[Q&A] DJ Jonathan Toubin on the enduring legacy of soul music, spinning vinyl over mp3s, and recovering from his freak accident // 01.05.13 @ Great Scott


There are freak accidents, and then there’s the case of JONATHAN TOUBIN. In December 2011, the acclaimed New York City DJ was asleep at the Jupiter Hotel in Portland, Oregon, when around 11 a.m. a taxi cab crashed through the wall and landed on top of him. He awoke from a drug-induced coma a month later with a cracked skull, hearing loss, and significant bodily injuries that included severed tendons, punctured liver, and fractured ribs.

Toubin, who specializes in spinning vinyl 45s of obscure soul, underground rock and roll, and R&B from the ‘60s, didn’t return to the DJ booth until May. After more than 1,200 gigs the past six years, his schedule has slowed down considerably as he re-builds his stamina and re-accustoms himself to DJing with significant hearing loss. His Boston appearance Saturday -- bringing his fevered New York Night Train Soul Clap & Dance-Off party to Great Scott -- is a rare one for the DJ who has developed cult status around the country as a music preservationist, tireless record collector, and walking musical encyclopedia. “It’s been really helpful to me to be busy and not feel sorry for myself and make the best of everything,” he writes to the Phoenix in an interview via g-chat, a method he requested as he’s still coping with hearing loss. “I mean we should all live life to its fullest and accentuate the positive even if we don’t get run over by a car in bed.”

Part of what makes Toubin’s delirious DJ sets so seductively enticing is the depths of selections, noting people can “expect hours of dancing to the best music they’ve never heard.” Most DJs rely on hits and recognizable songs to keep the dance floor moving, but Toubin relies on quality. “Every time you play a hit, you bring peoples’ random personal associations in along with it and it actually becomes harder to bring them together,” he writes. “And, once you play a hit, it’s much harder to follow up with anything but another hit.”

Here’s our full g-chat Q&A, where we talk about spinning vinyl 45s, avoiding the hits, and why soul music has persevered for more than half a century.

Hey what’s up Jonathan. This will be for the Boston Phoenix, hopefully we'll drum up some post-New Year’s Eve interest in the Great Scott party.
I haven't been working Boston like other cities and am not sure if they know me there.

I was gonna mention, I've danced to your sets in NYC, in Austin at SXSW, and in Maine (of all places), but never in Boston. Have you spun here before?
Well I came once with a show called Lucha Vavoom that was a touring Mexican wrestling and burlesque show and I was the DJ. But it’s weird, I'm not one to beat down the door to get in a city or whatever and nobody has really offered me much in Boston before so I figured I'd wait it out until Boston was ready for me. It’s so weird. Some markets I've done this party a dozen times and this is your first!

Well we are very glad to have you. So I have to ask – how’s your recovery coming along?
Oh man... so good. I still have to do a lot of work to fully recover, and I've hit a point where everything’s moving really slow -- but, considering my state at the beginning of the year, I am really moving along!

[Your publicist] suggested that we conduct this interview online because you were having hearing troubles. Is this true? And if so, does it affect your DJing?
Well I lost a lot of hearing in one ear and some more in the other. I wear hearing aids, etc., so it’s kind of irritating putting the phone up to them and a bit quiet if I take it out -- so this is just much easier for me. As for DJing, that gets better all the time. I really can’t wear hearing aids when I DJ because it makes my records sound like mp3s, or even worse, like they’re on my iPhone or something. But also it makes it harder to EQ. Fortunately the sound is so loud in most places it doesn’t effect me that much. My right ear is pretty decent for EQ-ing with headphones but when I get on the floor I have to measure it based on the fact that I'm not hearing a lot of the high end. For a while I was having trouble hearing the record I was putting the beat together with but now have grown accustomed to once side being much quieter than the other and just taking it from there.

I'm sure it's a process, and part of the recovery just like everything else. Do you look back on the accident and just go "What the fuck, man?"
I don't know if it’s healthy but I've been trying not to look back so much and look forward. It’s been really helpful to me to be busy and not feel sorry for myself and make the best of everything. I mean we should all live life to its fullest and accentuate the positive even if we don't get run over by a car in bed...

Agreed! Shifting to the music, one of my favorite things about your sets is that I'm constantly dancing to stuff I don't know. My DJing is mostly indie (Britpop, UK stuff, electro-pop, some new wave) and it’s hard to get folks to dance to songs they don't know! They want the hits. Even some soul parties will focus on the classics to keep the room moving, but I've always respected you for playing your own beat.
It’s funny, I think it comes from a similar place. I come from the punk/garage/indie rock underground and always grew up wanting to find something new and different than what mass culture had to offer me. I really got spoiled when I hit on black music of the 1960s because there is so much stuff that you can get hundreds of records every month for hundreds of years and not repeat yourself.

And the level of sound and the musicianship is so high that most of it not only stands up today but surpasses where we are at! I also like to think of not playing the hits the way that really good contemporary music DJs do it -- most people don't know the songs of, for example, a deep house DJ, but will dance to their music because they like the sound, the beats, the juxtaposition of the tracks, and, in general the ambience. I think when you avoid hits people quit getting up or down to records because they know them but rather get lost in the feeling because they don't know them. Every time you play a hit you bring peoples' random personal associations in along with it and it actually becomes harder to bring them together. And, once you play a hit, it’s much harder to follow up with anything but another hit...

Right, they just want another hit from the next band. And if you're DJing over several hours, well, you run out of hits, and then they tune you out.
You wind up sounding like a bad mall soundtrack and reinforce people's most mediocre tendencies! I want us to achieve greatness together! Ha!

You mention the wealth of soul/sixties/etc -- was the transition to 45s easier or tougher than anticipated?
Yes and no. I started playing 45s more frequently because I didn't realize their true power until I became a DJ. When I threw down a 45 after a 33 cut, or even worse a CD or mp3, it stood out so much. Within a few months of DJing I went all-vinyl and within a year I was a professional DJ. So I figured if I loved the sound of 45s so much -- I should make it my thing. I mean, what if every song sounded as huge as the 45 I just dropped? So I did it. The hardest part was finding my favorite songs on 45. Not only because of rarity or price, but also because a lot of tracks aren't on 45. But then I thought “this is great! A limitation can really help hone in on and define an aesthetic.” Once I got a really great arsenal of 45s, it was much easier. They were really loud, people responded to the sound (I mean -- those drums!), and I didn't have to find the track in the grooves of an LP - I only had to make sure I had the right side -- I even did it without headphones a few times -- that's how easy the transition was!

I spun mostly CDs for years, and for Britpop, that was the medium. Now I've transferred to mp3s, and I don't feel the same connection, the songs feel disposable or distant, even if I love the track. There must be an ever greater sense of pride in dropping a killer unknown track on 45 because you had to FIND that gem...
I think those mediums are great depending on what you're trying to do. But a record is a record. And the funny thing is that, even those fancy new LP and 45 reissues never sound anywhere near as huge as the original record. I think a lot of people haven't ever heard their favorite songs the way they were intended to sound...

Still, I think mp3s are amazing in their practicality and as a point of reference! If I played them my life would be so much easier! I am in my own way envious!

Via the vinyl culture and the music, I don't think there's any dance party culture older than soul nites, in terms of how far in the past the real peak era was as opposed to 2012. And yet, soul nights endure everywhere all over the world. Is it the music? The vibe? The DJs? A combination of everything.
I've seen a lot of these guys and I'll tell ya it’s not the DJs! Ha!

But really, I think there are a lot of unique factors contributing to why this music has never really gone anywhere. Such as...

The post war boom -- not only was the economy growing rapidly after World War II but there was all kinds of new technology -- the 45 and 33, magnetic tape, etc -- so stuff sounded better. And, most importantly, the monopolistic early 20th century record industry didn't see their profits in black music or white rural music. So little labels popped up in even the smallest of towns and threw all kinds of stuff onto the marketplace. Also before the consolidation of record labels in the 1970s, the market was a lot more democratic, so a little guy could find a cool band and record a local hit, which could become a regional hit, and then a national hit. This totally made the market explode. Also, working class people had a decent amount of disposable income between the 1950s and the 1970s to buy this stuff and the baby boom made a really huge market all around... that's just a Marxist explanation! Ha!

No that makes total sense. The depth of this stuff astonishes me. With most genres, you eventually hit a wall. Not here though.
But really, so many people had a chance to make stuff and the studios back then recorded people directly onto tape. So the elegance of the smaller-label stuff holds up really well as it wasn’t saturated by strings or backing choruses or other archaic elements you hear on oldies radios. The elegance of those records keeps them contemporary.

Also I think that the great migration had a lot to do with mixing rural black musicians with urban musicians and technology (electric instruments) for a really unusual authentic collision. Sort of like the way the Harlem Renaissance was created by such an interesting mix in the 1920s or jazz in New Orleans around the turn of the centuries. When we mix it up, something really special happens...

Looking ahead to Great Scott on Jan 5 -- what can Boston expect from Soul Clap & Dance Off?
I think the better question is, “What can I expect from Boston for the soul clap and dance-off?”

Some stiff bodies that eventually melt down and then lose their minds because they are normally repressed!
But really, they can expect hours of dancing to the best music they've never heard. And a 30 minute dance contest in the middle to make it more fun!

I really hope Boston gets loose!

It can be a tough city, but we're trying to spread the word!
Thanks so much! I know Boston can do it!

NEW YORK NIGHT TRAIN SOUL CLAP + DANCE OFF WITH DJ JONATHAN TOUBIN | Great Scott, 1222 Comm Ave, Allston | January 5 @ 9 pm | 21+ | $10 | 617.566.9014 or

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