Jonathan Toubin is a man of many records, traveling all over the world with crates of 45s spreading the power of great soul music through his own dance revolution. There’s a reason Rolling Stone has labeled him “the most liked man in the soul music scene”. He knows the music of the 50s and 60s like no other, and he uses it make entire rooms groove. Leading up to his return to SPACE this Saturday, I had the chance to talk to Jonathan about how he started DJing, punk’s influence on him, and what it takes to win a Soul Clap Dance-Off. We'll see you this Saturday, on the dance-floor with your dancing shoes. Bring your best stuff.
What was the first record you remember buying? Did you collect records as a kid?
The first record I recall is “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate. I definitely had a lot of records as a kid, but it was the primary medium for consuming music at the time.
When did you realize DJing had become more than just a side gig for you?
It kind of snuck up on me slowly. I was supposed to be writing my graduate thesis at the time and was in a couple of bands and had a record label and was working writing jobs for money. I was offered a weekly gig at a friend’s bar and it did well almost immediately. So soon I was asked to do another weekly at another bar and then a weekend at a dance club and I was starting to get offered one-offs at big warehouse and gallery parties. I had started the Soul Clap and some other parties and they just started popping. Though I never really imagined the job, it somehow became my livelihood within a matter of months.
How does your background in punk rock play into your role as a soul DJ?
I felt so much kinship between these small-label soul and rhythm & blues records and the underground indie label subcultural music I grew up with. Aesthetically the recordings were raw and passionate—minimally recorded with little mistakes left in the mix. Also, when I graduated from bars to dance parties, most of the punk and garage didn’t work out so well on the dance floor, but this stuff was pure party gold that retained so many of my aesthetics and also appealed to my crowd.
What contemporary music are you drawn to when you’re not spinning 45s from the 50s and 60s?
I mostly like the bands you see featured at my own parties! Any of Ian Svenonius and Kid Congo Powers’ projects [editor's note: both have played SPACE several times each and we hope to have them back soon]. Shannon and the Clams, Night Neats, and Black Lips. I just did a tour with Daddy Longlegs and they are phenomenal live. Also, a lot of the NYC bands these days really kill it: The Mystery Lights, Surfbort... a whole lot going on. Last week I saw Tinariwen at Pickathon Festival and that was really amazing!
When did a dance-off become part of your DJ nights? How has the Soul Clap and Dance-Off changed over the years?
The Dance-Off only happens during the Soul Clap and no other parties. I decided I wanted a party where I exclusively played my soul records instead of just throwing them in the mix. The week of the first one, I was djing around dawn at a loft party and two friends got in an argument over who the best dancer was and had a dance-off. The drama, the humor, and the overall entertainment value was there and it became clear to me that I should add a similar spectacle to my dance party to make it more interesting.
Over the years the Clap has become a more elaborate and refined procedure through trial and error. We got judges to help. Initially dancers came up individually like in Saturday Night Fever, but to save time we started calling them in groups. Then, we started numbering contestants to keep some kind of order in the chaos. I could go on and on, but it tightens up all the time.
What would you say is the most common trait for a Dance-Off winner to have? I’m asking this for my own benefit, as a future Soul Clap contender.
Since I don’t determine the winners and the judges are always different, it’s hard to say. Typically, character is number one, but sometimes virtuosity, style, humor, and other traits win the day. I think it’s best, as with anything in life, to give it your all and be yourself!
Enrique Mendía is currently a student at Bowdoin College, where he runs WBOR 91.1 FM and studies photography. He's spending his first summer in Maine trying to do his best as a Music Programming Intern at SPACE, one ice cream sandwich at a time.