DJ Clifton aka Soft Touch is a resident selector at Funky Soul, a righteous get-down that packs them in every Saturday night at the Echo on L.A.’s eastside. During the week Clifton can also be heard around town at spots like the Beauty Bar and Club Underground spinning everything from Britpop to indie, to hip-hop. Recently, the always sharply dressed Soft Touch took time to meet up with crossfadr at a café in downtown L.A. early on a Friday evening before heading off to a gig in Orange County.
crossfadr: You started out playing bass in a band. Was that good training for becoming a DJ? Soft Touch: I think so. I’ve had people comment before when I blend and mix stuff they’ve noticed I tend to pick songs that are in the same key or songs that have similar bass lines. At first it was kind of unintentional and then I started noticing that I was doing it and now when I DJ, I try and make it musical. When I blend songs I like it to sound like one song just kind of melted into another. Being in a band, learning things about music theory and about songs definitely has helped the way I try to keep the flow going on the dance floor.
crossfadr: Do you think turntables are musical instruments? Soft Touch: There are definitely DJs that use them as musical instruments, someone like Cut Chemist or other turntablists, they definitely use them as an instrument. But I’m more of a selector than a turntablist.
crossfadr: You spin a lot of retro/vintage records. What attracts you to those sounds? Soft Touch: From when I first got into music as a teenager I always kind of gravitated towards ‘60s and ‘70s music. But I wouldn’t say I spin just retro stuff because at Club Underground I spin a lot of ‘90s Britpop and early 2000s stuff, which I guess is retro now. But I keep up on what’s going on. There’s a lot of current groups I like, but they all kind of have that feel. A lot of them were inspired by the ‘60s and ‘70s sound.
crossfadr: Who are some contemporary artists that you dig? Soft Touch: Um . . . .uh, well . . . there’s this one group Metronomy that I like, they kind of have this ‘80s disco feel almost . . .um . . . . ..
crossfadr: Ha, I’ve called you out! You really don’t like new music do you? Soft Touch: (Laughs) No, no actually, my favorite record right now is by this group called the Step Kids that’s out on Stones Throw. It’s kinda like Dr. John’s first record Gris Gris meets the Beatles Revolver meets Fresh era Sly and the Family Stone. They’re really good. In the early 2000s I loved all that DFA stuff like the Rapture and LCD Sound System. There’s another Stones Throw artist, Dam Funk, that I also really like.
crossfadr: You guys pack them in every week at Funky Soul. What’s the age range of the crowd? Soft Touch: I’ve seen all ages from 21 to people in their 50s.
crossfadr: What do you think it is about that vintage funk and soul sound that makes 21-year-old kids want to spend their Saturday night dancing to records from before they were born? Soft Touch: One thing I know is that with contemporary music it seems like there’s a pretty high value placed on everything sounding the same. It’s hard to differentiate one artist from another and I guess in some respects back in the ‘60s and ‘70s everyone was trying to emulate the big hit records of the day but it didn’t always work and for better or worse, that gave each artist their own identity and each record its own sound. Also most of those records were recorded by live musicians in the studio at the same time, there’s a certain feel to those records that contemporary music’s not gonna have.
crossfadr: Is it important to use vinyl when you’re playing vintage funk? Soft Touch: For something like Funky Soul, yeah, because all those old records from the ‘50s, ’60, ‘70s, the entire process was analog. So if you digitize it, you’re gonna lose a lot out of the sound because it was recorded analog, mastered analog and then pressed onto record all using an analog process. So for funk and soul sounds, vinyl is definitely preferable. When I spin newer music I’ll use CDs and there’s been some nights where I’ll use Serato. I used to be anti-Serato, but there’s advantages to it and a lot of new music’s made digitally so you’re not losing so much out of the sound if you use an MP3 or a WAV file. But with funk and soul you lose a lot out of the sound and I guess because that’s my favorite music I have a bias towards it and I want to keep it as pure as possible.
crossfadr: You’re always dressed in immaculate vintage threads. Is that part of the “Soft Touch” package that you up the vibe visually when you do a gig as opposed to just turning up in jeans and trainers? Soft Touch: It wasn’t intentional but it’s kind of ended up like that. When I first started going to clubs and getting into music, I was going to a lot of ‘60s mod clubs and I always liked suits and I would just get dressed up to go out. Obviously DJing is kind of like performing and when I was in a band I always felt like, you can’t just go on stage dressed like you came off the street, so when I DJ I feel like, okay I should make myself more presentable. So I guess it is part of my thing now.
crossfadr: What’s the best thing about being a DJ? Soft Touch: Being able to play a song that’s not a hit, that’s not anything people have heard and to still get a positive response from the crowd like it’s a top 40 hit. That’s always a gratifying experience.
crossfadr: So is the worst part of DJing when you play a song like that and nobody digs it? Soft Touch: Yeah that’s one of the bad things and I’ve had that happen way too many times. It’s like turning lights on roaches and the crowd just scatters.
crossfadr: How do you recover? Soft Touch:If I feel like a song might do that, I’ll try and keep a song I know the crowd will like on hand and when I see them scatter I’ll mix that in.
crossfadr: What would your dream DJ gig be? Soft Touch:I dunno, maybe Funky Soul at the Hollywood Bowl?
crossfadr: So Funky Soul is your dream gig? Soft Touch:Well it’s my favorite music and the crowds we get at the Echo are so open-minded musically and within that genre of “Funky Soul” there’s so much we do whether it’s slipping in a little bit of Northern or stuff that’s like African funk or Middle-Eastern funk or Brazilian music. There’s a lot of different styles that can be explored within that bigger umbrella of Funky Soul. There’s a lot of freedom there and the crowds are open-minded so yeah, it’s been a dream gig.