Photos by Maria Jose Govea // Red Bull Content Pool.
On Sunday May 23, three hours before the Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York's closing party was supposed to kick off, the venue changed location, and left a lot of people in the midst of an extremely "WTF" moment. Last Night A DJ Saved My Soul—an eight hour homage to gospel house with Floorplan, DJ Pierre, The Jourbert Singers, Terrence Parker, and more—was supposed to take place inside a church in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood, but had been moved to the Williamsburg club, Output. For many who had planned to see the all-star lineup in the intended place of worship, the last minute change of plan to a regular club was undoubtedly a drag.
From various rumors I heard throughout the day, a sound-check in the church prior to doors led to structural damage in which pieces of the building's roof broke apart, pointing towards an obvious safety red flag. Nonetheless, the show kicked off two hours later than planned with sets from Budgie and Paul Nickerson of Catskills record store Dope Jams, who performed as Slow To Speak.
Reportedly inspired by RBMA's longread on the connection between gospel and house music, in which author Aaron Gonsher talked to DJs Robert Hood and Terrence Parker (who are both also licensed ministers) about sneaking spiritual messages into their sets, the party was cheekily held on a Sunday. While for many this is a holy day, over at Output it was one where music was simultaneously being danced to in three separate spaces—one of them being the club's rooftop where Axel Boman dropped funki haus to a wall-to-wall crowd of crazy party animals. After I found myself on the roof next to a gyrating girl in a flower crown who looked straight out of Coachella, I quickly returned back to the club's main room. Down there, the diverse mix of young, old, black, white, cool, and a bit corny, felt more like what I had signed up for.
Early sets from Slow To Speak, Terence Parker, and Bobian offered a rolodex of gospel-house classics like Romanthany's "Ministry of Love," Mary Clark's "Take Me I'm Yours," "Say a Prayer For Two" by Crown Heights Affair, and DJ Spen's mix of "God Is Good" from Roland Clark. While to some these tracks seem like your average slice of house jams, a careful ear would pick up on many of the religious messages in their lyrics. In Dan Electro's 2004 track "Sing, Stomp, and Shout," a male vocal repeatedly yelled "I've come to praise him," while a cut from Slow to Speak featured an intro in which we heard "Keep a light in my window / So I can ease the pain that life will bring / Find the peace that spirit needs."
All underlying calls to the heavens that took a bit of Shazaming to unpack. The music's relationship to god became most apparent, however, during a set by the Joubert Singers—a choir group led by Phyliss McKoy Joubert, who gained acclaim in 1985 with their gospel house classic "Stand on the World." In 1985, the track was popularly remixed by NJ house legend Tony Humphries and various versions still get unleashed in nightclubs today. This time, it went down live.
Herded together on the lower level stage in Output's main room, the singers were all adorned in choir robes and flanked by a bassist and drummer, as well as the entire crowd. After Phyliss Joubert (herself a minister) explained to the room that she was wearing her "club clothes" under her robe—nodding to the venue change—the group performed a near 15-minute rendition of their biggest hit. While it may have been a more special in a church, seeing the group breathe life into a dark room was absolutely spell-binding—so much so that a twenty-something lady next to me sobbed the entire time out of pure joy.
Two of the event's headliners followed next: DJ Pierre and Floorplan. Known for his solo work as well as part of acid-house outfit, Phuture, Pierre's set featured more angelic vocal lines, the likes of which he cleverly layered upon a persistent underbelly of house and acid. Wearing a shirt adorned with "3:16"—a nod to what's probably the most well-known gospel verse about the legacy of Jesus—Pierre seemed to mix segments of actual sermons over house and techno tracks, in one case looping the words "Say Hallelujah" over and over. He was later joined onstage by Ann Nesby, a Chicago native and former lead singer of Midwestern gospel group, Sound of Blackness, for a couple of live tracks before Floorplan finally took the stage in the room's larger DJ booth to close out the night.
Featuring Robert Hood playing b2b with his daughter Lyric, their set kicked off with the line "I said Jesus, I said Jesus" on loop, before plowing into an energetic rundown of many of their hits, other popular gospel house numbers, and some cuts from their forthcoming, co-produced album.
Due to its changed location, some portions of the day-to-night event felt more like your normal club night, seeing that it was forced to be located in a club that many spend a lot of weekends dancing in. But with a deeper, more focused listen, RBMA succeeded in a number of fronts. Not only was the move to Output a successful last-minute counter programming that kept the party alive, but they also put together a truly wonderful group of artists who have long been devoted to one of dance music's most intriguing shades.
Even as a white Jewish kid from New Jersey who has only stepped foot in a church around three times (two of them were for similar religiously-themed dance parties), the legendary rundown of DJs had me born again.
David Garber is on Twitter