Why was the 12-inch single invented? Because beat matching 7-inches is hard.
Today, of course, you hardly need to manipulate objects by hand to be a DJ at all—Ableton, Serato, and many other laptop-based programs have taken care of that. But plenty of DJs, including lots of younger ones, still swear by the feel and heft of vinyl. Restriction is the mother of invention; I’ve met several under-30 DJs who learned how to spin via digital interfaces who’ve fallen hard for the way that playing actual wax focuses their sound and sharpens their skills.
Jonathan Toubin isn’t precisely a “dance DJ,” in that he doesn’t play what we (probably too narrowly) think of as “dance music.” Rather, the Texas native, who’s lived in New York for the last 20 years, plays vintage R&B, rock, and blues, though as he told me for a 2012 Village Voice profile, he also did specialty sets of French pop from the ’60s as well. “For me, it’s more exciting the more I limit what I do,” Toubin said in an extended Voice Q&A. “Like, ‘Tonight we’re only playing electric blues from the ’50s and ’60s.’ And it becomes a really rich night.”
Toubin plays all of this exclusively on 45 RPM 7-inch platters, most of them only two or three minutes long—the point at which many dance 12-inches are just getting going. And no, a Toubin set is not an American Graffiti soundtrack retread—you’d have to be a serious collector to know even a tenth of his titles. “Every month for a while, I was making a quota of 100 new records in the repertoire,” he said in 2012. “I don’t want people to get bored, and I don’t want to get bored . . . I don’t want to play oldies that sound like oldies.” Instead, these hard-driving pre-Sgt. Pepper rock and soul stomp-a-thons are fully intended to get you moving.
Every year, Toubin makes a Halloween mix, and he issued the NY Night Train 2017 Haunted Hop Halloween Mix on October 4. It crams 27 songs into 61 minutes, and only one of them—Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds’ “Spider Baby,” a 2017 selection that comes late in the set—post-dates 1968. That year is represented twice, and those selections give you a good idea of the set’s breadth. Hound Dog Clowns’ “Wicked Witch,” the fourth song, is a sullen slow-burn R&B one-shot from Hollywood. The Raves’ “Everything Fire,” next-to-last in Toubin’s set, melds garage rock, slinky psych, and pure Hollywood corn like a good drive-in flick.
The earliest-dated of Toubin’s selection is also its absolute standout. Big T Tyler’s “King Kong,” from 1957, is truly a one-shot: Tyler, real first name Chris, made only this 45. The record’s producer and drummer was Earl Palmer—recently adjudged, correctly, by L.A. Weekly as Los Angeles’s greatest ever session musician. Two years earlier, Palmer had played on Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” As Ed Ward wrote in The History of Rock & Roll, Vol. 1, Palmer’s “almost mechanical backbeat propelled the song without a hint of swing . . . in the five minutes those two takes [of ‘Tutti Frutti’] took, Earl Palmer had invented rock and roll drumming, setting a rhythmic template that would endure for decades.” “King Kong” showcases that rhythm at its most effervescent. It’s in good company here.
Each Thursday, Michaelangelo Matos will spotlight a different DJ set—often but not always new, sometimes tied to a local show but not necessarily—and discuss its place in the overall sphere of dance music and pop.