Hey DJ! Friday Q&A: Jonathan Toubin

Categories: Q&A
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San Francisco's got nothin' but soul--lots and lots of soul nights, soul record stores, and plain ol' soul aficionados.

New York's also got a lotta soul--thanks, in part, to DJ Jonathan Toubin, who believes all good tunes can be traced back to punk and soul. He's the conductor of New York Night Train, a traveling showcase of classic 45s that's pulling into San Francisco for the weekend. He'll be DJing a house/bus party in Oakland on Friday, hitting the turntables between acts for Quintron and Miss Pussycat/Ty Segall show at Thee Parkside on Sunday, and then on Monday hosting the Soul Clap and Dance Off at Elbo Room.

The Soul Clap and Dance Off requires lots of audience participation--all those weekends you've been cutting it up at Saturday Night Soul Party? Time to put those moves into competition. The dance off is a special soul-based battle, where you'll be judged by a panel of dancing fools highly trained judges: artist Jay Howell, David Katznelson of Birdman Records, Jello Biafra, Cinnamon of the Lusty Lady, Paul Costuros of Saturday Night Soul Party, DJ Primo, Kimberly Chun of the Guardian, and yours truly. If you win, you'll earn more than our lavish praise: the prize is $100.

And without further ado, we introduce you to soul man Jonathan Toubin...

Name: New York Night Train Conductor and Soul Proprietor Mr. Jonathan Toubin

Club night(s): WORLDWIDE: Soul Clap and Dance-Off (which is coming to Elbo Room Monday w/some very prestigious and discriminating judges!) and New York Night Train Happening. NYC: New York Night Train Wednesday, Boogaloo Shampoo, Shakin' All Over Under Sideways Down!. FORMERLY: Animal Train Happening, Secret Santo/DECLASSIFIED!, Loose Caboose, Ants In Your Pants Dance Party, etc.

Style(s) of music you spin: Exclusively the good and the ugly - from primarily punk and soul lineages


So what's your story, in 100 words or less? Jewish Texan winds up in NYC after extensive touring with band en route to Chicago, lives two years off major label rock tit, works at the World Trade Center, tries to grow up when it blows up, quits music, cohabitates in Manhattan, goes to graduate school, drops out on the last mile to find himself back in Brooklyn playing music with a bunch of junkies again and writing garbage for a living, founds a webzine and record label, brings a few Dicks records to the bar one night, and accidentally stumbles into a career as a 45rpm dance party DJ.

You've DJed in San Francisco a couple times now: what's your SF connection? It's a major metropolitan area that sits between LA and Portland and necessary for New York Night Train manifest destiny - other than that, and that my booking agent Michelle Cable of Panache spent some time there, and that its also one of my favorite cities, I haven't had much of a connection to San Francisco since the scummy Mission days of the 1990s...

Do you have a favorite SF club night? I really had a blast spinning with Primo at Oldies Night at the Knockout and think SF should consider itself lucky to have such a special party and world-class DJ!

What's the oldies/soul scene like in New York compared to the scene here? To be honest, I know very little about the SF or NYC oldies scenes - I'm not very much a part of that world - I just happen to be a DJ who's becoming known for a lot of the vintage records I find exciting. In terms of 45 DJs playing those type of records in New York, I can safely say there are literally dozens that I know of who are active, including a few legendary figures like Fine Wine, Billy and Miriam of Norton Records, Phast Phreddie and my favorite DJ Josh Styles of Smashed! Blocked!.  Culturally speaking though, while they know each other, they all do different things at very different places for a relatively different public which doesn't "scene" in the traditional sense.

More importantly, where are the better record stores for old 45s? There really aren't!  I wish we could steal Rooky Ricardo's from you! Though something I want occasionally turns up at fine local stores like Academy or Tropicalia in Furs or Eat or Earwax, most of my records are hard-earned during my travels, on E-Bay (it seems like all of the minty good soul records are all across the Atlantic!) and at record shows. We don't have a store with 1000s and 1000s of 45s like you do...

What's the idea behind the The Soul Clap and Dance-Off? The Soul Clap initially came from my desire to start a monthly that focused exclusively on my soul 45s. At that point, soul was probably less than ¼ of what I was spinning but increasingly my favorite part of my sets.  The Dance-Off portion came from an experience I had turning records at a loft party near dawn when these two southern expat punk musician guys, one from Texas and one from Memphis, got in a disagreement and decided to have a dance-off to determine who was a better.  It was a hilarious contest and I thought it would be a fun element to include in a party. So I combined these two ideas - that was around 2½ years ago.  I really never imagined it would become my most popular party and take me around the world.

Who have been some of the better known judges in NY? I typically pick an unusual collection of what I call "neighborhood celebrities" - people that are famous to me - a popular waitress sitting next to the drummer of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, next the owner of a local vintage shop, next to a girl from Academy Records, next to a celebrated documentarian, next to a go go dancer, next to the editor of a music magazine.  I like a crazy mix.  But, the last one, which was curated by the club as I didn't have time to do it last minute, featured exclusively famous musicians - the singer of MGMT, the singer of Yeasayer, the singer of Chairlift, and the two rappers from Das Racist.  The punchline to this story is that, since its typically my job to introduce the judges as our hostess Laura Leigh doesn't usually know who they are, I looked across at this collection of rock stars and didn't recognize a one of 'em.  So I got on the mic and said to Laura, "Now it's time for you to introduce the judges" and she looked at them and looked back at me and replied, "No Jonathan, it's time for you to introduce the judges." There was this exceedingly long awkward quiet moment that finally ended when she turned to the panel and asked, "Why don't we have the judges introduce themselves?" So we both gazed upon the most famous judges we've ever had and neither of us had a clue as to who any of them were!

What are some tips for making it into the dance-off winner's circle? I never give the judges a criterion - but, because I typically pick interesting judges, style tends to beat ability in almost every case.  I'm really pissed that in NYC my favorite dancer always gets second place and the judges afterwards always say something to the effect of "he was too good" or whatevs.  Joe Stummer kissed the guy's feet and told him he was the best dancer he's seen in his entire life forchristsakes but he can't win our contest.  That doesn't mean the winners aren't great dancers - but those who bust out a sequence of acrobatics always loses to someone who has an unusual style.

Name of a track you can't get out of your head: "California Here I Come" (the 20s Jolson version of course!)

Why do you think soul music is enjoying such a resurgence on the DJ scene right now? It's pretty curious to me as well.  For my little nook of culture there's always been an element of soul music about - and I think this can be said for almost every great western subcultural music movement since soul was born. Plus good labels like Norton and Crypt Records have been consistently hipping the punk underground to these sounds for decades.  But, as for the last year or two, I'd like to take personal credit for the grand soul resurgence of 2009. Ha!

But really, one important factors may be, in mass culture, all of that Amy Winehouse business generally made a Shirley Ellis-style tune acceptable on a typical clubby dance floor and also led a lot of kids into that Sharon Jones/Dap-Tone scene. As far as my little end of the world is concerned, Black Lips, King Khan and the BBQ/Shrines, and all the 21st Century bands who are sympathetic to soul/garage aesthetics made it cool to like the stuff for a new group of kids.

And, probably most importantly, for the generation coming up that has access to all of the music ever recorded and thus a shocking array of knowledge about even the most obscure genres and sub-genres - its only logical that, when confronted with the entire body of recorded music, the young people would gravitate towards what is not only the most supreme dance genre, but the most immediately appealing music ever made in terms of combining the finest and most exciting beats, riffs, musicianship, vocal performance, and, in terms of the 45, mastering! I've been very surprised to develop a crowd that's primarily in its early-to-mid-20s for this kind of sound.

Musical mantra: "All music jars when the soul is out of tune" - I wish that was mine but it belongs to Cervantes

Favorite DJ experience: Being myself at a huge rave featuring famous DJs.

Worst request: I was in the unfortunate predicament of spinning a soul party the night Michael Jackson died. I'm still in recovery. What about "I'm Bad" don't people understand? I wish I heard even 1/100th as much James Brown when he passed on.

Worst club faux pas you've committed: Being myself at a huge rave featuring famous DJs.

Most treasured vinyl score: Last week's gorgeous haul from People's Records in Detroit - you'll hear what I'm talking about on Monday....

What other music-related projects are you currently working on? I'm still struggling to find time to keep my record label alive. I have new 45 releases by one of my favorite NYC bands, Stalkers, LA's Static Static, and Melbourne's Witch Hats.  I'm also in the process of digitizing my 45s to make public on my web site and struggling with the idea of how to make a proper mix. But I haven't picked up my guitar for a few years now.

Next time we can see Jonathan spin in SF: Sunday at Thee Parkside, Monday at the Elbo Room.


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