Joe Claussell came to DJ in San Francisco in the summer of ’99. I can never recall specific dates, but if I remember correctly he was billed to play a party at Coco’s, which was a venue on an alley just off 8th street. Some old school San Francisco DJs and dancers will remember this little basement spot, which had a bar upstairs too, I believe. It was on a Friday night and Joe arrived in town early on Thursday. So the photographer, my buddy Disco Dave, Joe and myself went for Thai food in a restaurant on Kearney street and the interview was conducted there. Joe was affable and witty and very different to how the dance music press were portraying him at that time — as a somber music expert. He is definitely a music expert and a fantastic DJ, but he wasn’t somber. Enjoy the interview.

Sounds Of The Spirits: Joe Claussell’s Quest To Save Garage

Recently tons of  12 inch singles have arrived at record shops with a distinct world music influence. From the Batucada drumming of Brazil to the funky guitar riffs of Nigeria, the international sound is uniting with house, breaks and other forms of dance music. Notably responsible for this new approach is New York producer and DJ Joe Claussell, whose series of ear-catching remixes and Spiritual Life Records label are defining the sound. Resident music authority Chris Orr sat down with Joe to hear how his passion for garage, and music in general, would lead to pioneering its reinvention. 

In the last few years New York’s house sound has changed dramatically. Historically the city’s house or “garage” sound was characterized by soulful grooves from the likes of Blaze, David Morales, Bobby Konders, and Masters At Work. An adherence to, and knowledge of. the legacy of music left behind by garage innovators like Larry Levan, Tony Humphries and Francois Kevorkian was crucial. Now NY is synonymous with a transatlantic sound that combines a commercial Euro-house cacophony with the weakest elements of domestic house. In turn, it’s fed to the masses by the by the likes of Junior Vasquez and other DJs who represent it as underground music. Yet it is not the least bit challenging; it is pop music, and bad pop music at that.

Luckily all is not lost in New York, there are still good records coming out and thankfully, djs who will play them. One of those individuals is Joe Claussell, also known as Joe “The EQ” Claussell. Anyone who has experienced the electric atmosphere at the club Body & Soul, where Joe shares a residency with Francois Kevorkian and Danny Krivit, will know where the “EQ” handle derives from. Joe worked in the NYC underground house circuit from 1989 onwards, though his love and involvement with garage music goes back before that. In addition to spinning at a prestigious club, he runs the innovative label Spiritual Life Music, was involved as a partner in the influential New York record store Dancetracks and produces and remixes for imprints like Ibadan, Giant Step, King Street and Wave. His approach to club music has impacted producers and clubs on both US coasts and on both sides of the Atlantic.

Claussell’s sound has imbued dance music with a more organic, ethnic feel, taking African and Latin influences on board and meshing them with elements of the ‘garage’ tradition and the the true feeling of classic and contemporary house music. Remixing Cape Verde’s blues diva Cesaria Evora and mixing Hatian Jephte Guillaume’s full-length raised even more eyebrows. On his first DJing trip to San Francisco with Jerome Sydenham from Ibadan, XLR8R had the opportunity to meet this influential figure over dinner and listen to his rendition of where his music comes from and where it is going.

“I come from Brooklyn, New York and I grew up in a large family, seven brothers and three sisters, and throughout my family life the whole house was into music, we were into all kinds of music. That’s the reason I’m so into music now, I’d have to thank my family for what I’m doing now. I never thought I’d be DJing and producing as my profession. Everyone in my family was musical, my mother, father, all my brothers and sisters. We listened to everything, imagine all the music there was in the ’70s, all the African stuff, Top 40 stuff and rock. Even today I am a big fan of serious rock from the ’70s, not rock today. I wasn’t turned onto anything individually, everything came in at once.

Between mouthfuls of tofu and calamari with a canvas of twilight and downtown traffic noise behind, Joe attempted to chart his recent progresss. “I was really young when the Paradise Garage closed and after it closed I really didn’t feel the need to collect records or even spin anymore. The Garage was the glue, was the thing, that held music together for us in New York City at the time. When that fell apart I didn’t feel that there was anything left worth listening to in terms of ‘garage’ music. I mean I was always into music, all kinds of music, but in terms of the turntable thing, the DJing thing, I felt I should give it a break. The Garage didn’t inspire me to start DJing; I was inspired before, the music that was played there increased my inspiration. The music I am making now really has nothing to do with the music of the Garage. My thing is more of a world, ethnic, spiritual-type music. The Paradise Garage was known for its vocal slant, but the club was also all about the music. It showed me that you can have a room with a DJ, a room full of all kinds of people sharing a common interest in having fun, no bullshit, no getting dressed up, no picking up girls, picking up guys, whatever, it was about the music.”

Detailing the other strong influence in his musical sphere, the original Dance Tracks record store,  Joe explains how the store kept the musical tradition of the Paradise Garage alive long after its closure. “As I said I gave up DJing and collecting records for about 2 years, about this time I moved into the East Village, I lived on 7th street, Dance Tracks was on 3rd Street and 4th Avenue. I passed the store every day on my way to work and one day I really took notice of it. Something told me to go in and check it out.”

When Joe finally did check it out he met the shop’s sole employee Stan Hatzakis, whom he found friendly and true to the original garage vibe. The comfortable environment made Joe a regular visitor until one day Stan asked him to watch the store while he ran to the bank. Joe explains, “I watched the store and played some records for the first time in years, he came back and there had been a lot of sales and people were vibing off what I was playing. After that I became the main DJ for the store, I never accepted any money for this, it was all fun for me. That was the point where my involvement in production started as the store began a production outfit called Instant House.”

While begun as a casual arrangement, Joe’s recordings would lead to one of the 90’s groundbreaking labels. Claussell describes its evolution, “I was never the kind of guy who thought everyone is making music so I should be making music too. Stan asked me to be involved in the projects and the two records we made did really well in the underground, they became cult classics. In 1990 I was in London visiting my girlfriend, she switched on the radio in her car and the station we had been listening to was playing one of the Instant House tracks. It felt great to hear your music like that, but still I wasn’t convinced to devote myself to production. I grew up with music in my life and so everything is natural to me when it comes to making it. We formed Spiritual Life Music in ’95, ’96 because we felt that the music coming out at the time was shit, it was dominated by everything that Junior Vasquez was making popular, a very hard, meaningless sound. My first remix after the Instant House stuff was for 95 North’s “Journey” on Shelter Records. We drove to Baltimore, 5 hours, arrived at their home at 5 in the morning, all excited to do the mix, that was my first assigned remix.”

But, inevitably struggles, financial and artistic, faced Joe in the formation of Spiritual Life. At the time no label or groups were a force in the realm he was about to create. He explains this time period with his usual candor; “It was a struggle to find good music at that time, in terms of house music. We shouldn’t even be calling it house music now, house was then, what we’re doing now is different; it’s dance music. Being a part owner of a record store I saw that it was difficult to find quality music. What I hear from other people now is that Spiritual Life has helped revive dance music and made dance music what it is today. The conga is being used more than ever and Spiritual Life is a big part of that. My first remix for Ten City, “Nothing’s Changed,” had a conga dub and the difference between that kind of feel and say a classic ethnic house record like”‘Ma Foom Bey” by Cultural Vibe is that those records had a sampled or programmed drum pattern. My records have an array of instruments that are talking to each other, not just a sampled groove; there’s spirituality and a true feeling in the grooves of this music.”

At first he found a skeptical audience who weren’t used to an organic influence in a music predicated on electronic loops and increasingly bland beats. “People laughed at the records I was going to put out, like Jephte Guillaume’s stuff. They were saying ‘what’s this, what are you doing?’ But now, only because of the press that Spiritual Life Music gets are people like DJs and distributors on top of it. When I put out that Ten City record there was nothing like that around at the time. When Jerome started his label Ibadan, I suggested he should license the Ten City catalogue.” Ten City was a major force in soulful house music but why choose this group specifically? “Ten City are what house music was, you think of house music you think of Ten City. The way they departed the dance scene was totally wrong, it was the wrong exit in terms of the whole major label change and the major label wanted to do something with them that they weren’t musically into. That is the fault of the whole corporate thing going in dance music; that effected the music tremendously. We wanted to bring them back and I think we were really successful in doing that.”

Bad energy is common within the dance scene and many people feel that house music and specifically the New York scene has lost its soulful vibe forever. Perhaps, but Joe Claussell has faith that, even though Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage is gone, he, Danny Krivit and Kevorkian might revive the spirit with their club Body & Soul. “Body & Soul has brought something back that I didn’t even know existed, it has brought back the garage vibe, but it has brought back more, it brought back dance music, the deep, underground variety. You’ve 1,300 people on a Sunday afternoon and it’s like Saturday night, there’s all kinds of people there and you feel so comfortable, there’s no intimidation at all, it doesn’t matter what color you are, what your sexual preference is.”

Joe rejected Kevorkian’s initial request to DJ out of a concern that egos might outweigh the music and emotion the club had to offer. It didn’t turn out to be the case and Joe joined. “I can’t deal with the egos and all that bullshit, leave that ego shit at home. Dance music would be much further on than it is if everyone would just come together and forget all that stuff. I believe that when it comes to dance music in New York City this is our last chance.” While happy with the club’s accomplishments and worldwide following Claussell is keen to remain cautionary. “When you have bad energy all around something could happen to the venue, Mayor Guilliani could come and close us down and what would we do then? That’s all down to energy, you share a positive attitude who can stop you?”

Joe Claussell’s vision of music is stronger than ever, evident in his stirring remixes and original tracks that have swayed DJs from London to Lisbon to Los Angeles. Our interview revealed Joe as an approachable, down to earth and light-hearted person. Yeah “light-hearted,” not the earnest muso that some of the music press portray him as, but a guy with a playful, self-deprecating sense of humor. He may well be poised at the forefront of contemporary house music culture, but he still deeply appreciates his early experiences of music and the experiences of others. You see it in him and you certainly hear it in his records. While he continues to redefine the boundaries of dance music with globally conscious influences, we can’t help but know that he is Spiritual Life Music personified.