Late-night magic at MJQ: An oral history, Part I

How a Swedish Chinese tastemaker, and a generation of artists, thugs, club kids, DJs and urban intellectuals turned Ponce de Leon Avenue on its ear

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Photo credit: Photo courtesy Ben Rhoades
Late-night magic at MJQ: An oral history, Part IJust another night in the life at MJQ (2010).

When MJQ opened for business in the basement of the Ponce de Leon Hotel in March 1994, Atlanta had never seen anything like it. The shabby nightclub with the mod design was the singular vision of a 6-foot-4-inch Swedish-Chinese tastemaker named George Chang, and the club’s name was a nod to his favorite band, the Modern Jazz Quartet. From the beginning, MJQ embodied the mondo fun, sophistication and swingin’ repertoire of its namesake, while holding sway over Atlanta’s indie-minded nightlife scene.

It was the early ’90s and lounge music, dub, jungle, acid jazz, retro-soul and trip-hop defined the times. Chang literally gave these sounds a common ground, and MJQ quickly became a place where cross-dressers, artists, thugs, club kids and urban intellectuals converged to the beat of many drummers.

In September 1997, the club moved a few blocks east down Ponce de Leon Avenue, into a cavernous underground former blues club called Lou’s Blues Revue, where it was renamed MJQ Concourse. From the street, the current club looks like nothing more than a storage shed. But inside, the driveway entrance ramp leads down into a dark rabbit hole of pulsating sounds that have spawned a legacy of DJ-driven club nights with such debaucherous names as Sloppy Seconds and Fuck Yesss.

As the city has evolved over the last 17 years, the club has changed with it. From its humble beginnings as the hippest hole-in-the-wall on Ponce to becoming the city’s edgiest dance club, MJQ is still the epicenter for Atlanta’s underground nightlife scene.

Through it all, Chang’s original vision for MJQ has stayed on course, adapting to the times and bringing something different to the dance floor the few nights of the week that it’s open. While other Atlanta clubs chased after VIPs, the celebrities came to MJQ to escape the hype. The club has maintained relevance as so many of its competitors — Kaya, Yin Yang, Nomenclature — have dried up. And it has done so without posting a street sign, maintaining a website, or rarely answering a telephone.

For this oral history, CL spoke with bartenders, DJs, promoters and regulars who have born witness to MJQ’s wild legacy.

Karl Injex, original MJQ resident DJ: George Chang had grown up in Gothenburg, Sweden, and spent a good amount of time in the late ’80s and early ’90s hanging out in London’s soul and jazz clubs. He constantly talked about his experiences dancing to Norman Jay at the Bass Clef, hanging at the Wag in Soho, sweating it out at the Fridge with Patrick Forge and Gilles Peterson. He was one of my first links to this music.

We used to roll around town in his late-model Monte Carlo, talking about music and this club he wanted to open. He had a hand-labeled cassette with “Acieeeed!” scrawled on one side, and “MJQ” on the other. So we’d be rocking these hard Chicago acid tracks, and the tape would flip, and boom, right into some straight-ahead jazz. In his world, this made perfect sense. That tape was kind of like the DNA of MJQ.

John Robinson, aka DJ Gnosis: The idea was to create a European-style place, and an ambient music spot, where there were just pillows on the ground. Injex and I had done events like that at a place called Homage Coffee House. When Chang opened MJQ, it was basically a bar that served beer and wine, ginger ale and coffee; and they had Pepperidge Farm Gold Fish, which were my dinner on many nights.

One of the walls had a giant astronaut picture — like something you’d see in a 1970s Sears catalogue — and the whole place had a dark, futuristic lounge vibe, with a small dance floor that doubled as a stage whenever a band played.

George reined in some big ideas for this one very inspiring, very cosmopolitan spot. Using what means he had he was able to get thrift store furniture and a TV that he found by the side of the road, and turned the place into something much greater than the sum of its parts.

Injex: George’s personality was what made that place so special. He lived his aesthetic. He was obsessed with subcultures in general, and drew inspiration from the most diverse set of influences, from ’60s Playboys to the London Mod scene to Bruce Lee.

Jessica Rose (formerly Jessica Alcorn), MJQ bartender, 1994-1999: George really was a Willy Wonka type. He once said to me, “I don’t give a fuck if anyone comes to hang out here or not, this is for us.” His thing was fighting off gentrification on the weekends — he hated it. Cool people always seemed to find MJQ, but there were people that he didn’t know coming in, and he wasn’t sure if they were smart about music or not, and he really was snobbish about it. Snobbish in a good way.

Constantina “Tina” Psomas, bartender for more than 13 years: Michael Payne, who also DJ’d and hosted parties under the name Wigdan Giddy, worked the door on most nights. He would let people in for free if they were dressed cool, and he could always find a reason to turn people away. It was more like positive selection as opposed to a New York-style “you can’t get in” sort of thing.

Rose: Everyone was welcome, but you were going to pay a cover until you were proven worthy. Electro/hip-hop/experimental music producer and musician Scott Herren of Prefuse 73 was the first bartender there, and he became a DJ. George gave him his first shot. That was his thing, he would take young kids who were music heads and grill them, but provide direction as well. Above all else, MJQ was about intelligentsia. It was for listening and drawing lines between old music and current sounds, straight-ahead jazz, and all of the Mod and soul, and then moving into jungle and acid jazz. He welcomed new musical forms, but he liked giving them a foundation.

Robinson: On Tuesdays I did a night called Dub Kung Fu, playing dub music and Kung Fu movies. Trip-hop started happening around the time the club opened, so it was just a natural transition to play this freaky British instrumental music that was an extension of dub. Those nights featured other DJs, such as Mr. Scary from 688 Madhouse, Taka and J. Ivcevich (J-Stroke). There was a jungle night that DJ and electronic musician/producer Tommie Sunshine held down, and on other nights Michael would play Les Baxter records mixed in with Saint Etienne. Slowly, drum-n-bass was becoming a thing.

Steve DeNiro, MJQ’s creative director/promoter, 2000-2007: It was the first club I’d been to where I drank coffee. I watched a Godzilla movie on a big-screen TV. After that Master Killer by the Shaw Brothers came on. I was writing graffiti back then, and a lot of graffiti cats would come in there, like Derek Lerner and Estrow (Peter Rentz). Those were the heavy hitters back then.

Rose: Drugs were never a problem. You would smell weed sometimes on the Dub Kung Fu nights, but we could easily find it and put a stop to it. There was a line to the bathroom, but it was people who actually had to use the bathroom.

Dirty Dr. Dax, MJQ regular: It was literally at the crossroads of where cultures meet, right there at Ponce and Boulevard. When you put a club there and say “everyone is welcome,” the scene can’t be anything but crazy, and George forced people to get along. You had B Boys from Boulevard and black drag queens and club kids hanging out. There was the Phoenix right there, and there was just a seedy element on the strip there. Me and my friends were real violent and crazy back then, but George and Michael and all of them weren’t like that at all. When we went in there, George just said, “Look, all of you are my people, so you have to get along.”

Because of that MJQ changed things, and it affected the city in a way that you can still see today. You can go to this part of town or that part of town — you can even go to black strip clubs and see people who don’t belong there at all just kind of hanging out. Before MJQ opened, people just didn’t really do that.

Psomas: Michael would throw ’60s-themed leisure parties, and we served Pink Lady cocktails, slow gin fizzes and old-timey drinks. George had a mod night, too. He was super into the mod thing and played ’60s soul, Northern soul and everyone dressed up — it looked like Quadrophenia in there.

Robinson: It was a beautiful time. It wasn’t just eclectic for the sake of being eclectic. It was meaningfully trying to get various threads of black music history together, and in the DJing I was trying to tell a story — bringing together various black American and African music and finding similarities in rhythm, content and texture.

The club was beyond capacity on most nights and we always had to turn people away. At one point the club even made cards for the regulars to show at the door, just to make sure that they could get in. MJQ has always had this problem where if you let just anyone come in, the regulars felt like they were surrounded by douche bags, and if you were too selective it was perceived as elitist.

Business boomed at the club from 1994-96. Cash was flowing and the landlord wanted a cut.

Psomas: The landlord thought he could make more money from George, who was notoriously stubborn, so they feuded.

Rose: George wanted to renew the lease and was supposed to tell the landlord within 30 days. He called on the 30th day, but it was after 1 a.m. Technically, he was a day late and the landlord had done a back-door deal with a guy named Ray Burton Jr. In the end, Ray was just young and made a mistake. He paid more money for the lease and eventually opened a club there called Vox.

Though details have never been made public, at some point Chang was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. MJQ’s presence continued to grow throughout 1996, and he kept his health issues quiet.

Ben Rhoades, current owner of MJQ: At some point George decided to sell the club, so I put in a bid, but I needed a partner so Ben Lukens came on board, and Michael Payne stayed on board as well. George gave us the name and we paid him like $4,000 for the bar stools and a couple of coolers. Wayne Briggs was a local promoter back then. He’s the one who found the current space.

Wayne Briggs: I used to book a night at Lou’s Blues Revue with Speech of Arrested Development. One night, Lou asked if we wanted to take over the lease. Speech wasn’t into it so I told Ben about it. I didn’t hear anything else, until one day George and Michael called and said, “Meet us at this address.” When I got there Michael had already started painting the place.

Psomas: We had a sledgehammer party on the last night the old club was open. All of the regulars came in and ripped out everything that George had put in there.

Rose: George created MJQ out of an empty shell and it was gratifying to make sure that the next owners couldn’t build off of anything he had done.

Rhoades: Ray Burton Jr. opened Vox about a month before we opened in the new spot. His father was a big business guy around town and was somehow involved with Vox. He was this old Southern guy who just sat at the door and made sure that they charged everyone who came in, even the old regulars, so they immediately lost any of the good will that the location once held. They closed just a few months later.

Rose: Ray died in a scooter accident sometime later.

The newer, larger MJQ Concourse opened up at 736 Ponce de Leon Ave. in September of 1997. Michael Payne adopted the role of conceptualizing and designing the new club’s look, and started throwing more of his elaborately themed parties. In addition to his leisure parties, there were Vegas-themed nights and events with titles such as “Electroport to the Orient” and “Radio Now,” set to futuristic theatrics, costumes and a variety show. All who attended were encouraged to wear costumes.

Errol Crane, doorman,1999-2003: We did some immersive mass media exhibitions with fine art and live theatre performances with music. We did fashion shows and things like that. Michael Payne was throwing parties that transformed the whole space for one night, too.

One of the parties we did was a “Naughty Girl Slumber Party.” The first time we did it, it was unanticipated — sort of innocent. A lot of times nightclubs get overly sexual and become a good excuse for people to dress trampy. But for the first one, no boys were allowed. They had to find a way to sneak in, so we had a lot of “pizza delivery guys” show up. I was at the door and dressed as a dad, I was the chaperone. Someone else dressed up as one of the blue dots on the walls down there.

Ryan Murphy, current manager of MJQ: Me and Michael and Jody Drake, who used to do Britpop night, Tina and another friend named Pete Fineman moved here from Miami. Michael came here before me, and he and George were fostering the same kind of music scene that had been going on in Miami. When the club was moving, Michael called to ask if I was interested in managing the place. I had fuck-all to do, and was about to join the Army, so I came here. The new club was built on Ben Rhoades electrocuting himself every 10 minutes, Michael painting the walls and Ben Lukens keeping us all organized.

Rose: There was some discussion about there being a fundamental shift from the old place to the new one because they wanted to push it in the direction of a bigger club with more room for live music.

Psomas: Adding “Concourse” to the name was definitely Michael’s doing. He wanted to create the feeling of being in a Pan Am airport lounge in the 1960s. The idea was that you were rushing through this futuristic airport setting.

A lot more people were coming in, and there was still a strong bar vibe back then. People would just roll in for a drink. It didn’t matter who was DJing. Over time, when they built the café, circa 2000, it was an attempt to preserve some of the feeling of the old club. It’s called the café because we kept serving coffee there for a little while, until we decided that we just didn’t want to deal with it anymore.

Robinson: There was a bigger dance floor to fill, and a different vibe. Back then drum-n-bass, new jazz and deep house were definitely a thing that people wanted to hear, and that’s what we spun on weekend nights. It’s crazy to imagine now, but that was what Atlanta wanted.

Jordan Reece, doorwoman, 1997-2001: The new MJQ felt more like a club than a special place that not everyone knew about. The old place was dark and smaller, and felt like a speakeasy — a cool place to meet interesting people who were interested in all sorts of music and art. A lot of people who loved the old club complained about the move and called it a sell-out. But it was still better than anywhere else in town. Various ages, looks and all kinds of different people were hanging out, and there weren’t any fights.

As the new club came into its own, Chang’s health continued to decline. On March 12, 1999, after slipping into a coma, Chang passed away.

Robinson: He told only a few close friends that he was sick and they kept it quiet. His death came as a surprise to a lot of people. He didn’t want to be the center of attention. He just wanted to execute his vision and not draw attention to himself, which is admirable.

Injex: He was a proud guy. He didn’t want gratuitous sympathy. Also, he was a thoughtful, independent person who didn’t like to burden others, preferring to handle his problems on his own.

As the new millennium approached, the hype surrounding the new space quieted and it became apparent that MJQ needed some new blood and much larger crowds in order to keep the doors open. Local and nationally touring bands, such as Peaches, Deerhoof, Black Lips, Deerhunter, Rizzudo and the Lids began playing regular shows there, and were drawing sizable crowds. Wednesday’s Britpop nights were always a sure thing for a packed house. But crowds on other nights began tapering off as the underground zeitgeist continued to change.

Kai Alce, co-founder of Deep Saturdays, MJQ’s house night from 1997-2006: Ben Rhoades came into Satellite Records where I worked and said, “If I can’t make it work in a couple months, I’m going to shut it down.” He asked if I would come play. So I said, “Of course.” He wanted to get DJ Kemit and someone else, so I suggested we go with Cullen Cole.

DJ Cullen Cole: Justin Chapman was the original house jock, who had been doing a night called House of Jack. He was let go for whatever reason and I was handling the night by myself. It was a tedious, five-hour set, and I didn’t want to keep doing it on my own. Ben wanted to get the best DJs in town, so I suggested Kai and Kemit. They were into it, and the three of us ran with a house night.

Alce: Wednesdays were still going strong, but our Deep Saturdays took off. Within a year we had developed a large following. The second year Kemit left to play at Vision, so from there Cullen and I held down the fort.

Cole: Once Steve DeNiro came into the picture, and he and Kai branded Deep Saturday, things really took off.

Steve DeNiro: Ben spotted me at Nomenclature one night in 2000, and asked, “How’d you like to come work for me?” Things were slowing down and he needed help on Friday nights. I came in and started working as a creative director, more or less, and I was scared as shit! I didn’t doubt that I could make it happen, I just didn’t know where to start.

The first time I went in there on a Friday after he hired me, there were only two girls, dancing barefoot. It was an awful sight. So from there I started putting certain DJs in place. Gnosis and Sinceelay were still doing their thing. Then I put Kemit and Justin Chapman on. Then I hooked up with Rob Wonder, and that’s when things really started to pop. That was the turning point.

Continue Reading “Part II: Growing old gracefully with hip-hop, hipsters and a little nip/tuck”

Additional reporting by Chanté LaGon

More: MJQ through the years in photos