Jonathan Toubin's Soul Clap and Dance Off
At 11 p.m. Saturday, March 9
Jonathan Toubin is, in the vernacular of his beloved ‘60s, a boss jock.
A good DJ is like an artist - creating and maintaining moods and mojo for people to lose themselves in. And on the New York club scene, no disc jockey is more boss than Toubin, whose Night Train dance parties make the faithful flock from the boroughs and beyond. He plays only vintage rhythm ‘n' blues 45s, in a blood, sweat ‘n' beers program he calls the Soul Clap Dance Party.
So cool that Rolling Stone has written numerous pieces about him, Toubin has expanded his regular Friday-night gig at New York's Home Sweet Home, and regular stints at the famous Brooklyn Bowl, to include national and even overseas tours. He's that good.
It was on such a road trip, in December 2011, that Toubin was nearly killed in Portland, Ore. A cab driver, suffering a diabetic seizure, accelerated through a motel wall and crushed him as he lay sleeping during a rare night off.
The incident left Toubin with multiple fractures, crushed lungs, a punctured liver and other serious injuries. He was comatose for a solid month.
His friends and fans rallied their support.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a benefit show for him.
Feeling much better, thanks, Toubin says he's still physically struggling a bit, but every day is an improvement on the last. And he's raring to bring his big box o'vinyl to the Savannah Stopover.
Connect spoke with Toubin, as per his request, via Facebook Messenger.
Was it so bad at first that you thought you might not have a career any more, much less a life? Was it a nasty prognosis at the start?
Jonathan Toubin: Ha. Yeah. I guess. I wasn't as much initially concerned with whether or not I would live or whether I would work. I think I was more worried about whether I would be able to walk, or use my hands or my brain. Once that started working out for me I started becoming more concerned with work, etc.
Why does someone become a DJ? Most of the people I knew, in the days when radio was cool, were music snobs who wanted to play stuff they liked for people. But what you do is so much broader - keeping a room full of people entertained and moving. Why do you think this was the direction you took?
Jonathan Toubin: Well first off, I didn't initially intend to become a DJ. I was initially a musician that started a small label and put on events to promote the records I put out (record release parties, etc). And I was also supposed to be finishing up my Masters thesis and returning to graduate school, but kept buying more time. And I was barely eking by with writing, and a little bit of web production. And in New York, a lot of people I knew were making a small living back then (still are) sitting in the corner of an empty bar and either playing records, or CDs, or mp3s.
So when I began to produce more events and play more records at them, I found that I enjoyed it, people liked it (the bar was pretty low), and I rapidly started getting offered more work. Once I had an average of about three gigs per week, it was enough money that I didn't have to work. Of course I didn't take it very seriously at first, but it was a way to get by and I was really enjoying myself.
Was it all R&B etc always? Or were you playing punk, garage, rock stuff, or more modern dance music? Did you eventually whittle it down to soul and R&B?
Jonathan Toubin: No, I was primarily a punk and rock ‘n' roll DJ. The R&B came about when I started trying to get people to dance. I didn't want to play disco, house, electro, contemporary hip hop, ‘80s hits, and other subgenres of music people like dancing to - but I couldn't relate to. So I started experimenting with music that had drums and guitars and rawness - but still a killer beat and groove - and took the long way to my current destination ... guess I should clarify that bar DJs aren't expected to make people dance - so it didn't become a concern until I started getting invited to do dance rooms and parties.
By "took the long way," I guess you mean a learning curve, right? Are you talking about matching grooves, feel, basslines and that sort of thing? Or a deeper archaeological dig into more obscure records?
Jonathan Toubin: I mean that I learned through trial and error - and without a plan. Sort of a pragmatic mix of problem solving and action and reaction, as different situations were thrown at me and I still tried to retain my own aesthetic and be true to myself. Is that still too vague?
Kinda, yeah. Are you saying you sucked in the beginning and eventually got better?
Jonathan Toubin: Well, I did suck at the beginning and got better but that's not what I'm trying to say. Some people's path is mapped out in advance and even if it's not, they have a destination. I had no destination. I would be playing a party with a bunch of the art and underground music scene people I knew, and would be surprised when I threw down a little known thrift shop soul record how it brought everybody together. Then I'd also be surprised how the same records wouldn't work in a bar with a similar crowd of people, but completely different setting.
Again I would learn something else when I had to play after house guys and hit DJs when I entered the dance arena. All of this is hard when you still want to remain yourself - and retain your beliefs, aesthetics, conviction, etc. - but you still need to make people happy and not ruin the party. But in retrospect I think I could have learned a lot of what I know now by just planning ahead and strategizing. So that's what I mean by the long way. Everything was learned and articulated one song at a time, one gig at a time, etc.
From my time in radio, I found the endless repetition of the songs I loved the most tended to make me ... well, tired of them. Have you ever found this to be the case?
Jonathan Toubin: Definitely! I sometimes try and make sure I don't play the same song in a given month (unless it's new to me and I'm excited to play it). When I started getting a name for myself and touring, I thought it was necessary to have these blocks of songs with transitions worked out every time (as you know, 45s aren't so easy to juxtapose as they all have fade-outs etc., and the bands speed up throughout and awkward intros, etc) - so I'd play five or six songs in a row and I'd know how people would react and I could impress people with how I went from one to the other plus deliberately increase or decrease the energy or keep the flow.
Well, to make a long story short, I got bored and decided that everything needed to be completely random and pragmatic based on the records and the dancers and other details that come up at the time. This not only made me a better dj in a Zen sort of way, but it made my choices more infinite. And while I hate repetition (and hence have a dozens of records every month habit) and am easily bored, I recognize that audiences love it ("do you have that track you played last time you were in town?" etc). So it's still a complex issue for me.
I mean all great DJs have signature songs that people identify with them, and that can't be achieved without repetition.
Tell me about the Dance Off. It's a kick and a smash in New York, but will it play in little old Savannah?
Jonathan Toubin: The Dance Off is just a short contest in the middle of my Soul Clap Dance Party. But more than that, it's a ritual that bonds the room together and gets everyone worked up, and creates a community with the shared experience of watching (or dancing with) their friends in a circle. I'm surprised about its power and it rarely fails in the good times department - because the people are the action.
While I've never played records in Savannah before, the South tends to get me (I'm from Texas - which is arguably the south). I just blew the doors down in Durham last week. Southern dancers like and understand this raw, wild, spirited music I play and I've found can be a lot less inhibited than a lot of other regions.
Plus, I've been to Savannah before, and I can really see the people getting into the unique eccentric elements of the Soul clap ... plus the superior music. Ha!