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Theater of the Mind: The Legacy of the Electrifying Mojo

May 12, 2015
By Ashley Zlatopolsky

Ask any Detroit techno artist about his or her influences and you’ll undoubtedly be regaled with stories about The Electrifying Mojo, a sci-fi visionary who ruled the Detroit airwaves while radio was still unrestricted. “He was an underground cult hero,” says Juan Atkins. “We would listen to him religiously every night.”

An enigma through and through, Mojo has rarely shown his face in public, refusing to be photographed and only granting a select number of interviews. Like the Wizard of Oz, Mojo was a voice behind a curtain or – in his case – a radio microphone. Although he mostly remains a mystery, his influence on Detroit techno is as clear as day. Mojo not only played the first techno records on air – A Number of Names’ “Sharevari” and Cybotron’s “Alleys of Your Mind” – but he also laid down a solid foundation of guitar funk and machine funk for techno’s development. “I think without The Electrifying Mojo, we wouldn’t have had Detroit techno the way that we know Detroit techno,” says Carl Craig .

When Mojo – real name Charles Johnson – emerged on WGPR in 1977, AM radio had just flipped to FM, and there were only a handful of stations on the FM dial. And even fewer rules. “Mojo was on there playing whole album sides [up to 12 minutes long],” says Atkins. “He had a lot of range to experiment musically because he wasn’t under a tight format and he got really popular because of it.”

WGPR was primarily geared toward the black community with urban contemporary, R&B, soul, gospel and various ethnic programs, but Mojo didn’t adhere to any select format, a trademark of his persona that continued throughout his radio career at stations like WJLB, WHYT, and WMXD. As a result, his fan base was racially mixed, a rarity in an era that ordinarily had strict separations in listenership. Within one sitting, Mojo would swap out records from Peter Frampton to Genesis to Human League, followed by Parliament Funkadelic to Prince to Kraftwerk. Sometimes he’d do nights of all Prince or nights of all Michael Jackson, for three hours straight. “You’d sit there in a trance waiting for each record Mojo was going to play,” says Atkins.

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Mojo’s shows kicked off with The Landing of the Mothership, an array of space-like sounds accenting Mojo’s “descent” to Earth, in which he’d often land on top of the Penobscot building, a staple in the downtown Detroit skyline. (Mojo’s mothership idea supposedly stemmed from Parliament’s Mothership Connection album.) During one lengthy landing, Mojo invited Detroit Mayor Coleman Young on air. Young, echoing as if from a distant planet, declares into the radio microphone: “This is Mayor Coleman Young aboard the mothership of Mojo. I’m flying over my city and looking at all of my people. I want to keep the city beautiful… won’t you help me? Mojo, let’s fly over Detroit, east and west, north and south... This is Mayor Young, and the mothership with Mojo…” Young’s voice trails off, as if forgetting to add the words “has landed.”

Mojo’s Mothership w/ Mayor Coleman Young
The same segment follows with a different ethereal voice, presumably Mojo’s: “Greetings to the privileged generation of Earth. One hundred years ago, millions of people across the expanse of your planet looked into the heavenly skies… and they asked the question, ‘What would life be like in the year 1981?’”

In Detroit, 1981 was an exciting time of change and evolution musically. The disco scene had morphed into New Wave/progressive, and it was also the year techno emerged. Even though the city was still recovering from the 1967 riots and Motown’s departure, Detroit’s music culture was vibrant. The Awesome segment of Mojo’s show, which followed The Landing of the Mothership, was entirely devoted to exposing listeners to the burgeoning sounds of Detroit’s underground, as well as funk and synth-laden (soon-to-be) hits from across the globe.
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