Vinyl soul: DJ Jonathan Toubin puts raw passion on the dance floor
With electronic DJ culture prevalent and sailing toward ubiquitous, Jonathan Toubin exists among a smaller, scrappier group of 21st-century DJs who work without laptops, continuing to put pieces of vinyl on a turntable, dropping the needle and getting people to dance to songs more than a half-century old.
For 10 years, the Houston native has hosted his signature Soul Clap and Dance Off events in New York. They’re simple in structure: Toubin plays raw, old R&B, soul and blues songs from the ’50s and ’60s and people dance, including a short dance competition midshow.
Toubin, 45, says he found his space simply by trying to offer an alternative to the typical dance-floor events offered around New York at the time. On one end, he says, was the progressive music issued by the electronic DFA label, and on the other was contemporary hip-hop and R&B. Within those parameters, Toubin says, “I felt like an alien.
“Even though I’ve tried from time to time, I’ve never been passionate about post-disco dance music,” he says. “From house to techno all the way up to the newer electro. So I felt alienated when it came time to dance. I also imagined there were probably a lot of people out there who could and would dance to tougher sounds, with drums and guitars, if it was presented in the right way. I primarily thought it would be cool if someone started a small alternative dance culture for people like me.”
Around that time, Toubin discovered an old box of R&B 45s at a junk store on his block for a few dollars.
“I always liked soul and rhythm & blues, but for the most part only had LPs by the likes of James Brown, Little Richard, Ike and Tina, Wilson Pickett, and other canonical artists,” he says. “The screaming, expressive musicianship and raw passion always stood in contrast to the slickness of contemporary popular music - or even oldies or classic Motown, for that matter.”
He started playing some of these songs at late-night dance parties and found the sounds got people on the dance floor. Toubin decided to build an entire evening around that music.
The Dance Off started organically, when two of his friends were arguing about who was the better dancer.
“Growing up in punk culture, I always appreciated the breaking of barriers between entertainer and audience,” Toubin says. The dance competition achieved just that.
A decade is a lifetime for a recurring DJ-centric party in New York. But Toubin still spins there, while taking his show to large-scale music festivals and international stages as well. He’s become a slick-suit-clad, two-tone wing-tip-shoe-wearing lord of land of 1,000 dances, only without playing obvious standard hits like, well, “Land of 1,000 Dances.” Instead, he digs for diamonds put into the earth by forgotten performers like Phil Flowers and the TNT Tribble, Bill Robinson and the Quails, Sonny Til and the Orioles, and Eddie Bridges and His Lowriders.
Toubin’s status as tastemaker was further codified when Norton Records, a prestigious curator of old music, made him the first DJ to release albums on its label. So far, Norton has put out four volumes of songs selected by Toubin as “Souvenirs of the Soul Clap.”
Toubin, like the music he plays, has proven durable. He has hosted more than 2,000 Soul Claps, with a brief interruption in 2012 to recover from a ghastly freak accident that nearly killed him.
When you read about emergency services being dispatched to save the life of a musician in a place with a name like the Jupiter Hotel, the cause of distress will almost always be chemical and self-inflicted. Such was not the case with Toubin’s close call. In December 2011, he did a show, then checked into the Jupiter in Portland, Ore., where he fell asleep.
Early that morning, a taxi driver suffered a seizure and drove his car through the hotel’s exterior, coming to a stop on top of Toubin, who was pinned to the bed by the vehicle. His list of injuries was extensive: fractured skull, crushed lungs, broken pelvis, punctured liver, broken sternum and ribs and two broken collarbones. The injuries to Toubin’s skull affected his hearing, and his hands were mangled beyond use for months.
That Toubin survived was shocking. That he was walking and back at the turntables within months was near miraculous, due to a mix of dedicated rehab and physical therapy.
The music’s resilience springs in part from the ageless urgency of ’50s and ’60s R&B. By embracing that gritty, soulful music, with its distinctive regional flourishes, Toubin provides an alternative to laptop music culture.
Having just celebrated the Soul Clap and Dance Off’s 10th anniversary in New York last month, Toubin brings the show back to his hometown this weekend, the first time he’s spun in Houston in four years.
Toubin says he grew up on KTRU’s alternative programming in Houston before spending time playing guitar in local bands like Noodle and Cheezus, which he describes as “early 1990s Texas underground bands with no pretension to do better commercially than any of the bands who influenced us - meaning we knew we wouldn’t make a dime and wanted to make the music we love and have fun as a part of the post-hardcore and grunge era underground music scene we inhabited.”
Since drifting away from his Texas post-hardcore youth, he’s since found a wealth of music from this region and across Texas for his Soul Claps.
“While Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio had the most fertile record cultures in Texas, you’d be surprised how there were so many great platters coming out of Tyler, Beaumont, Waco, Corpus Christi, Midland/Odessa, El Paso and all over the state,” he says. “And while Texas was more hoppin’ than most states, multiply all of that by 50 and you have hundreds of thousands of wax artifacts from the 1950s and 1960s.”
Toubin’s description of these forgotten songs speaks to the enthusiasm that led to their creation and the obscurity that would soon cloak them for decades. And with his shows, he can again reassemble together some brilliant music he calls “these most noble shattered dreams.”