DJ Jonathan Toubin: I've been told I'm "un-Shazam-able"

DJ Jonathan Toubin: I've been told I'm "un-Shazam-able"
Photo by James Jones

DJ Jonathan Toubin is a hero to record snobs, barnstorming partiers, and entrepreneurs alike. His event imprint, New York Night Train, is based around fierce, lusty dancing and socializing that never resorts to stale music and fits like a glove with the finest in underground rock and soul. In his hands, an evolving collection of 7-inch singles from five decades ago becomes a splatter of sweat-soaked color and the catalyst for countless hearts skipping a beat simultaneously.

Fans the world over had a scare late last year when Toubin was run over by a wayward taxi while he was asleep in a hotel room in Portland. The impossible accident left him some scars and hearing loss, but he has recovered, and his country-wide jovial Soul Clap & Dance Offs are back on!

Ahead of Toubin's Saturday DJ gig at Turf Club -- featuring a $100 prize to the best dancer as chosen by a team of judges including Doomtree's Mike Mictlan, Dillinger 4's Paddy Costello, 89.3 the Current's Andrea Swensson, and a cast of other local luminaries (and in the interest of disclosure, myself)  -- he and Gimme Noise discussed bringing a "bomb" onto a plane, DJing at weddings, and the science behind why humans like old, obscure music.

Gimme Noise: What were you up to last night?

DJ Jonathan Toubin: I was on a red-eye from Atlanta.

What do you do when you're not sleeping on the plane? I know you're very much against the MP3, but it seems to be a useful thing for just such circumstances.

I read Kim Fowley's new book Lord of Garbage on the way. Also, traveling with records isn't so bad. I have a small box of 80. I also bring a computer bag with my computer, needles, headphones, mini-record player, and a couple of days clothes. Laptop guys don't have the record box but its a very small inconvenience for such good sound.

Agreed. And no one ever says "Nice laptop case."

Nah. No offense to our country's fine laptop case manufacturers or whoever but I doubt anybody's ever said "nice laptop case" to anybody either sincerely or sarcastically. But mine is so blown out that it just looks like a thrift store backpack that's been abused for too many years.

You've notched more than a few miles in the sky to do these gigs. What sort of kindred funk and soul spirits have you met?

Nobody! Yesterday was all fat people that looked like they probably signed secession petitions a few weeks back. But on my way to Detroit a couple of weeks back, I was seated next to the keyboardist from !!!. I also was on a plane with Public Enemy's crew a few months ago. But typically, nobody talks to me -- except when they want to know what's in the box. And I can't tell 'em its a bomb.

Does the FAA allow "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" on an aircraft?

I bet they would! Nobody listens to lyrics anymore. Or they wouldn't ever listen to music! Ha! Saturday, I walked into LaGuardia and I heard "Get Off of My Cloud" blaring super-loud from god-knows-where. It really added some ambiance to a typically soul-less environment. Not that the lyrics to "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" are anything to write home about.

DJ Jonathan Toubin: I've been told I'm "un-Shazam-able"
Photo by James Jones

I'm actually kind of nervous about being a Soul Clap judge. Help assuage my fears. What does it take to win these things, and what should I pay special attention to?

Don't be nervous! I made it so that its super-unskilled labor. We divide contestants into five groups of ten and, in each round, you pick your favorite. It's up to you and your own personal aesthetics to decide what good dancing is. But I'll tell you this -- professional dancers, b-boys, and others who spend a lot of time on the specifics but have less originality, never win. Outside of L.A. that is.

Hopefully an unsuspecting bachelorette party wanders in and totally owns it. How often do you get the accidental contestants who turn out to be stars?

All the time. What I've learned by doing this so many years is pretty much that dancing is what people want it to be. It's entirely subjective. Also the judges tend to be interesting people who aren't interested in some sort of American Idol-type of situation where some cheeseball with technical skills and no class takes it all. A dance contest is a pretty corny thing by nature, but I think at best this one has taught folks that dancing is for everyone. And yes, sometimes a friend pushes someone into a contest and they wind up winning.

Minneapolis is interesting for funk and soul because we obviously have the Purple guy as a local treasure, but did you hear about the Secret Stash compilation that came out earlier this year that spotlighted the Valdons, Prophets of Peace, and some others that most people don't know from the Twin Cities?

I plead ignorance! I know nothing about it! But I'm not surprised. There's always been crazy music from the Twin Cities. When I grew up people wanted to move there to be around that prince world or that Replacements/Hüsker Dü world. And a few years later everyone was crazy about the AmRep bands etc. These are new soul/funk type artists?

Basically, Secret Stash is reissuing a lot of the R&B and soul cats from here (Lewis Connection, Wanda Davis, etc.) who never got their due. Similar movements have happened in other major cities that had a serious soul underground in the '70s. 

I'd love to hear it! i don't play many 1970s records but it is very much an interest of mine. I think the great thing about these Numero Group compilations etc is that people now know some of these unknown and even unissued records better than the popular stuff at the time. It's rebuilding the canon and bringing a certain justice to old music.

In Joe Boyd's White Bicycles: Making Music in the 60s, he talks about how he isn't certain whether or not Nick Drake is timeless, but he thinks kids like him because he's from the past -- but not the music of their parents. I think there's also something of that philosophy when you hear a DJ or a comp and find songs that were under-appreciated. They are old, but of your own time. Therefore, they are new and refreshing to you.
Have you seen some sweet justice done to specific artists you've been spinning regularly since you've started doing this? And if so, have you gotten a thank-you card or better?

Not really! I think the thing people have to understand is that when you see a dance party DJ such as myself, it's difficult to learn the songs. They move by really fast and are intended to take you there, but there's not too much time to contemplate. I definitely get asked a few times a night for certain songs, and see people trying to Shazam me all the time. A guy Upstate told me that he tried but i was "un-Shazam-able." I find that hard to believe because of all of the comps on iTunes etc.

While it's difficult for people to process the information, sometimes they do come around to requesting records I play frequently. For instance, one of my favorite regular dancers has been recently asking for Ted Taylor's "Somebody's Always Trying" and Marie Knight's "Come on Baby (Hold My Hand)". whether folks go to the next step with this type of appreciation is beyond my knowledge.

Name your favorite winter-themed funk/soul track.

I haven't broken into my snow chest yet, but last winter I was partial to an R&B dance by Kings and Queens entitled "The Ski" and of course I always have lots of Albert Collins ("The Iceman") insturmentals handy.

How many times has your work brought you to the Twin Cities?

Last year's Soul Clap at the Hexagon was super-fun -- I was super-impressed by the people and dancers and vibe -- but my only other Minneapolis gig was a wedding in 2010.

I have to ask about the wedding. How much of your trade is doing weddings, and did this differ much from your typical fare?

It was outdoors under a tent on a lake. It was two journalists getting married. The father of the bride mentioned the Indian legend of how the lake was made of the tears of an Indian bride in the speech. But yeah, it worked out. People ahead of time know that I'm not going to play songs they know at their wedding. So if they hire me they're typically pretty interesting people who are tolerant of music they haven't heard before. (Though that's not always the case with their families and old friends.) I typically do a mix of what I do on Fridays (early rock 'n' roll) and what I do on Saturdays ('60s soul music) but I give it a love theme and I also cut in lots of ballads (which I am always super-eager to bust out). I'd say that I only do a half-dozen weddings a year, but I get asked to do twice that many.

Two journalists, eh? Chuck Klosterman and City Pages alum Melissa Maerz?

Not Chuck Cloisterman! I think I'm too esoteric for his taste!

Lastly, how much is it gonna matter that it's likely going to be freezing here Saturday and people will arrive with like three layers on?

Aren't you guys used to that by now? I've noticed that people traditionally party harder when the weather is nuts. I hope there's a coat check!

DJ Jonathan Toubin's Soul Clap & Dance-Off. With Lady Heat Hot Soul Party and Dance-Off judges Brian Engle, Paddy Costello, Mike Mictlan, Andrea Swensson, Reed Fischer, Robyn Lewis, Steve Marsh, and Jen Hughes. 10 p.m. Saturday, December 1 at Turf Club. $10. Info here.

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