Senior Year, 1984: Detroit's Midnight Funk Associates
by Philip Sherburne | September 24, 2012
If you came of age in Detroit during the 1980s, chances are you listened to the Electrifying Mojo. You may even have been a card-carrying member of the Midnight Funk Association with a Whammy Cloth pinned to your bedroom wall; when he gave the word, you signaled your allegiance by honking your car horn or flashing the lights on your porch. And when he began his show in radio-play form, calling down the Mothership amid a swirl of sound effects and a snatch of the Star Wars theme, you half-believed that you might actually get beamed up, for real.
Many big American cities have had popular local DJs, but few shaped their listeners the way Mojo did. In a city that was still reeling from the riots of 1967 and the depopulation, resegregation and urban blight that followed, Mojo offered an olive branch to his disciples in the form of one of the most radically inclusive playlists the airwaves have ever known. Funk served as the bedrock layer of Planet Mojo -- Parliament, Funkadelic, Roger Troutman and Zapp, Rick James, and of course Prince, one of Mojo's favorites -- but there was no telling where he might go from there.
Mojo championed the J. Geils Band and the B-52's; his devotion to acts like Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra affected a generation of Detroit youth who grew up thinking that sci-fi bleeps were the most natural thing in the world. (He also flipped the bird to radio's increasingly narrow formatting by choosing to play obscure B-sides and deep album cuts -- and even entire albums -- instead of program-director-approved hits.) When Detroit's "progressive" scene, a precursor to techno, glommed onto European New Wave and cosmopolitan high fashion, a lot of that was Mojo's doing, having hipped the greater part of the city's high school population to Yello and Gary Numan and Front 242 right alongside Afrika Bambaataa and The Time.
Techno, in fact, is unthinkable without Mojo. If Detroit techno was George Clinton and Kraftwerk getting in an elevator together, as Derrick May put it, then Mojo was the trickster with his hand on the "close doors" button, egging them on. When Cybotron invented their homegrown strain of electro-funk, Mojo beamed it to his listeners on a regular basis, driving home the impression that the Mothership had landed right there in Detroit, and anything might happen next. Not only did he play A Number of Names' demo of "Sharevari," generally acknowledged as Detroit techno's founding track, he even named the group. (Reportedly, producers Paul Lesley, Roderick Simpson and Sterling Jones arrived at the studio, demo in hand, without any idea what to call themselves. Glancing at their voluminous entourage, he offered, "A Number of Names," and the meta-metonym stuck.)
Mojo bounced between stations during the course of his career, and it's been over a decade since the reclusive DJ has had a regular radio presence in the city. For those of us who never heard one of his shows, there's frustratingly little evidence of his golden era online, beyond a few YouTube radio rips. But, judging by his listeners' testimonials and the prescience of his vision, we have Mojo to thank for much of what we know about popular music today.
Our playlist, set just on the cusp of techno taking off in 1984, makes no pretense of replicating the feel of one of Mojo's broadcasts, but we have chosen songs that he was known to play -- or songs he might have been likely to play, from artists he definitely did. (Mojo even played Hendrix, and none of the guitarist's songs is more appropriate for a Mojo tribute than "EXP," the sci-fi radio skit that opens Axis: Bold as Love). Consider the playlist a tribute to Mojo's taste, vision and audacity, and flash your lights when you listen. Who knows, maybe the Mothership is still hovering overhead, waiting for a signal.