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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

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Scott Herron of Prefuse 73 in 2000. - PHOTO BY TOMIS TULIS
  • Photo by Tomis Tulis
  • Scott Herron of Prefuse 73 in 2000.

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.

A particularly wild night at MJQ. - PHOTO COURTESY BEN RHOADES

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.

Michael Payne and Ben Rhoades around '97. - PHOTO COURTESY BEN RHOADES

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.

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