The Electrifying Mojo
My high school years were a tough time for Detroit. The auto industry was not prepared for the OPEC oil embargo and was facing increased competition from Japanese imports, crafty mammals to their unwieldy, seemingly obsolete dinosaurs. When the Detroit companies tried to produce smaller models, often just larger ones that looked like their backs were sawn off, the cars were failures. For this first time they faced unplanned obsolescence. One might have felt the chickens had come to roost or it was karmic comeuppance, but local families suffered with the economic downturn because it was really just a car town.
The city also had not recovered from the 1967 riot, or rebellion, as some called it. The riot, still one of the nation’s deadliest, was only quelled when the governor called in the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. It left neighborhoods and businesses burnt out and intensified the white flight to the suburbs and racial polarization. Crime was continuing to rise as the city became known as Murder City and the police department initiated a special unit called STRESS, an acronym for Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets. These undercover officers were responsible for an extraordinary number of shooting and killings, almost always of black Detroiters. Murder City indeed. They quickly faced charges of targeted shootings and entrapment and when the black community finally achieved political power and elected Coleman Young mayor, one of his first acts was to disband STRESS. Yet, kids that I had gone to school with had fathers who were STRESS detectives. They believed their dads were good men who would never wrongfully shoot someone.
My largely Polish and Italian neighborhood was rapidly changing with the whites leaving in fire sale fashion while KKK graffiti appeared at our local park. The whites usually talked about the increase in crime or the decrease in their home values, but it was plain that there was a real unwillingness to live among black people. My father was from Appalachia and carried the prejudices of his rural coal mining community with him when his family moved to Detroit to work in the auto plants. They stayed in our neighborhood when almost all the other white families had left but not because of any strong sense of idealism about a rainbow society but simply because my dad’s city job required that he live in the city.
The year I started high school the public schools also started busing. This was doomed to failure because already there were not enough white kids in the school system to go around and truly integrate the schools. Practically, it meant I could not walk to the local high school on Seven Mile Road, because the kids from our area were bused deeper into the city to Pershing High. The authorities had recognized this and attempted a Detroit-area wide busing plan that included the almost entirely white suburbs. The suburbs resisted, not unexpectedly, and it resulted in a landmark Supreme Court case that limited busing just to the city. So busing was yet another reason that white people gave for their decision to leave the neighborhood and decamp for one of the east side suburbs.
I ended up at a Catholic school located on the northeastern edge of the city, about four miles from my parents’ house inside the city. There was no school bus and the closest city buses ran along Six or Seven Mile Road, a 1/2 mile walk in either direction from my house. The bus service was terrible. I had to transfer and that meant even more waiting, and it was particularly brutal in the Michigan winters. The buses were scrawled with graffiti of the East Side gangs, the Helen Hoods, WK’s (White Killers), BK’s (Black Killers), Errol Flynns, and the Sconis or Sconi Onlys, reportedly a corruption of the Corleones from The Godfather movies. I tried to avoid riding the bus as much as possible, so in the warmer weather I would ride my bike to the school. My route took me through our big shopping district at Seven Mile Road and Gratiot Avenue which featured a couple of local department stores, a record shop, electronics store, ice cream fountain, and a Coney Island restaurant, the Detroit equivalent of a diner. Notably, there was also a furniture store called Quality Discount Furniture and located in the front window was the broadcast studio of WGPR radio and its three disc jockeys Marvelous Marv, Tiger Dan and the Electrifying Mojo.
I was instantly taken by the names of the disc jockeys. They seemed like a throwback to a time when radio disc jockeys and radio stations had some individuality and personality. The radio stations that all of my friends listened to were FM rock stations, and although there were three of them, they were all exactly the same. Even the one whose gimmick was broadcasting in “quadrophonic sound” sounded the same as the others. They all played the same music, bands like Styx, REO Speedwagon, Jefferson Starship, Kansas, Boston, and Foreigner, one more ridiculous than the other. The music was supposed to sound better if you were high but no amount of drugs could make this music enjoyable. While the payola scandals of the early days of rock radio were in the distant past, it seemed that someone had to be paying these stations for them to play this music. It clearly was not a merit system where the cream rose to the top.
The good music you could only learn about through hanging out at record stores or reading magazines in a form of musical samizdat. It was some sort of secret society. And it confirmed my belief that so much in society was not really fair, but things that others were deciding to foist on us. While these FM stations pretended they were somehow counterculture or anti-establishment, I just had to take their word for it. To me, they were as boring and as corporate as General Motors or Chrysler. Of course, this was the music listened to by the white kids. The black kids would never listen to these stations. As the city and suburbs were segregated so was the music. Blacks had totally different bands they listened to on “black radio” stations.
I had mostly given up on the radio except for certain shows on the public radio station and Gospel and blues programs on the AM dial. But when I saw the broadcast booth of WGPR in the front window of Quality Discount Furniture I knew I had to listen. WGPR: Where God’s Presence Radiates, although I heard it had once stood for W Grosse Pointe Radio, the richest and snobbiest east side suburb. All of the DJs were great but the Electrifying Mojo had the night-time shift. He was a mysterious figure. He never appeared in public, unlike some local celebrity DJ’s, and it was said that no one knew who he was. His program had personality for sure. It was based on a loosely reworked Parliament-Funkadelic mythology. Mojo in his deeply serious yet also playful voice explained that he had come to Earth in the Mothership from a distant galaxy with the sole mission to play awesome music for us Earthlings. Before the word “awesome” had become a cliché he used it, wrapping his voice around the letters in a way that made you want to say it too, and it actually was awesome.
The show might begin:
“Fear not, directly over the City of Detroit, a huge extraterrestrial vehicle is now hovering, while we have come to Detroit to interrupt your flow of redundancy. From another time, another galaxy, another solar system, there exists the Interplanetary Empire where we watch over the universe. In late ’76 and early ’77 electromagnetic beams were projected into the universe from the Detroit area and the Interplanetary Empire was contacted and notified of the oblivious musical structure of Earth and your world. On this night in Detroit we will give you a complete and total body buzz causing you to break out and jam even if’n you don’t give a damn. For the next few hours, you will be under radio surveillance. I will now begin my final descent. Don’t say damn, say whoa, this is the Electrifying Mojo.”
And at 10 p.m. he would land the Mothership here on Earth and call the Midnight Funk Association to order. While the Star Wars theme played in the background, Mojo would gather the faithful: “Will all the members of the Midnight Funk Association please rise, if you are in bed, dance on your back and get ready to take it from the pillow to the party, you don't have to get up, as long as you get down, if you are in water [pronounced “wah-tair”], make waves and if you are driving - honk your horn, flash your lights. That’s right. If you are at home, turn on your porch light. This meeting of the International Midnight Funk Association is hereby called to order, Electrifying Mojo presiding: May the Funk Be With You . . . ALWAYS.”
And then he’d cue up the most ripping set of tunes for the next hour, but it was not comprised of strictly “black” or “white” music. It was just good music and was clearly not dictated by some corporate programmer. It could be the Gap Band, Afrika Bambaataa, Gary Numan, or it could be the B-52’s, Rick James or Michael Jackson. He was an early champion of Prince whose genre-mashing was spiritually aligned with Mojo’s aesthetic. He played Kraftwerk and the J. Geils band, of course Parliament-Funkadelic, and Pink Floyd to Queen to Teena Marie. He played the Gang of Four and early homemade recordings of Detroit techno innovators and icons Juan Atkins, Carl Craig and Derrick Mays. Eventually he started playing his own extended dance remixes of songs. His legion of fans, members of the Midnight Funk Association, were both white and black.
After Mojo left WGPR for the number one black radio station in Detroit, WJLB, it seemed like everyone was into him. I moved into the Cass Corridor neighborhood, Detroit’s bohemian quarter that was part skid row and, at the northern end, home of our local public university, Wayne State. In this neighborhood, young and older black and white people hung out together. All of the house parties and barbeques featured Mojo’s music, and they became giant dance parties filled with both black and white folks throwing down.
Maybe he really was from outer space. Because someone from outer space could see right away what was wrong with the way things were organized, in a way that people that had been right in the middle of it were completely blind and clueless to, our “redundacy” our “obliviousness.” Or maybe someone from outer space could easily see, what should have been crushingly obvious, but what those crushed by gravity could not see, that music could be used to bring people together rather than balkanize them. Detroit might not have been making such great cars anymore, but it had a nearly unsurpassed musical heritage, and there was still lots of good music there. It was still Motown even after the record label of that name decamped for L.A. I can’t say it changed Detroit, because Detroit needed a fleet of Motherships and an army of Mojos but it did show everyone the way, like it’s got a good beat and you can dance the Smurf to it.
Ultimately, I left Detroit and Mojo left the airwaves. He must have returned to his own distant galaxy. But before I left I obtained a Midnight Funk Association membership card. Along with my White Panther Party pin, it is one of my dearest possessions from my hometown. I still have the card and sometimes when I run into another Detroiter, black or white, about my age, just to show my real Detroiter bona fides, I will break it out. It always works, a new kind of secret handshake. And when I go back to Detroit, to visit sometimes I run into a young person, part of the now much-hyped new Detroit emerging. I always hope for the best. But also I try to explain to them that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was really this amazing DJ and he came to Detroit.