Thursday, May 26, 2011

Detroit Techno: The Electrifying Mojo

Ask any Detroiter alive long enough to know, and they’ll tell you who the man was that sculpted the city’s soundtrack in the 1980s. Charles Johnson, aka the Electrifying Mojo, was an FM radio DJ who ran a radio show called the Midnight Funk Association. What made the show so revolutionary was that he refused to conform to the prevailing radio formats of the time. He defied the racial segmentation that ruled the day and played what he wanted, an eclectic mix of music ranging from P-Funk and Prince to Kraftwerk, the B-52s, the Talking Heads, Italo Disco and Phillip Glass. Hi disregarded the notions of “white” music and “black” music and played whatever he felt was funky.

Mojo’s show had a cult-like following. At the beginning of each show, he invoked futurist ideas of Parliament and Sun Ra, calling a fictional Mothership down to Detroit. Then at midnight, he called into order a meeting of the Midnight Funk Association, asking Detroiters to flash their porch lights and honk their horns if they were tuning in. The city erupted into flashes of light, reportedly.

In this video, over a bed of theme music from Star Wars, Mojo inducts his audiences into the Association:

By embracing such a wide swath of music, Mojo got a generation of black youths in Detroit turned on to music that the music industry had long decided wasn’t meant for them. As everyone tells it, Kraftwerk were HUGE in Detroit at this time. Everybody was listening to them. Techno originators like Juan Atkins, Derick May, and Kevin Saunderson assimilated all those weird electronic influences, those hard-funk influences, and spit out music that sounded like nothing else ever made before, music that would become one of the most popular sounds in the world.

One of Mojo’s favorite artists was Prince. He interviewed The Artist Formerly Known on the show several times:

 Here’s what Juan Atkins, widely regarded as techno’s founder, had to say about Mojo:

At this time there were only three or four other FM stations. FM was still real new. FM didn't even come into existence until 1977. And at that time there was only like three stations. WGPR, the station that Mojo was on, was like 107.5, way on the right side of the dial. You wouldn't even know about it unless you personally loved to just venture on the radio. So Mojo happened to be on what happened to be the first black FM station. So Mojo was very very popular with the urban youth. He played all types of music – rock and pop, but he made it work. On American radio it was unheard of to have all these different genres of music being played on one show. Because on rock stations that's all they played was rock songs. They didn't play any R&B music or Black music. And vice versa, the Black stations never played rock music, punk, or nothing. So Mojo was very unique because he played like a half an hour of Jimi Hendrix, then back it up with half an hour of James Brown, then come with half an hour of Peter Frampton, and then Funkadelic, and then Kraftwerk. You know? It was just amazing.”

Brendan Gillen, of the techno group Ectomorph, recalled the following about Mojo:

“He had this a persona,  like an acid-damaged Vietnam veteran who was trying to reunite Detroit after the race riots. His exact social program was to try and confuse the boundaries of White and Black music by playing really awesome new White music, really awesome Black music, and like if you were White growing up, part of your history would be that you love all this Black music, and if you were Black growing up, you’d love all this – B 52’s, Talking Heads. There was a time when gangsters in Detroit – like bad-ass gangsters that you actually should have been scared of – would wear pink lace over their eyes during the Purple Rain time period, thanks to Mojo. He presented himself in a mythological tone. And that’s the basis of Detroit Techno, is thinking about yourself mythologically. We know that Cybotron and Model 500 and Infinity are all Juan Atkins, but as a Techno music fan or connoisseur, you would know the context of each one of those projects.”

Mojo broke Juan’s first band, Cybotron, in Detroit. He played the hell out of “Alleys of Your Mind” in 1981, jump starting local interest in the nascent genre, and continued to support the genre until he was taken off the air.

As legend has it, Mojo left the Midnight Funk Association after he became obsessed with dedicating his time to showing the African-American contribution to classical music after a listener called in and asked about the lack of Black faces in the classical world. The station kicked him off when he began losing audiences midway into the crusade.

Since then, he’s buzzed around the Detroit radio world from behind the scenes, but rarely grants any interviews. Even the techno stars say they don’t know where to find him. Brendan Gillen, who has spoken with him and tried to get him to talk on the record, to no avail has a theory: “I believe he’s like – he made such a great myth, he doesn’t want to destroy it.”
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