Bama Lama Bama Loo: An Interview With Soul Clap's Jonathan Toubin
Photo by Alexander Thompson
If you were to ask a metaphysical sketch artist for a draft of the general coordinates of the area of psychic activity overlapping Genesis P-Orridge, Archie Bell, Kid Congo Powers and Gibby Haynes, the result would bear an uncanny resemblance to Jonathan Toubin's hair. As to the rest of him, he's a musician turned deejay, in the expansive sense, an emcee and selecter more so than turntablist or T-shirt cannon operator. He's responsible for throwing giddy shindigs for rockers by rockers (FRBR) all over the planet. More than that, he's a people person, born in Houston, unleashed in the East, and committed to his unique position in what, as he says, Wolfman Jack dubbed "the Happiness business." On the occasion of a homecoming edition of the Soul Clap and Dance-Off this Saturday, April 15, at Walter's Downtown, for which he's teamed up with A Fistful of Soul DJs, The Phantom Royals, and superstar judges Archie and Juanita Bell, Zahira Gutierrez, Vockah Redu, Brad Moore and Darenda Weaver, Toubin submitted to an excruciating, 25-watt interrogation by the Houston Press.
Houston Press: What was the first record you ever bought, or otherwise wheedled, for yourself?
Jonathan Toubin: It was a 45 of Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” that my mother bought for me at The Groove record store on Kirby in the mid-'70s when Hot Chocolate was…hot.
Please, tell these people about the soul clap, the music, the dancing, the judges.
The Soul Clap is a dance party that grew up in a Brooklyn art space starting in 2007 and has taken place hundreds and hundreds of times on five continents in the last decade. The music is primarily raw, upbeat, original early to mid-'60s soul 45s cut on the beat and mixed with a little variety to spice it up. There’s a short $100 dance contest in the middle that’s a climax, a group bonding experience, and intermission of sorts. The seven songs of the contest are typically played by a "contest selector," and a group of five to seven community judges determine a winner.
What brought the Soul Clap together in your mind?
I thought underground rock and roll people were left out when it came to dance parties. And when you went to hear live bands, if there was any after party at all, the music was aesthetically at odds with the music we all came out to hear — slick, repetitive and often pop-ish. I was primarily DJing at the Lower East Side punk and rock dive Motor City Bar, playing in bands, running a record label and trying to finish my graduate thesis. I was no pro DJ, strictly bar style, and didn’t have a lot of respect for the art.
I got invited to do some dance parties and failed to move the floor with my most danceable garage, proto-punk, punk, no wave, and other subcultural rock and roll. Then my life changed when I found a few dozen old rhythm and blues 45s on the street across from my apartment when Good/Bad Art Collective moved out. Around the same time a mother lode of '60s soul 45s came into a local junk store and a friend of mine behind the counter let me have a few hundred for a few bucks. I loved the way the beat poked out of the grooves, and the loudness of the pressings, and the random noise of the scuffs and scratches. [I] found that when I played it loud, it had a lot of commonality with the subcultural rock and roll I grew up on. So I set up a night to play my new soul records for dancing. Hence the Soul Clap.
The weekend before the first Clap, I was DJing an early morning shift at a Williamsburg loft party. And as the sun was coming up, the singer for a band I was in at the time challenged a guy from another band to a dance-off. It was equally awkward, absurd, exuberant and entertaining, and everybody at the party was enthralled. So, since I wanted my party to be distinctive, fun, approachable and not misconstrued as a stuffy record-collector affair, I decided to throw a little bit of the ridiculous and the spectacular into the mix and add a dance contest to the Soul Clap…hence the Dance-Off.
Photo by Alexander Thompson
I know you to be a music hound across the spectrum, with records to prove it. What exactly is the timeline for the records you play during Soul Clap; as in, from which years do you play records?
I try to stretch the boundaries enough to please music fans and irritate purists, but over time the party has increasingly focused on a specific era: the early soul years, roughly 1960-1965. For me the Kennedy-era soul has everything. There’s still a lot of rawness in the recording and rhythm-and-blues kinetics, attitude, humor and hairstyles. Plus the passionate gospel feel and screaming, doo-wop harmony, rockin’ bluesy guitar sliding and bending high up all over everything, exotic, post-mambo craze elements informing rhythm, and for my purposes, the twist and the rest of the dance craze-era making the beat more danceable and louder in the mix than ever.
The platters I like are typically rough, independent records from small regional studios, and their length is a very punk and economical two minutes or less. It's ideal music for a contemporary short-attention span, post-LP, subterranean music sensibility, and, like all music at the dawn of any genre, imperfect, unique and lost in the shadow of the classics it preceded.
Photo by Alexander Thompson
Do you ever slip something by Missy Elliott or Ol' Dirty Bastard or Roxanne Shante or Legionaire's Disease into the mix, just to see what happens next? What happens next?
I like everything you mentioned. I have different nights where I play different genres, and while I try to keep the Soul Clap varied enough to be complex and unique, I increasingly refine the format over the years. I realized that over time, the eclecticism and irreverence of my approach was clouding my vision, stripping the music of its meaning, and making everything insipidly amorphous. It's the opposite of my college-radio years, where I needed to prove the diversity of my taste. That doesn’t mean that I won’t keep “Rock You Like a Hurricane” on the right turntable and play the intro between records on a particularly belligerent night. But as a rule I’m trying to hone in on something more specific.
While I haven’t turned Legionaire's Disease at a party, I’ve brought Really Red’s “Old Strings For New Puppets” EP to my weekly R&B/early rock and roll night and let “I Was a Teenage Fuckup” ride. It's so short and fast that I can already be on to a dance track before anyone has time to leave the floor. The most bizarre relationship I have with Houston music is the assortment of altercations resulting from turning Culturecide. A hater DJ removed Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America from the turntable and broke it over his leg because he objected to “Love Is a Cattle Prod” at the L.A. Records' 2008 Valentine's party. Another time a big jock thought I was deliberately disrupting a Springsteen record and tried to start a fight with me over playing “Bruce.” Another time a patron tried to get me fired from a gig for ruining his holiday season with “Santa Claus Was My Lover.” Those records are still continuing to move people three decades later!
A lot of these DJs are just crazy about bass, whereas your parties are distinctly of a higher register. How important is the treble to you, and how do you settle on the treble quotient in your mix?
I’m happy you figured out the relationship between my early DJing and the sub-bass trend! YES! My parties started out when DFA, Baltimore booty bass, Rihanna and reggaeton ruled Williamsburg dance floors. I liked some of the bass-heavy sounds, but overall it was the opposite of what I was hoping to achieve and I wanted to rebel against it. At the same time, the old sound systems were being replaced with new digital subs and tweeters, so the lowness and separation became more important to DJs than the mids and presence, and older music sounded anywhere from strange to unrecognizable to horrible on the systems.
To combat this, all of my tech riders used to say, "I don’t wanna see any subs, and if they’re there I want ’em unplugged." And instead of trying to prove my point with good sound, which would have been the logical and appropriate response, I stubbornly and deliberately selected and EQ-ed to make the old records sound like punk and noise — emphasizing harsh treble, lo-fi sound, speed and screaming in the red. Since you haven’t seen me lately, I gotta warn you that, while I love the sound of a raw recording, the last few years I’ve learned to stop worrying and love the bomb! Though I try to roll some of the lower frequencies off of the subs, I’ve learned to work with them, as that’s all that’s out there at the clubs by now and they’re of a much higher quality than the cheap systems coming out a decade ago. I am currently in what Wolfman Jack calls "the happiness business," and by now my primary sonic goal is to make the records sound as big and round as possible for maximum enjoyment for everyone involved.
Bringing it back home, what are your favorite Texas soul, funk and R&B records in your collection?
So much amazing music from the Lone Star State that I wouldn’t even know where to start. One of my all-time Soul Clap favorites, Charles Gray, Les Watson and the Panthers’ killer-diller cover of the 5 Royales “Don’t Do It,” is very much on my mind as the TSA recently irreparably cracked my copy on the way to Canada. I put Matt-Ti-Madison’s “Don’t Make Me Cry,” Piano Slim’s “Playin’ Hookey” and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s way-out 1964 deconstruction of the Gershwin brothers’ “Summertime” on my latest Norton Records LP, Souvenirs of the Soul Clap, Vol. 5. I turned Mabel Franklin’s “Let’s Do the Wiggle,” Big Bo and The Arrows' “How About It” and Buddy Ace’s Duke classic “Screaming Please” last weekend. And before we bore everyone to death, outside of soul, and speaking of Norton Records, every Friday I’ve been playing The Creep’s “Betty Lou Got a New Tattoo” in honor of my recently departed friend and hero Billy Miller.
Are there any records out there that are the Holy Grails of records for someone in as deep as you are?
This probably sounds weird for a vinyl DJ, but dunno if I take enough stock in the objects to have a Holy Grail. Since I don’t play bootlegs, reproductions, reissues, compilations or digital files, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of records I know of that I would love to play for my dancers and haven’t been able to find. But as long as it's new to me, I’m just as happy to find a stunning common record as a rarity. To throw a local one out there, I’m in the market for Joe “Guitar” Hughes’s wild and woolly R&B “Jailhouse Rock”-informed “Make Me Dance Little Ant” on Houston’s hoppin’ Kangaroo imprint.
You're known as quite a jet-setter. I know you've got weekly parties back in NYC. How many Soul Claps do you put on in an average year?
A couple of years back I tried to make a complete gig list over less than a decade of work and, while I’m sure I missed a few, I found that I had already played over 2,000 gigs! Some years alone were an endless party of well over 300 nights of DJing. Crazy, right? So while I’ve cut the regularity of my parties, including the Clap, in half since 2012, I still manage to do around 150 gigs per year, and I’d say as few as 50 or so tend to be the Soul Clap by this point.
Photo by Alexander Thompson
Could you describe some of the more exotic situations in which you have found yourself, whether geographic or psychological?
Don’t get me started! I could write the longest, most boring book of all time! The first thing that pops into my head is at the Jim Jarmusch-curated 2010 All Tomorrow’s Parties festival headlined by The Stooges at the last of the remaining Borscht Belt hotels, Kutsher’s, the inspiration for the fictional Catskills resort in Dirty Dancing. When Kutsher’s was condemned in 2013, a colorful chapter in entertainment and American leisure history was closed forever. And the entire sprawling compound was an odd relic from such a distant place in time that it might as well have been in outer space.
Though I had already played my official slot the night before, I was still there and wound up agreeing to fill in for a cancellation to close out the weekend in the crumbling Mid-Century Modern lobby bar. But I immediately tried to walk back on my word once I found out I was going on after Kool Herc. I was humbled, worried I would look like an amateur, and knew I didn’t belong on the same stage with such a master. I was also skeptical because I had a small 45 box to fill the three-hour set — and the half that wasn’t James Brown was Flipper. As it was the last night of the festival, they couldn’t find anyone else to do it and I was pretty much their only hope.
So I agreed to follow Herc under the condition that they take a picture of us together during the changeover behind the DJ booth. At least I’d get something out of what was certain to be one of the most embarrassing situations of my life. When I arrived, Herc was setting the floor on fire with the awe-inspiring foundations of hip-hop mix he created in the early 1970s. Ron Jeremy was dancing with the girls. The GZA jumped out from the sweaty crowd, grabbed the mike, triumphantly hoisted Kool Herc’s mighty fist up in the air, and proclaimed “The Founder of Hip Hop...Kool Herc!” Everyone was going nuts!
Right around that point, the organizers said I needed to get on soon as Herc’s contracted time was up. I reluctantly came up for the changeover, posed for the picture, and, at the wise recommendation of One Eyed Jack’s owner, Rio Hackford, sputtered and started with Ernie K-Doe’s “Here Come the Girls.” Anyhow, I somehow managed to squeak by and keep the floor moving deep into the morning with my comparatively limited abilities and resources.
And, just as I was running out of time and records, the visionary founder of the multibillion-dollar industry we today call hip-hop music appeared by my side like in a dream. “I have a box of 45s up in my room. Can we play a few together?” So as the dawn peeked over the mountaintops and through the wide landscape windows behind us, casting Kool Herc’s long shadow across the old wooden dance floor that survived the abuse of a million horas, we spun the festival's last gasps to a dwindling crowd of the weekend’s most heroic survivors. It was past closing time and they kicked Herc and me off the tables, so we grabbed our 45 boxes and creaked up the rickety morning staircase to the next chapter — a party in a bartender’s hotel room.
Photo by Alexander Thompson
Presented by A Fistful of Soul, Jonathan Toubin's Soul Clap shimmies into Walter's Downtown (1120 Naylor), on Saturday, April 15. The Phantom Royals will perform; doors open at 8 p.m.; $8-10.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.