Chandler who knew video games way better than I explained it to me. I have to say, I was really impressed with the organization and the party! I prepared my set like crazy, playing some dope Joe Claussell brand new releases, alongside Frankie Feliciano or Kerri Chandler new unreleased jams they had given me on the day of the party.”
“I don’t remember much apart from being very, very nervous playing to what seemed to be NY’s clubbing hierarchy,” says Farley. “We had made yearly pilgrimages to the Sound Factory to hear Frankie [Knuckles] then Junior [Vasquez] play from I think 91 -94/95. That club influenced everything we did back then. [I remember that night] I had a white label promo of Spiller ‘Groovejet’ that seemed to impress the NY House heads. There’s a moment in ‘Groovejet’ where Spiller mimicked that classic NY DJ trick of using an isolator to take out all the bottom end while pushing up the highs — it got a massive reaction.”
Despite these later events apparently being better received, Rockstar Loft eventually winded down — and it’s easy to understand why. Rockstar was beginning production on Grand Theft Auto III, the first open-world 3D game in the Grand Theft Auto series, and had a bunch of other projects to oversee — such as two bizarre Austin Powers tie-ins and the release of Angel Studios’ Smuggler’s Run. A year removed, it probably didn’t make as much sense to dedicate time to organizing parties whose novelty had worn off.
“They were a very heavy lift, A lot of work. And a little bit indulgent,” King admits. “We’re making games. Even Terry and Sam were like let’s fucking be focused, right? Yeah, it was cool, and that’s why we did two or three, and they were very hard to get into.”
Today, many fans see Rockstar Loft as a rare failure for the publisher. It had set out, among other things, to provide an alternative to New York’s megaclubs, but the bad press had seemingly shaken the confidence of its co-founders. And so, Rockstar eventually let the brand die a quiet death.
Donovan and King left Rockstar in 2006, but the company has continued to show an interest in music. Not only does each Grand Theft Auto game feature a long list of licensed tracks from popular and underground artists, but updates to GTA Online — the online component of Grand Theft Auto V — let players create their very own nightclub and interact with real artists like Dr Dre and Anderson .Paak.
And then, on May 24, 2020, the video game publisher Rockstar Games announced that it was teaming up with CircoLoco — the organizers of the notorious Ibiza house parties — to form a new record label, CircoLoco Records. Since then, it has already released a few taster EPs, which are leading up to a full-length compilation named Monday Dreamin’. While not exactly a club night, it’s hard not to see the parallels with Rockstar’s parties of the past. The Rockstar Loft may have died, but its legacy certainly lives on.
Photos for this article courtesy of GTASeriesVideos