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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

LIKE YOU JUST DON’T CARE: The party goes on and on at MJQ.

Clayton Hauck

LIKE YOU JUST DON’T CARE: The party goes on and on at MJQ.

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.

click to enlarge 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!"

click to enlarge 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.

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