Jumpstart the Soul:
Jonathan Toubin Rehabilitates Himself – and Culture
“I’m tired of pretending I like popular music,” Jonathan Toubin admits. “I really don’t see anything good about it.”
Toubin is a DJ. If this were the infancy of his full-time foray into New York nightlife, back in 2006, clarifying exactly what type of DJ he is would be a crucial disclaimer. The assumption that Toubin is a relentless top-40 remixer, hopping around and pumping his fists in a laser-filled club, would be a fair one six years ago. Not anymore. And Toubin’s somewhat responsible for that.
The 41-year-old has cultivated a fervent following for his soul-centric dance nights, all of which operate under the giant umbrella of New York Night Train, formerly Toubin’s self-run record label, and mainly feature him as the primary jockey. Toubin hosts seven active recurring parties, among them the Soul Clap and Dance-Off, which has a monthly station in Brooklyn but goes on the road regularly. His background in underground punk affords him a route to nightlife that’s quite opposite than most full-time DJs. Toubin’s outlook has never been mainstream.
“The nightlife thing for me was through the back door,” Toubin explains. “Because I was a musician, right away I got all of the band dudes to DJ with me. Not many of us were so good but people came out. The first party I ever threw was a record release for my New York Night Train label. It was for Kid Congo Powers.”
Soon after – and several parties later – Toubin’s vinyl palette turned persnickety, and he began playing 45s exclusively. Nobody else was DJing like Toubin. It was his thing, his lucky invention, and he more than reaped the benefits of filling the void of non-electronic dance nights. Toubin found himself booking guests from indie bands both du jour and tried-and-true, like the Black Lips, King Khan, Jello Biafra and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He’s supported bills comprised of heavy-hitters like LCD Soundsystem, Jack White, Interpol, Black Keys and even Erykah Badu. In terms of his career, it’s all been quite a fairytale for Toubin.
Last winter, however, his winning streak hit a harsh hurdle, a near dead-end. While in Portland, a cab driver who was mid-diabetic shock smashed her car through Toubin’s first-floor hotel room, landing on his chest. The accident sent him into critical condition with 26 major injuries and confined him to ICU for more than a month. An avalanche of public support ensued, as major publications reported the tale and benefits were arranged in Brooklyn, L.A., San Francisco, Portland and other cities courtesy of friends and fans. Impressively, within five months, Toubin was back in action. He’s even touring again.
“It’s better,” Toubin says of his health. “I’ve still got a lot of work to do but I’m taking it pretty easy. Other than a week in Canada and another out west, I only play twice a week. Friday in NYC and Saturday Soul Clap where ever. So I’m working almost 1/3 as much as I used to and spending time with lots of therapists, trainers, etc.”
He requested we chat on Gmail rather than speak on the phone – a dramatic loss of hearing is one of a few lingering injuries.
“Yeah, I’m pretty deaf! But it’s fine with the type of volume in the clubs and music venues where I work. But it’s hard to say. I have some metal in me and some of the stuff, like my right hand, is really taking its time. But overall it’s nothing that I plan on feeling sorry for myself over,” he points out.
In most of the press resulting from the accident – which naturally exploded his level of fame – Toubin has been described as eternally positive.
“What do I have to bitch about? I’m a 41-year-old man that gets paid to go to parties and find out about really amazing music that I’ve never heard before!”
It’s not just in his story of recuperation where his cheery demeanor shines. His foray into DJing is another example of endurance, of constructive action rather than self-pitying inactivity. In the ’90s and early 2000s, Toubin played in a handful of now-defunct or idle bands like Grand Mal, the Hamicks and Noodle. He’d already graduated from college and was somewhat betting on music as a moneymaker – and, as is the case for most musicians, things didn’t pan out in the long-term.
“I came to NYC with an English degree [from the] University of Texas but, after a somewhat failed music career and some literally wasted years, 9/11 made me get my life in order and I made a list of jobs to work towards that were practical,” Toubin recalls. “And professor was the only one that sounded decent – despite the pay.”
During a successful stint in the History PHD program at the City University of New York (he’s a published academic as a result), Toubin says he grew “bored of studying,” and wanted to make a “real world” life for himself. A thesis on the uptown hip-hop scene led him to dive into the history of nightlife institutions.
“It definitely made me wonder what was going wrong with culture and if anybody could possibly do anything cool in terms of parties, unique music, public social culture, etc. in this day and age,” he says.
Around that time was the Kid Congo Powers shindig, later dubbed New York Night Train Wednesdays. And then he debuted more parties, among them the Thursday Thump at Enid’s, Boogaloo Shampoo at Beauty Bar Manhattan and Shakin’ All Over Sideways Down! at Home Sweet Home, the latter of which is still in motion every Friday and has featured guests like David Johansen of the New York Dolls and Jon Spencer. And that’s just a few on the laundry list of Toubin’s signature events.
So what’s his secret? How has Toubin managed to turn from the discouraged musician and reluctant academic into a super-booked, financially stable DJ?
The fact that Toubin plays soul and rock ‘n’ roll strictly on 45s, both familiar and extremely obscure, might have something to do with it.
“I definitely liked the sound of the 45s I was starting to acquire better than the LPs,” he notes.
Lugging around the smaller discs is significantly easier than carrying crates of albums, Toubin adds.
“Finally, I thought, it’s a cool aesthetic and sound to have, plus a challenge. Think about it. So much stuff never came out on 45. And a lot of the stuff on there is nearly impossible to find. So everything became a scavenger hunt and a puzzle – particularly since I now play only the original recordings and no reproductions.”
In some ways, Toubin’s academic past plays a role in his victory. There’s a mastery in his catalog of 45s – a sense of intelligence in choosing each single. Maybe even a bit of purpose.
“I was pretty excited when the Internet and home recording and the end of the record industry as we knew it popped up. I thought everything was gonna be more democratic, but instead the whole beast reconfigured itself and had to branch out into perfume or whatever they’re peddling,” Toubin says. “I definitely think there’s a lot of great underground music today – but there’s always been. I guess what I’m saying is that there definitely was a period when you could turn on a radio in the United States and hear all kinds of great rock and roll, and I think that’s gotta be our golden age. I don’t only think it’s random. Our great musical period coincided with a more level playing field for black music and rural white music in the record industry. It also coincided with the smallest gap between rich and poor in our history and the rise in working class spending power. Very democratic and killer. Do you think a 13-year-old girl has anything to listen to today that sounds as good as the Rolling Stones?”
That fueled a rant is what powers Toubin’s weaponry in the war against masturbatory mass media. Okay, maybe it’s not that clear-cut or serious. Toubin isn’t expressly trying to reawaken culture by way of a modern Renaissance. But there’s no denying he’s had an impact. Before his accident, copycat – ahem, likeminded – DJs were popping up everywhere. Post-accident and surge in popularity, the numbers have obviously exploded.
“I’m super-stoked that this thing is blooming all over the place,” Toubin assures. “The main reason that you try so hard to find all of this great music on these huge sounding records is that you want to share it with people and you want it to grow and you want to make culture a lot more interesting…I don’t want to be retro but, just as the renaissance thinkers and artists liked to look back at the classical era and find their influence there, and hence escaped the dark ages, I want to be part of that process today and be a tiny force in helping people get away from the garbage on their radios.”
No matter Toubin’s efforts, there’s little anyone can do to thwart the mainstream media’s iron fist from clobbering the hell out of worthwhile culture. But at least now old school rock ‘n’ roll enthusiasts have plenty of remix-free spots to boogie on any given night.
Photo by Julie Paterson.