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How Prince’s love affair with Detroit helped fuel the birth of techno

Moodymann's Detroit house, turned into a Prince museum (Bobby Kahn)

Minneapolis was always home for Prince, but another Midwestern city loomed large in his heart from the very beginning of his career. One need only look at the Purple Rain Tour dates to understand how much Detroit meant to him. The tour kicked off with seven straight sold-out shows at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit — nearly two months before Prince and his family of bands played five shows for the hometown crowd at the St. Paul Civic Center.

Prince called Detroit his second home and referred to its denizens as his “motor babies”; he did so with good reason. Months before he first played Sam’s (later renamed First Avenue) in March 1981, a purple flame was beginning to consume Detroit.

When he put out his first three albums — For You, Prince, and Dirty Mind — there wasn’t a huge market for black artists on Twin Cities radio stations. “Here, we had KMOJ, a 10-watt station with a 150-foot antenna that you couldn’t get well outside of three or four miles if you were lucky,” says Alan Freed, a historian and former radio DJ with KMOJ and other stations. “In Detroit you had two or three major stations at the time.”

The demographics of the Motor City, as well as the infrastructure in place (radio, clubs, and retail) made Detroit a top market for a black artist. Motown had moved to Los Angeles in 1972, leaving a prime opportunity for someone like Prince to come into Detroit and become a star. That’s exactly what he did — but he had some help.

“The Electrifying Mojo was the torch bearer for Prince,” Freed says of a radio DJ colleague. “He’s a big reason Detroit played the role it did.” The enigmatic radio DJ known on air as the Electrifying Mojo (real name: Charles Johnson) had complete control over his show, since he paid directly for his own FM air-time. He was very forward-thinking when it came to music programming. He’s perhaps most often remembered as being the man who first broke techno music to the world in the mid-80s, but he was also a very early adopter of Prince.

By the time Mark Brown, aka Brownmark, joined Prince’s band in the summer of 1981, Mojo had whipped Detroit into a purple frenzy. “Detroit was crazy, I couldn’t believe the energy,” says Brown. “I don’t know what it was about the demographics and the sound, but they were Prince fanatics.” Minneapolis was starting to catch on by then, but not with the fervor of Detroit. “They would come to concerts wearing trench coats and have their hair thrown to the side,” says Brown. “There was something special about that place. They were Prince crazy.”

The 1999 Tour featured a four-night run in Detroit in the tour’s first month, and another date added months later — this time at the 20,000-seat Joe Louis Arena. It was a sign of things to come. By the time the Purple Rain Tour started in November 1984, Detroit was one of Prince’s top markets and the tour opened there with a longer run of dates than they played in any other city.

Freed made the trek to Detroit for the opening night of the tour, and the excitement was palpable. “It was electric,” remembers Freed. “The radio’s going nuts. It felt very big.” Freed says, adding that being in a different city made it feel like what was happening back home was real, “You don’t know a lot of people there, you’re not in a familiar environment. It was a form of validation.”

Prince and the Revolution returned to Detroit in 1986, for a pair of shows that included a show at Cobo Hall on the night of Prince’s 28th birthday. “Detroit is like my home town – I mean that. I could’ve stayed in my town and partied but I wanted to come down and party with you,” Prince said on stage that night. By then, Prince had moved on from mammoth tours and was starting to favor what would soon become one of his trademarks: the sneak-attack strategy. The Detroit shows were announced just days in advance.

In the audience at that birthday show was Detroit DJ Mike Servito. It was the first concert he ever attended; he was eleven at the time and was brought to the show by his older cousin. “I remember the room just being electric the entire time. The excitement level can’t be compared to anything. I was so young and so mesmerized and so aware.” Servito was also impressed by the scope of it all, with costume changes and skits leading in to songs. “There was so much going on because it was the extended Revolution. So many people on stage jamming and dancing. It was just incredible,” he says, and Prince himself did not disappoint. “He was jumping and spinning and doing everything I imagined. It’s insane to think he was only 28 at the time.”

On their way back home after the show, Servito and his cousin did what many Detroiters did that time of night; they tuned in to listen to the Electrifying Mojo’s show, where history was about to unfold. As one of Prince’s first and biggest supporters, Mojo had a very deep connection with a man who could be quite difficult to reach. That relationship was put on display when Prince called in to Mojo’s show after the Cobo Hall show for an interview, surprising even Mojo himself.

Prince was always averse to the media, but he took that to an extreme during this span of his career. In his piece about Prince’s influence over dance music, Michaelangelo Matos notes it was the only interview Prince gave to anyone between Rolling Stone cover stories in 1985 and 1990, making the interview that much more significant.

The two men spoke about growing up in Minneapolis (or as Prince called it, Uptown), Prince’s work ethic, and production of his second film Under the Cherry Moon. The common thread through the 15-minute interview, though, is the deep affection the two men had for each other and that Prince had with the city of Detroit. He told Mojo that he decided to spend his birthday in Detroit because, “I wanted to give them a little taste of where we live and get a taste of where you all live. To me, this is like my second home.” Servito knew he was witnessing something very special, “I was just in disbelief, that he’s on air talking in my hometown and calling us ‘motor babies.’ We were all pretty excited about it.”

The Electrifying Mojo, like Prince, did things his own way. During his three-hour shows, he would sometimes play an album all the way through or a single song three times in a row. He would mix the B-52s and Peter Frampton with Funkadelic and Prince, with some Kraftwerk thrown on top. His arrangement with the radio station WGPR, in which he purchased his air time and sold sponsorships directly, allowed him total freedom. “The show that Mojo did was very different. He wasn’t just a DJ doing a show, it was a production,” says Freed. “It was a mix of urban radio, rock radio, free-form radio, with old-time radio drama from the ’40s and ’50s thrown in.”

Mojo had a deep connection with his listeners. He took their calls on the air and offered them encouraging and uplifting words. In a 2010 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Detroit DJ and producer Moodymann had this to say of Mojo: “He made it seem like you were in the room with him, or he was in the room with you. It was a true blessing to have a DJ like that.”

Moodymann is not alone in praising the Electrifying Mojo. Ask pretty much any DJ from Detroit over the age of 35 to list their influences, and Mojo will be near the top of the list. He was very adventurous with his music selection and was willing to take a chance on things outside the mainstream. He would eventually become the person who first introduced techno music to the world in the mid-80s, but years before that he was introducing its pioneers to all kinds of music they had never heard before. “Hell, I thought Kraftwerk were four black guys,” Moodymann said in the 2010 interview. “We thought that shit came out of Detroit for the longest [time].”

Derrick May, one of techno’s founding fathers, famously described techno music as being “like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.” Those influences are undeniable, but Prince is right up there with them. Carl Craig, one of Detroit’s most prolific producers and DJs, at least halfway agrees with May. “Prince was the biggest influence on me outside of Kraftwerk,” Craig said in a 2015 interview.

The first techno songs, created by Juan Atkins both as part of a duo with Rik Davis called Cybotron and eventually as a solo artist under the name Model 500, came out between 1983 and 1986. By the time those songs were released, techno’s pioneers had been receiving a heaping dose of Prince on Mojo’s show for years. He was one of Prince’s earliest adopters, but when it comes to techno music, he was the earliest adopter.

May and Atkins staked out Mojo, who kept his identity secret and personal life hidden, after Mojo’s show one night to get him the first Cybotron song, “Alleys of Your Mind,” in 1981. A few days later, he played it on his show. The song was more electro than techno, but it laid a solid foundation and more importantly established a relationship with the man with the hottest radio show in town.

Techno was Detroit’s answer to the soulful, disco-like house music coming out of Chicago. Techno incorporated Detroit’s industrial and futuristic nature by using more of a machine-like sound, while still retaining the soulfulness and funkiness of house. Prince’s early adoption and inventive use of one of the earliest drum machines, the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, during the years the first techno tracks were being made make his influence over techno music all the more apparent.

Just as most Detroit techno producers cite Mojo as an influence, many credit Prince with inspiring them want to make music. Nowhere is this inspiration more apparent than with Moodymann, a house, funk, jazz, and techno producer/DJ who like Prince and Mojo, refuses to be boxed in and does things his own way. He’s at times worn masks or been obstructed from the crowd while DJing, and insists that his personality is not important. He makes Prince seem like a media hound by comparison, having given less than five interviews in his entire 25-year career.

Born Kenny Dixon Jr., Moodymann creates productions that blur the line between many styles of music, much the same way Mojo mixed it up on his show every night and Prince incorporated many genres into his music. He’s outspoken about his dedication to maintaining a black influence on house and techno music. As an adept sampler, Dixon incorporates the music of musicians like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and of course, Prince. Through these samples, he gives new meaning to old music, for instance when he etched an insignificant lyric from Chic’s “I Want Your Love” into house music canon with his 1996 song “I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits.”

Dixon further connects the past with the current by frequently collaborating with Detroit artists such as Amp Fiddler and Norma Jean Bell, who had been members of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic. In 2014, he was given access to the original tracks from Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop” and recorded some additional vocals with Clinton himself to record “Sloppy Cosmic.” Through his samples and collaborations, he pays tribute to the past while adding his own style to his productions to make them something distinctly Moodymann.

Dixon is such a big Prince fan, that after Prince passed away last year, he decked out the windows of his Detroit home with purple curtains, set up a museum of his Prince memorabilia, and had a mural of the Dirty-Mind-era band painted on one of his walls. He also blasted Prince music around the clock, which is the reason I stumbled upon his Prince shrine while visiting Detroit last year in late May. I heard “The Beautiful Ones” coming from down the street and I went to find the source.

Several months later, on the night of the official Prince tribute at the Xcel Energy Center, Dixon and I had a chance encounter on the dance floor at First Avenue. He had come to town solely as a Prince fan, not to perform, and somehow ended up 10 feet away from me. I had been hoping to do a party with Moodymann since I saw his house in Detroit, so it felt to me that Prince wanted this meeting to happen. Thanks to his assist, Moodymann will be doing a DJ set in Minneapolis for the first time ever, at an event I’m putting on with First Avenue called Deep Purple – A Tribute for the Heads on April 21 in the 7th Street Entry. Unfortunately for those without tickets, it is sold out.

Years after Mojo went off the air and a year after Prince passed away, the connection between the two men and their respective cities lives on thanks to people like Dixon. “He is the best example of someone directly inspired by Prince, the Electrifying Mojo, Detroit, and those musical legacies,” says the Detroit DJ Servito, adding that even though Prince is gone, it’s clear that his connection to Detroit is here to stay, “Detroiters like Kenny Dixon Jr. are going to keep the legacy and spirit of the Prince sound alive.”

Five Moodymann tracks with Prince connections

Kenny Dixon Jr. has made a career out of incorporating his influences into his musical output through the use of clever samples and nods to his sources of inspiration. As one of his biggest influences is Prince, the Minneapolis icon found his way into several of Dixon’s productions. Here are five examples of tracks on Dixon’s KDJ record label with clear Prince ties.

U Can Dance If U Want 2

Prince’s influence over Dixon doesn’t get any clearer than it does in the 1997 song “U Can Dance If U Want 2,” which is essentially a remix of Prince’s “All The Critics Love U In New York.” The bass line is given more prominence, the drum pattern is re-created and rearranged, and even the car horn noises from Prince’s original are used to open and close the track. The titular lyrics were sampled straight from “Critics,” slowed down and at times chopped up and repeated in trademark Moodymann fashion. The few other lyrics in the song (which are sung by Dixon himself), such as “It ain’t about the trippin’” and “They’re trippin’ old school” are a nod to the lyrics of the source material.

Dreams of Yesterday (Rick Wilhite’s Never Will Forget Mix)

The KDJ label has primarily served as a vehicle to release music by Dixon himself, but they also put out several releases by some of his main collaborators. The first non-Moodymann artist to join the KDJ ranks was Rick Wilhite, who — along with Dixon, Theo Parrish, and Marcellus Pittman — comprise the supergroup 3 Chairs. Side A of his second KDJ release, 1997’s The Godson EP, features “Dreams Of Yesterday,” a deep house track that kicks off with the dream-like chimes from the end of “Purple Rain” (the song) over a simple drum beat. Three minutes into the song, a sample of “Computer Blue” comes in and remains a prominent part of the song for its remainder, with Wilhite layering the “Purple Rain” chimes over the top of the “Computer Blue” sample towards the end of the track.

J.A.N.

On “J.A.N.”, released in 2001, Dixon samples the famous Prince interview conducted on-air by the Electrifying Mojo on Prince’s 28th birthday, immediately following a concert he played in Detroit that night. All of the samples used are of the Electrifying Mojo’s voice; some lines are pulled directly from the interview word for word, while others, such as, “What was it like growing up from Detroit?” are stitched together to give the effect of Moodymann taking Prince’s place in the conversation. The song showcases Dixon’s range as a producer, starting as a deep house track with a thick, low-slung bass line and dramatic strings, and ending with several minutes of funky jazz.

Why Do U Feel

Dixon openly states that much of his music is not geared for the dance floor, and “Why Do U Feel” is a good example of that. The title of the song, originally released as a 12” single on KDJ in 2012, and the sampled vocals come from the 1978 song “Just An Excuse” by British singer Elkie Brooks. In typical Moodymann fashion, he manages to turn the lyrics from the original song into something completely different, rearranging them and sampling Brooks’ “mmhmmms” and turning chopped up words into noises rather than lyrics. More importantly, he manages to draw much more soul and emotion out of the words than the source material did. The Prince connection comes at around the 1:30 mark, when Dixon stops the song completely to play five seconds of “Sexy Dancer,” and then brings it back shortly before he first drops in the uneven, battered kick drum that defines the track. Giving listeners something to groove to and taking it away just as fast is another Moodymann trademark.

Lyk U Use 2

On “Lyk U Use 2,” a track from Dixon’s most recent official release (2014’s self-titled Moodymann), Prince is not sampled but his influence is plain as day, and not just from the U and 2 in the song’s title. Moodymann plays the left behind lover, a role Prince played in many of his songs, lamenting how things have changed with a now disinterested former love interest while recounting the good times that once were. The lyrics are filled with tongue-in-cheek remarks and sexual innuendo, another shout-out to Prince. Dixon is joined on the track by the Detroit producer and drummer Andres, aka DJ Dez of the hip-hop group Slum Village. Dixon’s laid back vocals make the track seem much slower than its frenetic 183 beats-per-minute pace (the other tracks on this list are in the 120-125 range, for comparison).

Bobby Kahn is a writer, performance artist, event promoter, cable access television producer, dance class instructor, accountant, and lifelong resident of Minneapolis. He used to be shy and afraid to dance, but since then he was chosen by the funk to serve as one of its ambassadors.

  • Kimberley W

    Great article.

    I was a “Motor Baby” and the love the city of Detroit had for Prince during that time was epic (not to say Detroiter’s don’t love him just as much this very day). It was nothing to pick up the phone and call your buddies asking, “Where’s Prince at tonight?” and find that he was at a local club, hanging out with the ordinary people. It was a good time. It was special. Personally, it feels as if we grew up together–from that first album and the statements he made about the social climate until where we are now. Memories of his concerts, skipping school to see Purple Rain the day it was released, his radio interviews, the week-long opening concerts for Purple Rain at “The Joe.” Prince’s passing has hit me like I never would have believed possible. Everyone has memories of the “good old days.” How lucky I am to have memories that include Prince.

  • Mari Cliett

    This is on point! Reminiscing of the Golden days of ’80s radio in Detroit where Mojo was the Emperor, not just king. You were not kool if you didn’t listen to Mojo. With his contact to Prince, that made my world awesome! A teenager in Detroit at the time was unbelievable. In my life going forward, I have been blessed with meeting Kenny, Rick Wilhite Aux88, Scan7, Shake Shakir and numerous Detroit Techno Elite. In speaking with them, Prince is a major influence on their music. I am proud to be a Motorbaby!!! SMOOCHES

  • queenb

    Fantastic article, I’m another Motor Baby! Prince and Electrifyin’ Mojo were the soundtrack of Detroit in the 80’s. I remember being across the bridge in Windsor one night with a friend from out of town. We were jammin’ to Prince Baby I’m a Star on Mojo’s program. As we pulled up next to another car at a light, everyone in the car was rockin’. I told him that I GUARANTEE they are listening to Mojo. and of course they were! He was amazed, but Mojo had everyone listening, black, white, and everyone in between. Prince crossed all those barriers with his music. We went to the premier of Purple Rain at the Adams Theater downtown and it was the craziest party ever. I’ve seen him so many times in person, at the Masonic, Joe Louis Arena, everywhere. My heart just broke when he died but I will always be grateful for those fantastic years we all shared here. Thanks for a really great, in depth article remembering an amazing time. Shout out to my brother! ;)