Sometime in the last two decades of dance music, we clubgoers lost the plot, turning away from one another and toward the DJ booth. We moved our expectations away from social spontaneity, and toward the rigidness of rehearsed performance. Since then, clubs and festivals have become places where small armies of people watch the DJ as if the whole thing were just another channel on television. This has only increased with the rise of a new breed of superstar DJs — visually oriented performers like Deadmau5 and Swedish House Mafia, who augment their banal, prerecorded DJ sets with garish and expensive light shows.
While it's easy to blame those at the top, this shift has spread to the underground, where similar behavior can be observed at almost any party with a headliner. Arguments about these developments have even appeared in the Wall Street Journal. But dance culture wasn't always like this. And the three DJs behind the Body & SOUL party have been working for the past 16 years to create an atmosphere that recalls the way things were.
Body & SOUL began in 1996, at a Lower Manhattan club called Vinyl. A Sunday afternoon party, it was a novel attempt by three highly respected DJs to recall the kinetic vibes present in such institutions as the Paradise Garage and David Mancuso's Loft. Body & SOUL emphasized an improvised dialogue between the dancer's movements and the DJ's choices. And it didn't hurt that its DJs all played vital roles in the development of New York dance music: François Kevorkian is the French emigrant famous for his dubby remix work for '80s disco label Prelude; Danny Krivit is an original resident DJ at the Roxy, whose re-edits of tracks like MFSB's "Love is the Message" and James Brown's "Funky Drummer" have become part of the house canon; and Joaquin "Joe" Claussell is the owner of Dance Tracks, the influential New York record store.
Their party filled a void in the Big Apple, providing respite from a club culture drifting toward the DJ worship that dominates American nightlife today. Talk to clubbers from those days, even here in San Francisco, and you'll bear witness to a nostalgic afterglow — with many saying Body & SOUL might have been the last party in New York to truly embody all that was great about the city's storied nightlife.
Then, in 2002, it ended. Or, at least, Vinyl did. Now, Body & SOUL lives on as a roving, seasonal affair. Playing gigs in far-off places like Brazil, Japan, and England, the trio attracts an international crowd as obsessively devoted as the dancers who still gather in New York. "I do feel that what Body & SOUL is about is definitely needed," says Claussell. "I say that because we're coming with love — love for one another, and ecstasy and love for the music, as opposed to coming as a DJ, where it's all about the ego and putting the self on a pedestal."
This party brings a sense of worship to sound, with three deep and constantly expanding collections of music aiding the experience. "The emphasis was on great music, a great sound system, and a comfortable club," Krivit says. "It was like, let's get together and just play the records we wanna play. And if we have friends that come and enjoy it, then that makes it better."
There's also a refreshing looseness to Body & SOUL that stands in contrast to the hyper-manicured bombast of the festival circuit and the increasingly cerebral club scene. Here, DJs move beyond the disco and house lineage of Manhattan to include stuff like Detroit techno producer Rolando's "Knights of the Jaguar," a quintessential Body & SOUL record when pitched-down from its recorded 138 BPM. This looseness also allows for a high degree of improvisation, one of the most striking qualities of Body & SOUL. With three DJs working as a single unit, songs are made almost unrecognizable through use of on-the-fly delay, heavy EQ, and tasteful layering. This is particularly evident in the pyrotechnic EQing of Claussell, who turns a simple mixer into an expressive instrument, cutting the bass in and out, and playing the midrange like a trumpet mute.
Every twitch in the booth is registered physically on the dancefloor, and it's this connection between the improvisation onstage and the dancers in the room that really sets the party apart. "That call-and-response was very special, and that doesn't go around a lot these days," Claussell says. "With preconceived, prerecorded sets and everything, it's impossible to get that feeling."
That that's not to say these three care to denigrate the recent rise of electronic dance music in America. "I'm just happy for any kind of the music industry that's thriving." Krivit says. When pressed, the DJs say they hope Body & SOUL will act as an introduction to a different kind of dance event. The goal here is a populist one — trying to turn the focus away from the DJ booth and toward the ecstatic atmosphere of the party as a whole. "It's not just us and them separately," Kevorkian says, "it's all of us together." Today, that seems an idea well worth spreading.