Jim Smith / DJ Mojo : Soul Survivor
By Daniel Jumpertz
Jim Smith (DJ Mojo) is a DJ, band booker and social activist based in New York City.
Jim was first exposed to music through his opera- and gospel-loving mother. As a teen, he loved jazz, R&B and blues but was exposed to new sounds while serving as a U.S. marine in Vietnam.
Jim found a creative home and ultimately his purpose within the emerging musical underground of New York City of the late 1970s.
Starting out as a doorman at storied downtown Manhattan's Max’s Kansas City and frequenting venues such as the Paradise Garage, Mudd Club, Hurrah and Berlin, meant Jim’s unique music education was forged in the field.
He learnt to DJ observing masters including Larry Levan and Anita Sarko, and was an active participant in a creative community and ecosystem encompassing bands, djs, visual artists, film makers, fashion identities in clubs, record stores, galleries and bars.
A born and bred New Yorker, Jim lives in Brooklyn Heights and remains active in the Brooklyn music scene, DJing weekly and booking bands for venues including the Huckleberry Bar, The Keep, the Bootleg Bar and Friends & Lovers.
Jim Smith on Vietnam and Hank Williams:
It wasn’t until well into my teens when I joined the Marine Corps and was in Vietnam. There was a helicopter pilot who was in air cavalry and he was this wild, pseudo hippy dude, grew his hair long, had a long beard. He had a great ‘copter record - he was a pilot - they let him kinda do what he want and his headphones in the helicopter, he’d jerry-rigged them. On one side he’d get the radio and on the other side he was plugged into the 8 track.
He would always come and get us, and we always know he was coming for us - because he was like Apocalypse Now - he would always play Hank Williams over the loudspeakers in his 'copter. When we heard that Hank Williams coming over the hills, we were like, "Okay, let's get out of here."
Jim on Max’s Kansas City:
In the late 70s I hung out at Max’s Kansas City a lot. Peter (Crowley), who was the manager, he became a friend of mine, he gave me a job. He was like, "Well, you want to be here, so you might as well make some money." He said, "One more minute, you're going to be a bar stool in this place." I weighed a little bit less than I do now, but I was very tall, and I knew how to fight. I watched a lot of New York bands in their early nascent form, come together.
Jim on Larry Levan and Paradise Garage:
It was one of the few discos at the time that catered, I wouldn't say exclusively, but largely to the gay community. There would be lines literally around the block to get into Paradise, but Larry Levan was the head DJ there. I would say that Larry was one of my first idols. Of course, when I met Larry, I was like, oh God, I was flabbergasted. Larry was crazy. He was just nuts. He was like being around Jackson Pollock. He would just like, take a record off and just drop it on the floor, and put another record on, and the room was pumping. I remember once Larry looked at me and he says, "You know, I have these people in the palms of my hand." He said, "Watch this." He goes over to one of the turntables. He was one of the first DJs who started DJing with 4 turntables, and he lifts the stylus up off the record, just lift it off the stylus, and the whole crowd was like, "Yay." Like he just discovered a gold mine or something. Then he just drops the needle back on. Everybody saying, "All right, yay." I was just like, damn. That really impressed me in the sense that, not did he have the balls to do something like that, but it's just like something is happening if you are reaching these many people in such a way, where you could just do something random like that, and they still think it's cool.
JIm on DJ Anita Sarko:
Anita Sarko, who also was one of the best most brilliant DJs in New York City, just died, by her own hand, no less. Everyone was shocked by that, yours truly included. I can't think of anybody who had their shit together more than Anita. I guess she just felt like there was no longer a place for her in the scene. I was just trying to comprehend what that feels like. She was an older woman, and I guess she felt surrounded by all these younger people, and she felt she's being eclipsed by this younger energy. I thought: "Are you kidding, none of these people could clean your f**king needles, really!” That was a turning point for me about where the history of music is going. I have absolutely no qualms about calling people out, especially younger people, because it's like they are trying to write my obituary while I'm still alive. Sorry, that's just not going to happen.
Jim on The Screamers & Hurrah’s:
The Screamers were one of the bands that put the California scene on the map, but the Screamers never released a record. They had one record deal offer and they blew it. They had some bootlegs of course. There's a lot of videos out there, but they only played in New York once or twice. That was in like '81 and early, like '79 when Hurrah was still open. Hurrah was like the incubator for the entire New York music scene. Hurrah was a very important club. Tomata du Plenty, the lead singer in the Screamers, was a friend of mine.
Jim compares 1979 to 2016 & talks about The Mudd Club:
You have to understand, the demographic of New York City has changed dramatically in the past 20, 25, 30 years. There used to be a time where everybody knew everybody. I'd go out to Mudd Club . It was a big place I would hang out, and back then you would go out Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, you'd see the same people every night, the same people. "Oh, why isn't so and so here? His is sick? What happened?" You had something that bound you together. Nowadays it's more about cult of personality. People don't go to shows because they like the bands. People go to shows because this is the cool thing to do, and they want to be seen as doing the cool thing. A lot of people who have come to New York from other college towns, I guess principally starting in like the 90s. They knew about the mystique of New York, and because a lot of the old-timers were very lazy, and laissez-faire about what was going on around them, these people attempted to literally rewrite the history of modern music.
I think the context is important, but not only that, but I also think the contempt for history that a lot of younger DJs have now, in that they so freely associate obviously unrelated scenes and unrelated genres, to prop up their current genre of what they are playing. They are trying to manufacture a pedigree, is what I'm saying, at the expense of real bands that were making real music, for real reasons.
Jim on 99 Records:
Bill and Ed Bahlman ran 99 Records, which was on MacDougal Street. 99 Records was probably one of the best record stores at the time. Everybody talks about Bleecker Bob's. Bleecker Bob's was a great place to get records, but 99 was like if you wanted any kind of import, that was the spot, just without question. It was a small place. It was like the Zabars of music. Ed Bahlman would be behind the counter and be like, "What's up? What's up?" He would say, "Oh, I got something for you to hear." He immediately knew what you liked, and he would play something, and you'd be like, "Damn, I'll take two of those."
I didn't have a name. I wasn't a big guy. I wasn't like a DJ, per se. I was just somebody who knew music. My attitude has always been, "Yeah, I'll play this or I'll play that. I know it's popular, but let me slide this in here that you've never heard of before." That's a piece of advice that I carried because I always do that.
I've always felt that a DJ takes music from various sources and weaves them together into something new. Not someone who figures out the formula of what works, and then just keeps rewriting that over and over again so that people can dance on the dance floor. I've seen plenty of DJs like that.
On technology and social media:
I've always said that technology was the best and the worst thing to happen to music in the past 30 or 40 years. The way it's good is that it allows you to reach out to more people. They way it's bad, is it gives everybody a false sense of thinking that because they got 900 hits on their YouTube page, that they are like Ray Charles.
I have friends who are like in the 20s and I look at their friends list on Facebook, and they are friends with people who I've known for like 40 years. I'm like, "Get the f**k out of here. How you f**king know this person? You weren't hanging out ..."
Q: Is there any specific advice you would give to a younger you?
Yes. Become a neurosurgeon! I would say the reason people are in the music business, is because they don't have enough morals to be a dope dealer.
Jim on the music business:
The music business is the only business in the world where people will actively f**k you over, and still pat you on the back. Even friends of mine have "let me down" and vice versa, I must say, because it's dog eat dog, especially nowadays. That's like if you play football, you're going to get hit. You may know the guy in the next team, and you all may go out and eat dinner and have the kids over, but when it's game time and you're on that field, you're a stranger, and the guy doesn't give a shit. He's going to knock you out and take that ball, and run for a touchdown. That's just the game.
It's the same thing in the music business. In the music business, it's like everybody is trying to get their shit together, and they're going to do what it takes. If you have the attitude that everybody is your buddy and everybody is your friend, you're going to be a really sad person, because people are going to do what they need to do to get ahead. You don't want to f**k anybody. You don't want to take advantage of anybody. You don't want to lie to anybody. You don't want to mislead anybody, but if you're not looking out for you, then trust me, nobody is.
On being true to yourself as a musician:
Whatever is in you that you're trying to impart to the audience, you should do that, even if it falls flat, even if the audience doesn't get it. You should just try and communicate that in a real way. Forget about whether or not it's going to be picked up by this label, or open for this band. Be true to yourself. Be true to the concept of musicianship.
On Success (and failure):
What people don't understand is that the staircase to what we commonly refer to as success, those stairs are called failure. Every step that takes you up the ladder, is a miss. As a booker, I learned that the hard way. I'd book bands that were good, but didn't draw, and ended up costing the club $700 or $1,000. But every mistake has taught me something new. Every failure has taught me something new. They say that the difference between a master and a student, is that the master failed more times than the student has tried. It's a very old adage, almost cliché, but it's nonetheless true.
Jim shares his dream live music lineup:
Television with Richard Hell still in the band, Bad Brains, Captain Beefheart, Genya Ravan. Genya Ravan was a rock and roll singer. This girl had pipes. She could sing the hell out of a motherf**ker. She was great. And John Coltrane. Yeah, those 5 bands right there. The music that they were making was coming out of them. You know what I mean? They aren't the only ones. That list could be like 20, 30, pages long.
Larry (Levan) was one of my first idols…. When I met Larry, I was flabbergasted. Larry was crazy. He was just nuts.
He was like being around Jackson Pollock.
I've always felt that a DJ takes music from various sources and weaves them together into something new.
Not someone who figures out the formula of what works, and then just keeps rewriting that over and over again, so that people can dance.
The music business is the only business in the world where people will actively f**k you over, and still pat you on the back.
Whatever is in you that you're trying to impart to the audience, you should do that, even if it falls flat, even if the audience doesn't get it. You should just try and communicate that in a real way.
Jim has always been a snappy dresser.
Jim Smith shot by Andrew Williams
Jim, Billy Idol and Perri Lister in NYC @ Area, photo by Ben Buchanan. (Mid 80's).
Pic by Layla Wrencher.
A Spotify playlist inspired by my chat with Jim Smith. - Daniel Jumpertz
"There's always been a single intangible thing of any kind of music, regardless of genre, it reaches you. Whatever has that reach, that's good enough for me."