House music as secular gospel? Joe Claussell says amen, brother.
Photos by Donna Ward

Reverend Joe Is in the House

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 Spin has 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!"

The situation may not be that dire; the physical reality of Body & Soul's space makes it nigh impossible to strike a pose amid the withering heat, perspiration-thick air, densely crowded dance floor, and bare-bones decor. While there may be some initial attraction for high-society slummers seeking life beyond the V.I.P. room, in the end, if you didn't come to dance -- to completely let go and abandon yourself to the music -- there's little point in staying.

Vying for Claussell's time with his public turntable duties these days is his production work on both his own records as well as a host of remixes, adding a singular stamp to a wide array of artists, from the (sadly defunct) seminal Chicago soul outfit Ten City, to British avant-folkie Beth Orton. Much of this music has seen release on Claussell's own Spiritual Life label, including a recent album from Haitian artist Jepthé Guillame. Working together on songs such as "The Prayer" and "Kanpé," the two have come to define much of deep house's current sound: propulsive Afro-Cuban percussion with acoustic-based grooves, all layered atop an ethereal soundscape that seems to envelop the listener in a warm bath.

Language, Claussell's most recent album, continues in this vein, featuring collaborations with fellow deep-house veteran Kerri Chandler as well as keyboardist Dbeli, whose driving organ playing marked much of Afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti's best records from the Eighties. Also on hand amidst the batá-flavored rhythms is Claussell's own brother (on loan from salsa titan Eddie Palmieri's band) on timbales.

"I may not understand Russian, I may not understand Japanese -- and they may not understand English or Spanish," Claussell explains. "But one thing we do have in common is that we all understand music, and that's why the album is called Language. Music is a total, universal language that everybody -- regardless of race, color, or creed -- can understand." From anyone else such sentiments might sound trite, but Claussell continues speaking with such passion, lovingly lingering over the syllables of each word, at the moment it's hard to disagree as he continues: "Music can heal you! When you hear a record you love and you get goose bumps -- that's the medicinal power of music!"

Here in Miami, deep house (healing power and all) remains a scarce sound. Blow Up, a Coral Gables-based weekly house party, managed to build a fair amount of momentum as well as draw some notable out-of-town talent, only to have its Meza Gallery landlord pull the plug early this past fall in a quest for a more lucrative clientele (i.e., one who would run up higher bar tabs). Over on the Beach, several New York expatriates (partially inspired by Body & Soul's example) have established Phylos at Blue (late) Sunday evenings, as well as a decidedly less appetizing mid-week spinoff which has yet to differentiate itself in any meaningful way from Washington Avenue's usual velvet rope shenanigans.

Meanwhile the Beach's gay spots (where logically any deep-house-oriented aural readjustment would have to originate) remain wed to the slick Euro-styled Hi-NRG pounding that has made DJs such as Victor Calderone into minor celebrities. Towering above it all is the runaway success of trance, as personified in the local sainthood of Germany's Paul Van Dyk and the British duo of Sasha and Digweed, whose purging of black source elements from their music recasts it as the very antithesis of deep house.

"I don't want to discriminate against anyone, but the people going to hear Sasha and Digweed just have a different idea of what good music is," Claussell says diplomatically of the pair and their growing dominance in the larger dance clubs across America. "When you go into a club for the first time fresh when you're a teenager, you really don't know whether you like the music or not. If you go into a big club, especially if you're from the suburbs, it's like something you've never seen before. So you start to dig whatever is going on there. That's why raving is so big as well. It's not the music so much as being part of a scene. I was that age, that was once me, so I can't criticize what music they like."

Although this live-and-let-live philosophy regarding trance seems benevolent enough, it ignores the genre's societal effects. As trance literally bleaches and straightens out dance culture, so too does it eliminate the celebration of different races and sexualities. Indeed the very notion of personal transformation becomes replaced by a quest for pure oblivion, escapism, or at best, a way of simply blowing off steam. It may be harmless, but it's hardly the promised land of true liberation once tantalizingly promised by house music's impassioned singers.

"There's so much drugs and money involved now that people are throwing parties for all the wrong reasons," Claussell says with a sigh. "Music is one of the most spiritual tools we have in this world. It's a part of your life, it's your family, the food you eat, the air you breathe. So if you carry that over into the party you throw, then you are going to attract people who are willing to let go of their everyday fears, and come together in what I call church. That's what these venues should be: Church."

Joe Claussell spins on Friday, December 31, during Sun Ra 2000 at the Seville Beach Hotel, 29th and Collins, Miami Beach. Among the other DJs appearing are Lil Louis and Alexi Delano. Tickets are $135 in advance. For more information call 305-573-0907.


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