Updated: Feb 15, 2021
1982 – 84 brought many classic records that 20 some years later would be classified as Electro or Electro Funk. This music was perfect for the style of dance that was sweeping the nation at the time. This style originated in the Bronx in the mid 70s and was called B boying, but by the early 80s the media had labeled it Break dancing. Many dances like the Smurf , The Weboe and others were born from this music. One of the crews that provided the soundtrack for the dancers, and the kids like me who loved the up tempo beats and robotic vocals was the Jonzun Crew.
The Jonzun Crew delivered Pack Jam , Space Is The Place , Space Cowboy and Tommy Boys first full length lp titled Lost In Space. A few years later Michael Jonzun and his brother Maurice Starr discovered and produced a group from Boston called New Edition. A few more years down the line they discovered and produced New Kids On The Block , ushering in the era of so called boy bands. The Jonzun brothers also did a few more things that the world probably isn’t aware of , so its my honor to tell the story of The Jonzun Crew!!!
Michael Jonzun : My life may not be as interesting as what some may think a Hip Hop pioneers life might be. I was never involved in any shoot ‘em up stuff or any of that.
JayQuan: That’s no problem. I have interviewed cats from the Bronx , as well as just musicians who know nothing about the streets , and they all are interesting , so we should be good!
MJ: What you’re doing with your website is a good thing.
JQ: Thank you. I have always collected records, as well as magazines and memorabilia from this era (70s & 80s) , so when the internet came about ,I figured it was a good medium to let people know that there was Hip Hop long before Run Dmc.
MJ: Many people focus on Run DMC (as being first) because they had the right people marketing them from day one. I was before Run DMC. I had million dollar sellers before Run Dmc , and before independent record companies were recognized as being leaders in the industry. People don’t realize that you can sell a million records, but there was a certain process, and you had to report sales to the RIAA (recording industry association of America). Just because a record wasn’t certified gold or platinum doesn’t mean that it didn’t go gold or platinum. Not all companies were even interested in reporting that! Run DMC had marketing people behind them to bring that information of the success of their records to the forefront. We were selling records way before Run DMC , but its all really irrelevant because when you're making money you don’t have to tell anyone.
But they had to have people tell you that Run DMC was popular , no one had to tell anyone that the Jonzun Crew was one of the most innovative groups of all times. I have articles from Bill board , Rolling Stone , The Boston Globe , NME , New York Times , Los Angeles Times calling us innovators. But people have re-written history with the wrong information. It doesn’t bother me because I know who I am.But getting back to your statement about Run DMC being first , they were probably one of the first to be marketed after the fact that they had become popular from Its Like That. That came out 2 or 3 years after the Jonzun Crew right?
JQ: It was 1983. The whole history of everything before '83 is underrepresented. But the mainstream media didn’t hop on Run Dmc until the rock records, specifically Walk This Way with Aerosmith.
MJ: And that was one of my ideas!
JQ:: Really? I definitely want to get to that!
MJ: Why don’t I just tell you a lil' about that?
MJ: You’re getting the untold story and the truth! I had just produced a blockbuster album in 1985 by Peter Wolf called Lights Out. It included Mick Jagger , King Crimson , The Cars , Elliot Easton - who is one of the best musicians of all times , we had the P Funk horns on it , and so many other luminaries from the world of great music. Mick Jagger did a duet with Peter Wolf that I co wrote and produced. This lp was a block buster that was still going strong in 1987. I had been working with a lot of rock bands , in fact I was invited to go on tour with Bruce Springsteen’s band. I had also produced Clarence Clemons who is the saxophonist for Springsteen’s band. The Jonzun Crew was in the studio working on our next record.
I am originally from Boston , and Steve Tyler and the rest of Aerosmith who are also from Boston would run into the Jonzun Crew at times.
Steve Tyler had this manager who put me with him , and he was supposed to do a song with me called Battlefield for my Money Isn’t Everything album. We never collaborated on it , but it still came out on my album. Me and Steve were hanging out one day and he said why don’t we re do 25 Miles From Home by Edwin Star? I had met Berry Gordy’s son who was a big Jonzun Crew fan and he sent me the full Motown catalog. We listened to 25 Miles. You have to remember that by ’85 Aerosmith had fizzled out. Steve was just trying to get back into the business. I had mentioned to Steve that one of the biggest records that the rappers in the Bronx and Harlem were rapping over was Walk This Way.
He had no idea that his song was being played in the ghetto. I suggested that we re do that instead of 25 Miles From Home. This is not something I'm making up. The first time that Steve Tyler came to my house was in the dead of winter in a house coat. I thought that he was completely out of his mind. He had on a thin house coat and slippers and that was it!!! We always knew of each other because they used to practice near my house in this basement. Aerosmith at one time were underground legends in Boston along with the Cars , The J Geils Band and the James Montgomery band. Steve Tyler was no longer a star when I met him , and I was the new guy on the block. Steve stopped coming to rehearsals and we never completed any of the songs. A couple of years later you had Run DMC doing Walk This Way with Aerosmith!!
JQ: Who were your musical influences, and what instruments do you play?
MJ: My earliest influence was my father. He is probably the greatest musician that I have ever heard. I have heard many great musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Buddy Rich , Sarah Vaughn ,Billy Holiday , Ray Charles , B.B. King and Lionel Hampton. My father played with BB King , and worked with Lionel Hampton. Back in the 40s , 50s and 60s artists like B.B. King would get pick up musicians when they came to certain areas because they could not afford to carry full bands. They could go to different cities and pick up great musicians. I remember B.B. King and others coming to our house. Those were the guys I was influenced by along with Jim Bevels an amazing drummer, Noble "Thin Man" Watts and Roosevelt Richardson who was an amazing saxophonist. My background is really Jazz. Then George Jones, Tammy Wynnett and Willie Nelson. So it was Jazz and Country. From the 60s it was Sam Cooke, Otis Redding , Lou Rawls , Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett. These were great artists and musicians.
I play well over 50 musical instruments amongst them the saxophone, trumpet , clarinet , bass guitar ,harmonica , violin some of everything. My father played 30 or 40 instruments. We didn’t have a beautiful home to live in back then , and instead of spending money on furniture and clothes we bought musical instruments and lessons. By the early '60s I had cymbals that cost 150 dollars. Back then you could buy a nice living room or dining room set for that money. I had so little clothes that kids could guess what I was wearing to school the next day. It didn’t bother me because I knew my fathers vision, and that better days were coming. All of my brothers except one were multi instrumentalists.
JQ: I just found out that Pack Jam was put out on your own label - Boston International before Tommy Boy released it. It was also called Pak Man. How did you set up your own label and when?
MJ: That’s right. Our label goes back to about 1967. In those days we would get our records played in the night clubs. That’s how records were promoted back then. Many people don't get that concept. But back then you made a record. When I say you made a record , I mean after the session was over you would get your acetate , which is a metal plate with a plastic coating on it. You sent the acetate to the night clubs. In the studio you would go in and do everything live to a 2 track recorder. Multi track recording was way too expensive back then, so there were no overdubs. You might get lucky and get into a 4 track studio. 4 track was like a luxury back then. You would put the music on one track , the lead vocal on the other , and you could sing the background twice. In about '67 we went in the studio as a family band and cut material. We would get the acetate and send it to all the clubs to gauge the response from the audience. Boston International Music started as Johnson Brothers Records. Pak Man was a cool record. Tommy Boy picked it up, and we turned it into a jam.
JQ: Did you change the spelling for fear of copyright infringement from Bally/ Midway (the Pac Man video game creators)?
MJ: We didn’t think about that at the time. Tom Silverman (Tommy Boy Records founder) just saw it as a jam , so he thought that would be a better title. I had never even seen a Pac Man video game. I had no clue what Pac Man was.
JQ The full title of that song was Pac Jam Look Out for The OVC. What was the OVC?
MJ: The Outer space Visual Communicator, which really doesn’t mean anything. You know how on the highway you see these electronic signs that say accident in 3 miles or whatever. Well one of my partners was an innovator. He was the keyboardist in our band. He suggested that we needed our name in lights. He created this musical instrument that had the Johnson Brothers name , and every key would spell a letter of our name , and different notes would display different colors. This was very outer space and futuristic at the time. This was in ’73. That was the Outer space Visual Communicator.
JQ: You did the production and engineering on your releases. Where does your engineering experience come from?
MJ : Well in the '60s when we cut our own records we were trying to be as independent as possible. We went into a music store in our hometown , and there was this Concord tape recorder that needed a belt in it. We ordered the belt and began recording. By the time I was 9 or 10 I was engineering. We probably still have that recorder , because we never believed in selling our musical instruments.
JQ: How did Tom Silverman hear your Pak Man song being that he was in New York and you were in Boston releasing music independently?
MJ: Through our distribution. Record pools were very strong in the early '80s. Boston had space boogie and space funk. We had been recording it ever since we found that we loved the synthesizer. But Tom heard it through the marketing and promotion that we were doing. We had already sold 10,000 copies so he didn’t really discover us, we were discovered by the people who had already bought our music! I give all gratitude to Tom for realizing that Pak Man was a great record, because not everyone thought so. The first time that it was played on radio was I think in 1981 from a reel to reel by Steve Crumbley. This was before Planet Rock was released.
Me & my brother Maurice Starr built a studio with the money we got from Sugar Hill Records (Maurice & Michael produced Show Down by Furious 5 & The Sugar Hill Gang as well as some other singles). I think we originally did Pack Jam in 1980 or before.. We are pioneers of space funk, and what’s called Hip Hop , but I'm not too hot on where its at right now.
JQ: I am currently talking to Doug Wimbish , Ed Fletcher (Duke Bootee) and Keith Le Blanc who were responsible for the music on Sugar Hill records….
MJ: I love those guys , but you know they got fired when Maurice Starr & Michael Jonzun came along right?
JQ: I didn’t hear it like that, but that’s why I like hearing all sides of a story because everyone tells it differently!
MJ: I’ll tell you we knew Doug Wimbish before he was with Sugar Hill and he is a great musician. I came to know him through the Sargent brothers from Wood Brass & Steel. The thing is that it took all of them to do what me & Maurice could do with just us 2. We would come into Sugar Hill and play trumpet ,trombone , bass and background vocals. So she (Sylvia Robinson) didn’t need Wood Brass & Steel , or Keith Le Blanc , or Doug Wimbish , or Harold Sargent. We took over Sugar Hill and the groups started cutting with us and we began writing and producing.
JQ: Did y’all ever approach Sylvia with New Edition?
MJ: I don’t recall that but I'm not slighting those guys from Wood Brass & Steel, they are some of my favorite studio musicians. I'm just telling you what she had in me & Maurice.
JQ: Was Showdown the first thing that you did over there?
MJ: Yes, but we didn’t do that there we had already cut that. It was originally called Rappers Showdown. Maurice had released a record on Boston International that got picked up by RCA, so he was already known in New York. When we sent Sugar Hill records material she loved it and was all over it. We had already cut Rappers Showdown and we had raps on it already. Maurice & I were rapping on it. We also cut with Sequence on Funky Sound Tear The Roof Off. We didn’t get credited for it. We did Monster Jam by Brother To Brother. We did about a dozen records over there. Sugar Hill was good for us. She paid us more in a day than we were making in a year, (for the session work) but unfortunately that would be all we would see.
JQ: So no royalties?
MJ: We were entitled to royalties, but we are pursuing that right now. Sugar Hill is notorious for not paying. There is a science to finding the right attorney to sue record labels because most of the attorneys are in bed with the labels. They play both sides of the fence , so it may take a lifetime to find the right attorney.
JQ: With Tommy Boy what kind of drum machines and vocoders were you using?
MJ: (Laughs) Would a magician tell you his tricks? I would be crazy to tell anyone what I used!
JQ: Well without getting into the model and make, were you using drum machines or live drums for those recordings?
MJ: The Jonzun Crew used live drums. We incorporated some drum machines , but when you hear Pack Jam that’s live drums. That’s why it grooves , and it cuts like it does. Space Is The Place , We Are The Jonzun Crew are all live drums….
JQ: How did you get along with your Tommy Boy label mates.
MJ: Afrika Bambaataa and I used to tour together. I have great admiration and respect for his success. He truly deserves the recognition he has received. I produced some of his recordings. We had a wonderful time at Tommy Boy. The Force MDs , Planet Patrol – we grew up together.
JQ: Now is Planet Patrol just Arthur Baker & John Robie with some random studio musicians?
MJ: No they weren’t just a random group at all!! Its like what did Burt Bacharach & Hal Davis do after Dionne Warwick? NOTHING!!! Arthur Baker & John Robie haven’t had a hit since Planet Patrol Thank You Very Much!!! Me & Arthur were very close, he used to live at my house in the studio day & night working. Arthur & John Robie were a good team. But Planet Patrol used to record with Arthur Baker under the name Glory!! Planet Patrol and Jonzun Crew are on some of the same records together that you probably wouldn’t know. They were known as the Energetics, and they recorded on Atlantic Records and Philadelphia International!!!
They are not just some guys that popped out of the blue with Play At Your Own Risk. The truth has not been told!! I grew up with these guys in Boston. They were one of the most popular bands in New England. Arthur Baker did not discover Planet Patrol. He came up with the name Planet Patrol , but they were already the Energetics, and they recorded under some other names. Now you’re getting a good history lesson. They were probably making 5000 dollars a week back in the seventies when we were making 1500. They were like the Spinners , Dramatics and Temptations all in one. When Arthur grabbed them they were already stars.
JQ: Why was it that Tommy Boy decided to grant the Jonzun Crew the first full length lp on the label? Even the Soul Sonic Force never had a true lp on Tommy Boy, it was just old songs thrown together like a compilation.
MJ: As I said I love Afrika Bambaataa. But the Jonzun Crew was original. When Planet Rock came out it was an infringement. Are you aware of that Sir?
JQ: You mean the reworking of Trans Europe Express by Kraftwerk?
MJ: Yes that’s a very serious offense, not to be taken lightly. We were original, and no one 'til this day has accused me of taking anyone's material. As big as Planet Rock was it wasn’t Afrika Bambaataa, and that is his signature in the music industry!! They got sued and had to pay for that song! We were selling more records than anyone , and playing for more than 15,000 people. I’ve played for as many as 80,000 who paid to see me. 80,000 people never came to see Afrika Bambaataa! This is the documented truth!! Look up Wild 100 in Miami Florida on August 25 , 1983, we had over 80,000 people at our concert and we headlined. Soul Sonic Force would open for us!! People have marketed Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force as a name. They have never recorded an album. You’ve never seen a Soul Sonic Force album.
JQ: How did you come up with Space Cowboy?
MJ: I grew listening to George Jones, Willie Nelson and Jean Autry. It was called Country Western back then. I wasn’t supposed to like country music as a Black person, so I made Space Cowboy to say this is who I am. We put our space funk to it , and even added yodeling which Jean Autry would always do. This music was not just purchased by Black people. I was getting letters from Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. I have letters from Spain, Russia all over. I have pictures of our name written on the Berlin Wall before it was torn down.
JQ: How did you hook up with Tom Browne for the Rockin’ Radio & Tommy Gunn lps?
MJ: We were so huge. And you notice it had the vocoder. It was that new fresh innovative sound that everyone wanted. He was a great musician and he wanted it too, and we brought it home for him.
JQ: Did he seek you out?
JQ: That Rockin’ Radio brought him back. That was a great song. That vocoder was nice.
MJ: Yes and Pack Jam was the only song to have a vocoder alone as the lead voice. Many came after it like Scorpio by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 and Jam On Revenge by Newcleus. But the Newcleus song had real voices. Pack Jam was the first with just a vocoder alone!! And that wasn’t a vocoder on Newcleus, it was something else. I know, but I'm not gonna tell you. I don’t tell people everything I know. (JayQuan is laughing). But we used the vocoder as a dominant vocal instrument. That isn’t a vocoder in Planet Rock. It’s a PCM 42 by Lexicon. That’s what creates that regenerated feedback sound on Planet Rock.
JQ: What did you think of people like Newcleus , Nairobi , Egyptian Lover , Twilight 22 and others?
MJ: I was flattered, and glad because it made the music grow. If you’re the only one doing something sometimes it doesn’t grow properly. Just like when people want to bring down a building they put explosives in several parts of the building to make it implode. One explosive would not do the job correctly. It’s the same with music. Sometimes if you want people to like what you’re doing and understand it, you have to hit them from several angles. But no one else sounded like us. John Robie and Arthur Baker programmed synthesizers. Everything you hear on the Jonzun crew as far as synthesizers is a human playing. I was always flattered that others wanted to do what I had done.
JQ: Where did the imagery with the powdered wigs and ruffles come from, was that the label?
MJ : It was a gentleman named Jesse Harris. He is a renowned stylist and fashion designer in New York. Myself, Tom Silverman & Jesse worked together on that. It was like classical meets the courts & judges of that time. Like Mozart & Beethoven would dress that way, as well as the great judges of that day.
JQ : Lets talk about New Edition. Did you contribute to the Candy Girl lp?
MJ: Of course. (Michael actually co- wrote Candy Girl , Jealous Girl , Should Have , Pop Corn Love , Pass The Beat , Gimme Your Love , She Gives Me A Bang and Is This The End). The success of the Jonzun crew made it easy for New Edition to dove tail from my success. They will tell you this..... If you look at Candy Girl, Space Cowboy & Space is the Place, in fact Pack Jam and Space Is The Place pre date any New Edition hits. Michael Jonzun was a huge star long before New Kids On The Block or New Edition. I look forward to hearing your interview with my brother (Maurice Starr) it should be wonderful.
JQ: Thank you for your time its an honor.
MJ: Thank You!!
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