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

Growing old gracefully with hip-hop, hipsters and a little nip/tuck

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Previously: "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"

MJQ witnessed a whirlwind of change upon moving in 1997 from its original location beneath the Ponce de Leon Hotel to its new home a third of a mile away, where it remains tucked underneath the parking lot at 736 Ponce de Leon Ave. Although club founder George Chang's vision of a common ground for music heads and club kids was still on course, MJQ had grown from a secret, shabby dive to the city's most notorious underground spot following his death in 1999.

From the beginning, abstract hip-hop had been mixed in with various strains of Afropop, dub and drum 'n' bass, spun by DJs such as Gnosis and Sinceelay (Clay Cochran). But promoters such as Wayne Briggs and D.R.E.S. tha Beatnik gave hip-hop and new soul an actual platform at the new club, with regular parties and live shows performed by former local staples such as Minamina Goodsong, Micranots, and Tria da Luna.

Around 2000, hip-hop became the central focus of MJQ's Friday nights. DJs such as Rob Wonder, J-Sun, Klever, Sek, and Mega — all of whom worked at the nearby More Dusty Than Digital record store — began hanging out there more often. And they brought an eclectic mix of beats blended with '80s pop, drum 'n' bass and alternative rap.

Steve DeNiro, MJQ's creative director/promoter, 2000-2007: Karl Injex once broke it down quite well: MJQ's three dynasties were, of course, the Chang Dynasty, the Michael Payne Dynasty, and then the Steve DeNiro Dynasty. All three were different and representative of what was happening in Atlanta at the time.

Anybody that was playing at the old spot was ahead of the curve. That's why people went there. That aesthetic still exists, like there's never any complete cheese there, but MJQ has changed with the city. It's important that George Chang's original vision be remembered, because a lot of times it gets overlooked.

DJ Rob Wonder, spearheaded MJQ's No Static at All parties: In 2000, I was talking with Sinceelay, and I asked if I could come in and DJ on a Friday night. He let me do it. Eventually it turned into a night called No Static at All. The name came from Scott Weatherwax, who had used it for a party that he used to throw when he was living in England, and [he] said I could use it. The night started working so Steve DeNiro gave me the gig. That's why they still have hip-hop at MJQ on Friday nights to this day. I gave my Fridays — the second Friday of each month — to Rasta Root back in '05 and he's still doing it.

Rasta Root, spins Face Off Fridays: It's a grimy place. I've looked out at the floor and seen bras, shoes, even that weird pork chop-looking thing that ladies use to make their breasts look bigger. But you don't think about the grime because you're thinking about what's coming out of the speakers. I do my nights with Jah Prince and sometimes our Caribbean roots show, but we try to keep it focused. But really, MJQ can morph into whatever you want it to be based on the set you're spinning. One night it can be a really dirty, reggae dancehall scene. The next night it can be a '90s hip-hop dance party. To me, it's home.

DJ Lord of Public Enemy, spinning the first, third and fourth Fantastic Friday hip-hop nights since 2006: My foundation is hip-hop, but I do some electro, dub and drum 'n' bass. I try to give people an experience rather than leave them feeling like they've been listening to the radio. If you're at MJQ, you've come here to listen to all types of music. A lot of times I'll go to Spain or Australia to DJ or play a show and I'll get an idea from something that I hear over there and bring it back to the Q.

STAY FADED: Brian Parris mixes up Wednesday nights - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • STAY FADED: Brian Parris mixes up Wednesday nights

Following the closure of Yin Yang Café in September 2001, much of the club's predominately black roster and clientele found a new home at MJQ as well. Jamal Ahmad (WCLK-FM), DJ Cozy Shawn, and DJ Tabone (WRFG-FM) were an integral part of creating the Organic Atlanta Soul in Session (O.A.S.I.S.) nights between 2001-2003, which brought an even more racially diverse demographic to the club.

While hip-hop became the dominant sound for MJQ's Friday nights, Wednesday's Britpop nights continued. In time, much of the original Britpop flair gave way to more current indie rock sounds. By 2003, MJQ's original dynamic was still intact. But as the club drew the larger crowds needed to sustain itself, its mystique became harder to maintain.

Ryan Murphy, manager at MJQ: There are more people in Atlanta, so the concentration of cool people has changed. When we first opened here, there was a line of cool people. All the genres crossed over and we still do that. Hip-hop kids hang out with rocker kids — but we were never a hip-hop club, we were never a house club or a jungle club, we have always been MJQ.

Brian Parris, resident DJ on Wednesdays since 2002/2003: When I came in, Britpop night had been driven toward more of an '80s thing. I steered it back to Britpop, at least for a few years. Back then, me and Christian Coleman were asked to fill in here and there. We were into Britpop, but we were also doing a lot more new music, current music and indie rock, and that helped build the crowds back up. They were diminishing around the time we took over.

DJ Jamal Ryan Severin-Watson: I used to DJ there on Wednesday nights with Dylan Eiland [aka Le Castle Vania]. We did that for two years — whatever year [Andre 3000's] "Hey Ya" came out [2003]. At midnight on New Year's Eve, I broke my "Hey Ya" record over my knee so I wouldn't have to listen to it anymore.

One time, some DJ didn't show up in the front room, which was all hip-hop. I had like six hip-hop records with me and they were like, "Well, you gotta go for 15 minutes." When the DJ finally showed up it was Questlove [of the Roots]. That was pretty surreal and I like to talk about it like, "The time I opened for Questlove!"

THE WAY WE WERE: The old-school commode at the Drunken Unicorn - MARCUSTANNER.COM
  • marcustanner.com
  • THE WAY WE WERE: The old-school commode at the Drunken Unicorn

On New Years Eve 2004, MJQ expanded into the former Cajun restaurant next door, called Gumbo-A-Go-Go, and christened the new wing of the club the Drunken Unicorn. Although MJQ had hosted shows in the main room, neither the stage nor the sound system were set up to properly facilitate live music. The new 250-capacity room was designed to quell the big room's sound design problems. Moving all of the live music over to the Drunken Unicorn side altered MJQ's crowd demographics in some unexpected ways. But since it wasn't equipped with a bar, it was tailor-made for the 18-and-up crowd.

Armando Celentano, Drunken Unicorn manager: I began booking at MJQ in the late '90s. I had booked DIY shows for a few years at Under the Couch and some house shows. Donald Durant was booking some local bands and whatever touring bands he could muster. Henry Owings [of Chunklet], [promoter] Randy Castello from Tight Bros. Network, and Moses Archuleta [of Deerhunter] were bringing fairly large crowds every week as well. Garage was taking the place of punk, and a new scene was emerging. The Lids played around town, and the Black Lips were literally blowing up the stage each month.

All of these great shows made Donald and I look like geniuses. Ben approached me about turning the room into a live music venue. I loved the intimate feel of the Point in Little Five Points, and Midtown Music Hall — small but not skimping on production, and remaining artist-driven. Atlanta needed a small, all-ages venue.

Donald Durant, bartender: When we did rock shows on Monday nights, before the Unicorn opened, folks would come out regardless of the bill. I can't help but feel like a certain part of our crowd lost MJQ as a trusty hangout once we stopped doing shows there, but there are plenty of shows going on at the Unicorn, and everyone always makes it back.

DJ Cozy Shawn, Friday night DJ in the café, 1998-2010: Back in '06-'07, Randy Castello was booking the Unicorn and bringing in these edgy rock acts. After the shows we would get that crowd coming over to the big room and a mix would happen. They knew that we were playing in the next room, and the folks from his shows would come over and they'd stay for a while.

Randy Castello, Drunken Unicorn's in-house talent buyer, 2005-2008: On most nights you could walk through the main room [in MJQ] and see members of Beat Beat Beat or the Black Lips, and you would also see these hip-hop guys, like Big Boi, hanging out. I always thought it was a special place because so many different people were mixing together like that.

THE MAD HATTER: D.R.E.S. tha Beatnik lights up the stage for Fantastic Friday. - SHANNON MCCOLLUM
  • Shannon Mccollum
  • THE MAD HATTER: D.R.E.S. tha Beatnik lights up the stage for Fantastic Friday.

Over the years, Deep Saturdays house night had become an institution in its own right. DeNiro, Kai Alce and Cullen Cole regularly hosted internationally renowned guest DJs, such as Peanut Butter Wolf, Rich Medina and many more. But as house music started losing a bit of the sway it held over MJQ's crowds, the club put an end to Deep Saturdays in 2006. Times were changing and a new, irreverent hipster era was on the horizon. Once again, MJQ needed new blood. It would soon materialize in a young, hedonistic scene fueled by parties with suggestive names such as Sloppy Seconds and Fuck Yesss.

Kai Alce, co-founder of Deep Saturdays, MJQ's house night from 1997-2006: [MJQ] was just trying to stay ahead of the curve and felt like house music wasn't getting bigger or bringing the amount of people that they wanted in there.

DJ Cozy Shawn: House music people don't spend money on booze. They're medicated before they get there.

Alce: Deep Saturdays brought MJQ international acclaim. [hip hop, funk and jazz fusion artist] Peven Everett, [New York-based DJ/producer] Joe Claussell, [Philadelphia-based DJ/producer] King Britt, all these people came through and they were the ones who went back and told. When Deep Saturdays went away, it was definitely a big loss, for the city and the scene.

At that time, the whole hipster thing and electro music were coming up strong so they started doing Sloppy Seconds instead of our Saturdays. They probably haven't had a night stay there for more than two years since we left. Everything has changed — from three months to five months, it always changes.

John Robinson, aka DJ Gnosis: I like to joke that MJQ's transition over the years can be traced as weed versus coke. You could make a line graph where you start with weed at the top and then it slopes down over the years while coke just keeps going up. The music went from a blunted-out, backpacker rap, dub and lounge vibe to a more excitable live-for-the-moment party vibe.

Constantina "Tina" Psomas, MJQ bartender for more than 13 years: There was an increase in the amount of vomit we had to clean up at the new club over the years. That could be added to John's line graph as well.

Ben Rhoades, owner: You can't have couches in there. When the club opened there were nice sofas, but over time we've had to shove like six burning couches out the door in the middle of the night. It's such a bare place because people kept destroying it.

We don't suffer from a lot of that anymore. There's less graffiti in there, and it doesn't get nearly as destroyed as it used to.

DJ Cozy Shawn: I don't play "Doing it to Death" by the JBs to this day because while it was playing one of the couches caught on fire. That thing almost ruined my night!

Dallas Austin (left) foregoes the VIP treatment at MJQ. - CLAYTON HAUCK
  • Clayton Hauck
  • Dallas Austin (left) foregoes the VIP treatment at MJQ.

Sloppy Seconds' resident DJ for the first three years was former DMC World DJ champ and party DJ Klever, who established the party's mashup of what one flier described as "electroclashpunkcrunkbmoregutter."

That kind of dedication to emerging trends is what has continually set the club apart. As Atlanta's mainstream club culture went Hollywood in the last decade with velvet ropes, bottle popping and exclusive VIP-seating, celebrities found refuge in MJQ from time to time. For years it was a regular haunt for Andre 3000 of OutKast and Big Gipp and Cee Lo of Goodie Mob. And it's still frequented by the likes of Ludacris and Dallas Austin on occasion.

Ryan Murphy: One night, this guy with an earphone came in and said in a low voice, "I got Janet Jackson and she wants to get the VIP room ready." I said, "Look dude, just drop your entourage to a couple of security guys, let her come in and have a good time. Nobody will know who she is. She's just another cute girl in a nightclub dancing." She came in and went to the back corner and hung out for a while. It was literally about an hour-and-a-half before anyone thought, "That bitch looks like Janet Jackson!" And that turned into "Holy shit, that's Janet Jackson!" Other than that she was just dancing and chilling because that's what MJQ is. Any other place would have roped off an area and made it a big thing.

You go in there and there's nothing to distract you but music, drinking and some hookups. It's what you go to a nightclub for. People like that feel comfortable at MJQ because there's no velvet rope and no production. We had Flava Flav down there for [DJ] Lord's birthday, and he was behind the bar serving drinks and it was no big deal. So he was able to just chill out, talk to people and have fun. I don't know anywhere else where someone who had their own reality-TV show, let alone Flava Flav, could just wander in and hang out without it being a big production.

More change looms on the horizon for MJQ, as much of the club's long-standing management is currently preparing to move on to new business ventures together. Ben Rhoades, Donald Durant and Armando Celentano are in the process of opening a new, and as yet unnamed gastro pub in the East Atlanta Village. Ryan Murphy will be spending more of his time at the Book House Pub, which he co-owns with Rhoades.

Since moving back to Atlanta after living in Los Angeles and Denver for six years, Michael Payne has embarked on a mission to reinvent the club and revive a bit of the old flair he brought to the place 13 years ago. In the past year, the café has been repainted, the main room has been fitted with a new DJ booth and new cosmetic touch-ups are being made every day.

The writing's on the wall at MJQ. - COURTESY BEN RHOADES

Armando Celentano: We built the new bathroom sinks 5 feet high so people can't piss in them anymore.

The Iconoclast, head of security: We have ceilings now, that's exciting. For years, if it rained outside, it rained inside. The club has basically been renovated since Michael Payne came back from Denver. The café has a nice new bar and, my goodness, we have ceilings!

Celentano: It's like we're going bald gracefully. She's an old girl, and we're all in our 30s now, so we put some nicer clothes on her. Also, we're trying to get the club to a workable level because we're opening our new place in East Atlanta. It will be an end of an era as me, Donald and Ben will be concentrating our attention on the new place, and Murphy's focusing on the Book House.

Alce: MJQ has lost some teaching power, but it still has the alluring energy to bring individuals together. The image that was laid in there from all those years of Wednesdays and Saturdays still exists, but the music isn't as engaging as it once was.

Wonder: On some of the nights the music is a little questionable. What's missing is someone like Gnosis in there doing an experimental drum 'n' bass night, or any kind of weird shit that makes you think, "This is good, but it's really weird."

DJ Jamal: When I was younger, DJing at MJQ was like sitting at the grown-up table. Everyone talked about how the heyday had passed: "You should have been here two years ago; this place is played out now." Then I became that person. After a while you realize that the quality changes, just like the people, but it was still a lot of fun.

Robinson: MJQ has always been a safe house for all kinds of musically creative people. At best it was a place where people who were genuinely into music could meet. It wasn't always about famous names being involved, but the various musical genres living together, in a place where you can trace the thread of a kind of music's history and all of the various intersections it made.

Wonder: Once you throw something out there, creatively speaking, it's not yours anymore. It belongs to other people. But MJQ, and Ponce de Leon in general, have a family vibe, and that's what makes MJQ what it is. The original spirit is there. Donald still works there, Tina still works there, and no one can fuck with that kind of loyalty. Even Michael Payne is there again. It just shows how far a strong foundation will go.

Ed Rawls, bartender since 1998: I started working the door there in February of '98, and it hasn't changed a whole hell of a lot since then. For the average 21-year-old Georgia Tech student walking down the ramp for the first time, I'm sure it's still pretty wild and there's no place like it. It doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, black, white, hipster, b-boy or whatever. Pretty much everybody gets along here. It's a goddamned institution.

Additional reporting by Chanté LaGon.

More: MJQ through the years in photos

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