Jonathan Toubin is one of the best known DJ’s around when it comes to Soul, RnB and Rock N Roll from the 1950’s and 1960’s. He DJs regularly in New York and puts on his event, The Soul Clap Dance Off, all over the country and world. He also has a compilation series on Norton Records, Souvenirs Of The Soul Clap, where he compiles many of the rare tunes he plays. We discussed how he got started, punk rock and other stuff. Check it out:
How did you get into music?
Oh you know how it is. When I was a kid. I was very obsessed with KISS as a child. I listened to the radio in my moms car and all the kind of stuff.
So you were naturally drawn to Rock N Roll?
Oh yeah, from the minute I was aware. It was always an important part of me.
Did this lead to record collecting?
No. I didnt give a fuck when I was a little kid. I remember the first record I consciously got. My brother and I were torturing my mom with ‘Sexy Thing’ by Hot Chocolate. But back then there were just records. I was always music obsessing and getting music. I never really cared that much about collecting stuff or accumulating objects. I just really wanted to hear music.
How did you start DJing?
I started out doing college radio. And I got hired to play between bands at rock shows. I never thought about it for years as something I wanted to do. As a musician it didn’t really appeal to me that much. The DJ job wasn’t even really on my radar. I’d go to a night club and there would be a DJ but I never payed attention to it. But I had a little record label and I helped Kid Congo Powers put out his record. Ian Svenonianas came down and DJ’ed at the record release party. He asked me to put a dance party on for him and Calvin Johnson. I didn’t DJ it, I just put on the gig. But when I was giving out the flyers at a bar called Motor City, a friend asked if I could do it there too. I told him it was only one night but he said I should DJ. I was finishing my graduate thesis and was kind of in between things. It was successful enough that people kept asking me to do other stuff. So I started earning money on the side as a bar DJ. I wasn’t trying to make people dance and didn’t have any 45’s. It was mostly punk records and stuff. Then I got asked to do a dance party and none of my music was sufficient. And I realized I didn’t want to play disco, or electro or Top 40 or anything. The only thing I could think do to, that I personally liked also, was early Rock N Roll, Rhythm N Blues, Soul and Garage. Stuff like that. The dance party sets in with stuff like that. There’s comp’s and everything but It’s more fun to put on the real 45’s. Instead of taking this milk crate you can take something that weighs a lot less. You didn’t have to take a car. Once I realized that I was doing this for a living my goal was, like if I walked into a room with a dance party, what would I want it to be like? I figured I would rather hear someone playing all original 45’s and only that. So I deliberately limited myself to only 45’s as a stylistic, sonic and aesthetic choice. But it does eliminate so many LP’s from olden times with great cuts that you can’t get on 45.
One thing really I like about what you do, theres lots of dance and soul nights, but what you do is really an event. You have dance contests and bands. It’s really more of an event than just a normal soul or dance night.
Well, if you go to my Friday it’s just a a regular night. It’s just me playing records every week. For over 500 nights. Just this boring guy for five and a half hours.
Wow thats a long set. Five and a half hours!
Yeah and all two minute records. But thats how I get practice. That night is still a few hundred people every week for years. So it’s nice. But yeah Soul Clap is more of an event. Soul Clap was… Well, I wanted to throw a party where I only played the soul records. I played these rock bars and I thought everyone would like them better, but they didn’t. So I thought I would do a night where I just do that so, If you don’t like it, you don’t have to go. It thought it sounded kind of boring so I wanted to make it a little more special. The week before I was going to do the party I was playing this loft, in the middle of the night, in Williamsburg. An old photographers loft. At 5AM, there two guys. One was from Texas, one was from Tennessee. And they started arguing over who was the best dancer. So we had this little dance off in the middle of the night. It was so stupid but everyone was really into it. It was oddly interesting to watch two people express themselves. And also to have everybody react. People picked who they wanted to win, like a sport. So I was like next week we’ll put a dance contest in the soul party. So starting with the first one we had a dance contest. It took awhile to figure out we should get judges and assign dance contestants numbers. That all took time. The guy who won the first one is cool, Raul Deneives. He just had a major piece at the Whitney. He just got off the bus that day from San Francisco. Took a Greyhound all the way to New York. But that day was a mess. We didn’t know what we were doing. It got so popular so quickly. For awhile, we were giving everyone their own song to dance to alone. Like on those old TV shows. But by the 3rd one, it got so popular that we had to play like 100 songs. But we started assigning numbers. Seemed like a good way to keep track of people. The contests would go on forever. One time it lasted two hours. We had to figure out a system so groups of people could go at the same time. It was trial and error. It still is. I did one in New York the other night at my new space. It was great. Over a thousand people came. But when we had the contest, nobody could see what was going on on the floor but the stage was to flimsy to have dancers on. So again I’m back to square one trying to figure out how to make a dance contest work in that room.
There seems to a category of people, and we both fall into this, of guys and girls who are big fans of Punk Rock but are also big fans of mid-century Rhythm and Blues. Why do you think that is? Is there some kind of connection?
There’s a few reasons. For one, theres the raw aesthetic of underground Punk and Hardcore that I grew up with. It’s very similar to these small label records from the 60’s that are very raw. The aesthetic of rawness. Second of all, you got to remember that Punk came out at a time when people were rebelling against prog rock and disco and all that. So not only did all the early punk bands cover AM radio and 50’s Rock N Roll but, they brought the economical structure back in. A lot of the older music is immediate like Punk Rock. It’s raw recordings. The lack polish also adds a lot to it. Especially, when you look at the compartmentalization of contemporary music. Even in the 70’s, there were click-tracks and all of that but now with autotune, Pro-tools and all that stuff everything is so perfect. It feels really nice to have a drummer speed up a little when he gets excited. Or to have someone sing a little out of tune. Or to have an instrument do something it shouldn’t have done but it kind of fits anyway. It very much does with the aesthetic. But, I also want to point out, it seems like there are two strains of 45 soul DJs. There’s one that comes from Hip-Hop and there’s one that comes from Punk. Theres also a third kind coming up that just comes from record collecting but typically its Punk or Hip-Hop.
What next for you? What do you got in the works?
You know me. I’m always worried that it’s getting boring. I’m always trying to change it up. Right now I’m trying really hard to make things a little bit better. I moved the Soul Clap into this giant space and they’re giving me the freedom to have a show before the Clap. Its crazy. It’s got two separate crowds and one that overlaps. We got David Johansen playing his old stuff the other night and a bunch of my favorite local bands. And the party after. I also have a Daddy Long Legs tour coming up. We’re going to Europe together. We’re doing a Soul Clap Tour where they’re the band. I don’t tour much anymore. I do spot gigs. So it will be the first time I’ve piled in a van with some dudes in years!
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