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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



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.

Andre 3000 hanging out at MJQ circa '98. - PHOTO BY DEBBIE TAS

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.

Michael Payne and Jessica Rose. - PHOTO COURTESY STEVE DENIRO
  • Photo courtesy Steve DeNiro
  • Michael Payne and Jessica Rose.

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.

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