Reverend Joe Is in the House

House music as secular gospel? Amen, brother

Don't call Joe Claussell a DJ. "That's not who I am, I just like to play music," explains the New York City-based producer and, ah, player of music. Don't call his spell behind the turntables a set,either. "I don't put together sets," Claussell adds, a note of frustration creeping into his voice as he repeats the verboten word. "I don't have any preconceived plans beforehand. It's about the room, the way I'm feeling, and the way the crowd is feeling." And for heaven's sake, don't call Body & Soul (the now legendary Sunday evening event in downtown New York City where Claussell spins each week) a club. It's a party, Claussell insists, or to be more precise, a house party,with that all-important prefix defining not just the music at hand, but also the relaxed, dressed-down, "ain't nobody here but us folks" spirit.

If this self-image seems to be in stark contrast with the dominant media vision of the DJ as Filofax-toting superstar jetting first-class around the globe to five-figure three-hour engagements in elaborately bedecked cavernous halls, well, it's no accident. In fact Claussell's anachronistic tone may help explain the recent surge of international interest and curious fascination in both his own production work and Body & Soul. Much as "Ibiza" has become a code word for a militantly heterosexualized frat-boy take on dance culture, "Body & Soul" has come to signify a particularly sumptuous style of organic, percussion-driven deep-house music, along with a return to that form's roots in the ethos of gay, black sexuality.

The reasons for this rebirth extend beyond Body & Soul's soundtrack, though it would be hard to overstate the appeal of that event's trio of residents: Claussell, Danny Krivit, and Francois Kevorkian. The three throw down a singular mix that joyously embraces the origins of modern electronic dance music, from vintage Philly soul and diva-driven protodisco stompers, to of-the-moment Gamble & Huff-meet-Kraftwerk dubplates courtesy of Detroit's über-techno warriors, Underground Resistance. Of course that postmodern moment is just as likely to be followed by Stevie Wonder's "Do I Do" or Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T.," blissfully tweaked past the breaking point until only the high-end blares forth, sending the dance floor into an arms-hoisted-skyward fever.

"Sometimes I get so excited about a record," Claussell says. "I connect with it and get so filled with energy, it makes me go wild! That's why I'm chopping those records up. It helps me to communicate that energy to the crowd. You'll see me going crazy in the booth," he adds, pauses a beat, and then laughs, "because I'm really going crazy!"

Just as notable in Claussell's technique is the absence of frenetic pacing and incessant segueing so common these days. Instead, records are allowed to play out, emphasizing the primacy of the song itself. Other times, tracks are organized into momentum-building waves that end with dramatic silence, allowing the sweat-drenched crowd to applaud (as if witnessing a performance), catch their breath, gaze at each other, and then simply revel in the moment.

Add Body & Soul's lack of a liquor license, sparse drug use (at least in comparison with the bulk of clubland), a refreshing tea-dance time slot that kicks off in the late afternoon and peaks by 8:00 p.m., a strictly egalitarian door policy (you pay the fourteen-dollar cover, you get in the door -- there's no princess with a clipboard picking and choosing the lucky few), and what you have is a genuine throwback to the glory days and post-Stonewall vibe of the Loft and the Paradise Garage. Which is hardly a coincidence: Kevorkian spun regularly at the Garage alongside Larry Levan in the early Eighties, and many of the fiercest dance-floor regulars also carry firsthand memories of those halcyon spots, as well as the telltale sign of people who take their partying seriously -- a change of dry clothes for the trip home.

It was these defining characteristics that helped keep Body & Soul (and perhaps deep-house music in general) an under-the-radar treasure. Viewed as declassé by the fashionista brigades, and with a sound too firmly wed to the R&B continuum for most raver's tastes, the party quietly built a devoted following sprinkled with electronica's cognoscenti.

The past six months, however, have seen a wave of publicity for Body & Soul, with awestruck features in virtually every European music publication (even Spinhas jumped onboard with a striking double-page graphic spread in its current issue). The end result resembles a polyglot gathering straight out of a Rainbow Coalition-era Jesse Jackson speech: black intertwining with white, hip Japanese tourists in baggy jeans enthusiastically boogying alongside towering muscle queens stripped to the waist.

Of course the demographic shift on hand now threatens to critically alter the party's unique feel. So is Body & Soul in danger of becoming a victim of its own success? "I think it's a little late to worry about that," replies Claussell with bemusement. "Body & Soul has definitely been overexposed. Obviously when something moves from being new to becoming trendy and overhyped...." He trails off, preferring not to elaborate on tales of ongoing behind-the-scenes tension amid the party's surge of popularity and frequent over-capacity draw. Choosing his words carefully, Claussell continues, "When you go into a place, you go there for the sole purpose of having a good time. As a dancer, you go there to dance. If you're a DJ you go to play music. And that's all I really want to be involved with. The main focus of this party wasn't to be written up in magazines or be voted 'Greatest DJ in the World.' The main focus was to party -- that's it -- to party!"

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