Get Lost in the "Unusual, Handmade, Live Ambiance" of DJ Jonathan Toubin's Soul Clap

Jonathan Toubin
Jonathan Toubin
Credit: Alexander Thomas

Saturday, DJ Jonathan Toubin's famous 'Soul Clap Dance-Off' returns to the Brooklyn Bowl after a summer off. Toubin, known for his spinning of old and obscure soul 45's, hosts the monthly BK Bowl party where a special guest comes 'round to facilitate a middle of the night dance off. For the return of the Soul Clap, Buster Poindexter, a.k.a. David Johansen of the New York Dolls, will be teaming up with one of the best DJ's in the city for the Saturday evening party.

To complement the amazing and classic music, Toubin has a number of exciting visuals and aesthetic elements in store for the show. Aiding the old school vibe will be shadow dancers -- dancers who will move behind a screen allowing the audience to view their gyrating silhouettes. "I'm trying to create all these visual things where people don't stare, and they get lost in this unusual, handmade, live ambiance," says the DJ. "It should hopefully look different and feel different and organic and express what all these people do, but hopefully it won't also detract from the main thing which is just the music and this dance contest we have."

In advance of his return, Toubin spoke with us about his summer, festival experiences, and style versus fashion.

See also: Who is the Best DJ in New York?

I've been to your Home Sweet Home residency a lot, and I love those nights. I was wondering what sort of differentiates Soul Clap Dance Off from your Home Sweet Home residency or other shows? The Soul Clap is unique in a lot of ways. There's a lot of these soul 45 parties. That's why it's weird because I started at Motor City bars and these guys had bands and stuff. If you notice my guest DJs are always these rock 'n' roll guys. We had like Ty Segall and Buster Poindexter and, all kind of weird guys come through. It's always really rock 'n' roll. So I started doing this thing in Williamsburg for these people I know, and I really just started buying the records, and all that was just community, from people that don't really listen to that music. I mean I did too, but we all came from I guess more of an underground like art and music -- you know Williamsburg 2000s -- kinda culture. It grew out of that and the aesthetic of it became a little different than you know. I also started playing the records a little bit differently than other people that do it.

And then the dance contest is like sort of another weird tradition that was sort of a joke. I played at a loft party and these two guys I know, one guy that was in a band with me and this other guy from this other band, we were in this argument over who was the better dancer, and they had this dance off. It was probably Sunday morning and the sun's coming up, and these guys are like, you know, strutting around. It was just so funny and everyone was watching, we just thought this would be a really funny little thing to have in the middle of the soul party so that it wouldn't be boring. You know like just some little thing, you know. And we have a dance contest! For at least a couple years it was this funny little neighborhood thing to do. And I got invited,My agent told me, she was like they invited me to do it in Canada at a festival, and I was like no we can't do that there, it's just a stupid New York thing, you know? Nobody would get this, you know? That was six years ago; since, I've probably done, I don't know, hundreds and hundreds of them everywhere. I'm gonna be doing them in Barcelona and Iceland next month. It's weird. Stockholm. We sadly have to make it a little more structured to work out, you know. So it's not spontaneous like it was.

So what's kept you from Soul Clap Dance Off this summer, I'm guessing some touring and bringing it internationally? I always take three months off in New York but I was doing it all around the world. I took the summer off because I felt the party was really fun and we've been but I can use a break to try to improve upon some things. We haven't been able to capture the vibe, I guess, that we were hoping to. You know I mean I basically play a bunch of records nobody knows all night, you know I mean I literally, I mean I spend all my money, I don't make money, I spend thousands of dollars on records every month, so I can have these weird records for everybody they don't know. So it's not like the usual kind of thing.But we moved to a much bigger place so that a smaller group of people and a group of us would start, create an atmosphere on their own, I think it helped. So we took some time off to try to figure out a way to get, I guess, to create artificially a vibe - I don't mean that in a bad way, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that, when it's a small group of people, you can just create this energy between people interacting, and that's what the DJ does. When you go on a level of these bigger DJs playing, I think the reason they dim out all the lights and the reason that they have like this shell and all that, is because it is hard to make that many people communicate and to create this atmosphere through just music and personalities alone, you know? And on the other hand I'm opposed to this sort of, kinda spectacle, so this is a community event, and we've been trying very hard to have this expressive community aspect, and it's been very hard to figure out a way to use visuals. It was just a lot to think about, so we just decided to take some time off, and I decided to try to re-envision it.

I can imagine trying to replicate the intimacy of a small party at something larger, someplace like Brooklyn Bowl. I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about your 45 collection, how massive is it now? I don't count, but I'm sure I have over 20,000. The thing is that size doesn't matter, it's more to me the quality improving over time. And to be honest, I play less of the records over time. Basically over time you can really hold an aesthetic and develop; you find more perfect records. Like I bought a perfect record yesterday, I've been looking for for years. I know it's gonna work on the dance floor, and it's unusual, elegant, and has got a crazy beat and a great vocal performance, and has got dynamics. I've wanted this record for years and I've only come across a record like this every now and then. And when those records, I mean when I play it, I know enough what it will do, and then just having records like this in my set over the time - you know what I mean, they just make it overall. Like I said it's not about quantity, it's more about having more stuff that you really believe in that you know is unique to you and will also make people go crazy. I don't play things people know, usually, you know. The thing about time isn't accumulating more stuff, but I guess getting more stuff that you like and honing down your aesthetic to make more sense and create a unique voice, if that makes sense.

What was the record that you had been looking for and found? It's this record called "Slick Chick" by Vernon Harrell. And it's a little, it's not as fast as the other stuff but has a really strong beat and a really odd organ, and a really unusual harmonic arrangement that I know will make everybody just stop for a second. When I hear it I can already feel them moving when it picks up again, you know?

Is there a difference between the music that you play and the music that you listen to for pleasure, like do you listen to a lot of soul music and old rock 'n' roll in your spare time as well, or is your taste different?

Oh yeah. But I mean, everybody's tastes go broad when they enjoy things on their own. I guess it's sort of like this: you might enjoy wearing your tennis outfit out to the tennis court and all that stuff, but when you go to work, whatever your work is, you use your own style if you wear a suit or whatever to work, you hopefully get a suit that you like that's for work. When I have the Soul Clap I might be in a mood to play free jazz, but I would never subject anybody to that, you know.

 

Just pull that out for the dance off in the middle.

Another thing is I don't play records during the dance off. The dance off only lasts six or seven songs, and in New York I hire a different person to do it every month, and I try to get someone who's not a real DJ. Instead of doing the usual like getting a specialist, I like the idea of getting someone like David Johansen who's doing it this week. I'm always curious about one of these guys that plays in a band; you're like what kind of soul music do they like? And I feel like this way it's a little more democratic and it's got some more personality, and you get to kind of find out. I kind of like the sort of thing like, when you talk to these musicians that play in all these indie bands and punk bands and garage bands and all this stuff, they tend to really like soul music also. And I think by having someone from this other world play this kind of music, it's also a way of telling people that maybe are a little more close-minded, you know, actually all kinds of cool people like soul music.

What brought you and David Johansen together? Are you a New York Dolls fan? Well actually I met him in a weird way. His stepdaughter was working for me as the door girl for awhile. She was best friends with this girl that I knew, an awesome young girl whose mom I was friends with. This girl was like, "You should get my friend Lea to do the door," and I did. [Lea] would say, "My dad has a lot of these cool records, you should have him come play records." I didn't know who her dad was, and to be honest, you know, whenever you play older records a lot of people say stuff like my dad has a lot of these. So I didn't really take her up on it, I found out her dad was one of my all time heroes of rock 'n' roll and style and culture and singing, and whatever. So obviously yeah I was like, Man, get in touch with that guy! And we ended up being friends. He sees eye-to-eye a lot with me on what makes good, fun, exciting music. He's a very diverse man who knows a lot about music, and also you know, one thing that all the music he plays always has in common is it's party music.The other thing is that he always dresses so cool, but he's from that time where like I guess, people put posters of rock musicians on the wall because they looked so cool.

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That's really cool that this hero of yours has continued to be a collaborator and has been a part of your shows. Oh yeah. This is sadly only the 4th one he's done. I only have him every now and then cause he's so busy, and, you know.

Throughout time, every time that I've met any of these cool, interesting guys, I always involve them in the parties. And to be honest, they're a whole other variety of people. In New York people are so concerned with novelty or what people are writing about in Pitchfork this time or something like that. People sometimes don't really regard the people that created their culture, or their heroes. They don't know why they're here. People get sad when Tommy Ramone dies, which they should be, but you know, that guy was around all the time before he died. They played a lot of music and did a lot of things, and there wasn't that many people there, you know?

Right. No, you know it comes down to basically this -- that long term battle between I guess style and fashion. Style is something that's eternal and people just have, and it's just things that you believe in. People with style, they look cool when they're old and when they're young. They have these certain aesthetics that they develop and hone throughout life and it improves. Fashion is just liking something that's new and then getting rid of it next year and liking something else, cause everybody likes it. I feel like in New York overall, it seems like a lot of people don't care enough about style, and it's sad because we're from this incredible music culture that people all over the world admire. We ourselves don't always see what's good about, and we want to emulate what they do in these other places because that's fashionable or whatever. I don't know. So I've been really working hard to keep discovering new, unusual things that fit in with a certain aesthetic, and I guess a higher level of appreciation that I don't see everywhere.

I play an unconscionable style of music and play music that people don't know. Then I have these guys, you know, I hope that it reminds everyone that this is part of this whole thing. All these guys were really cultured and knew a lot about really cool music, and I feel like when I've started adding this music to these subculture parties, it made total sense.

What's sort of been the international response when you bring the Soul Clap Dance Off outside of New York CIty and play these songs in Europe or anywhere? It's been crazy. We just played the Town Hall in Geneva last week. I was the headliner, and it was crazy, I played all this obscure music for hundreds and hundreds of people. I tried my best to keep the energy up, but man, they went with me the whole time; it was nice. I've started doing festivals this year which has been, you know, kinda weird for me because I'm playing these rock festivals and the only DJs they have are electronic. I'm like the only guy that plays music with drums in it or that plays records usually. Even at Bonnaroo, it's just been a constant success, it's been crazy to go up in front of a few thousand kids that are expecting something different, and then they hear this, and it makes them go wild. It's not been just for me, but it also makes me realize that I think people are underestimating a lot of the young people at these things. And I feel like if you go to a rock 'n' roll festival you imagine, you know, after the bands they always put these electro guys on into the night, which I understand, a lot of people like that. But in a festival when you go see a lot of these bands with drums and guitars and stuff, a lot of those people aren't gonna wanna hear an electro DJ that much, you know? So I think me coming in and being like the first guy that plays this kind of music in those atmospheres, I do my best to play the best stuff I can the best way possible, you know. So it's been a really good response, and because I've been getting good response I've been at at least a dozen festivals.

Finally, with the history of the dance off, what's the wildest move that you've seen pulled out for a dance off? Oh man, well, I definitely, I've had two different people over the years actually flip the judge table over. It doesn't happen at the Brooklyn Bowl, but I've definitely seen people pour a pitcher of beer on their head. I've seen people lay on the floor and do nothing, have a spasm. I've seen people pretty much humping out there. I've had quite a few people on crutches do really unusual moves. To be honest the more boring stuff is twerking.

Most of the people that come to these parties don't know anything about the kind of dancing that people would do to this music. So what's kinda cool about it is everyone brings in their own cultural experience, the way that people dance, that they would dance. So you get someone that's straight hip hop dance, often, you see a lot of that in the dance. So people really come up with something new a lot, I think. Like really natural, organic way of approaching dance.

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