Edwin Lyons Jr. was early for a mid-summer appointment, but couldn’t figure out the parking. The gate behind the Atlanta University Center’s Woodruff Library was down, so a security guard had to run down to let him in.
Dressed in a bright red and black sweatsuit and wearing shades, he was quiet, gracious and humble as he was being escorted into the building. The person he was coming to meet, introduced Lyons to the security guard as “one of” Atlanta’s first rappers.
Replaced by a sly grin, his humbleness vanished. He stops walking to make sure everyone hears him.
“I am not one of Atlanta’s first rappers,” he said sharply. “I am Atlanta’s FIRST rapper.”
He opens the door himself and walks into the library.
“Just in case you didn’t know,” he reminds everyone within earshot. “They call me Mojo.”
Edwin Lyons Jr. got out of the car. But Mojo has entered the building.
As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of hip-hop and Atlanta solidifies its place as the current epicenter of the genre, names like Jermaine Dupri, Goodie Mob, T.I., Killer Mike and Outkast dominate the headlines and red carpets.
But before all of them, there was Mojo, who rose out of the darkness of Atlanta’s missing and murdered children era to introduce the city to a new form of music, hip-hop. He became the first rapper in Atlanta to get extensive airplay on local radio and created a template that a generation of Atlanta rappers used to forge their own style and sound.
Or at least know that it was possible to do here.
Other early pioneers, like Kilo Ali, Raheem the Dream and MC Shy D, quickly surpassed Mojo, as he faded into the background.
But his influence is unmatched.
“Well, it all started with Mojo,” said T-Mo, one-quarter of the seminal Atlanta group, Goodie Mob. “He’s the beginning of the whole thing with the Atlanta hip-hop scene.”
Credit: Tyson A. Horne/AJC
Credit: Tyson A. Horne/AJC
Where hip-hop started
Every day at about 2 p.m., Mojo hops on his 21-speed bike and winds it around the Paulding County neighborhood where he has lived since 1998. It’s about as far away from the West End, where he grew up, as you can get in metro Atlanta.
A comfortable retirement affords him the luxury of starting his day off in the middle of the afternoon, after a morning of watching SportsCenter. After his ride, he usually heads to the gym.
An RV, that he takes out about once a month to the lake to camp and cook, rests in his spacious backyard.
“I’m getting older,” said Mojo, 59. “So I am just trying to stay healthy. I don’t want to just lay down and die.”
Mojo was born in Grady Hospital to Fannie and Edwin Lyons Sr., a World War II veteran.
He and his three sisters grew up in Atlanta’s West End, where he picked up the nickname “Mojo” on the playground. He attended Booker T. Washington High School, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lena Horne attended before him and Lil Baby attended after him.
“This is where hip-hop in Atlanta started,” Mojo said. “That’s why you get a lot of rappers today who say they are from Bankhead or Allen Temple. Everybody wants to claim the West Side.”
Mojo’s father played woodwinds in the army and passed his talents on to his son. He learned how to play the drums when he was 6, and by the time he was 12, he was accomplished on the piano. He played drums in the Washington High marching band.
The local music scene in the ‘70s, when Mojo was growing up, was steeped in soul, funk, disco and R&B. Any national exposure that Atlanta acts got was reserved for the likes of Peabo Bryson, the S.O.S. Band, Brick and Cameo.
In August of 1979, when Mojo was 15, the bodies of Edward Hope Smith, 14, and Alfred Evans, 13, were found in a wooded area on Niskey Lake Road in southwest Atlanta.
No one knew, but at that moment, Smith and Evans became the first two victims of the Atlanta Child Murders.
“During that time, there was a citywide ordinance around sheltering in place and being at home until the Atlanta Child Murders ended,” said Joycelyn Wilson, a professor at Georgia Tech, who teaches hip-hop and digital media in the Black Media Program. “Or until they found the person that was terrorizing the neighborhoods of poor black children,”
Over the next 22 months, 29 people — mostly young boys and men, as well as two young girls — would be kidnapped and strangled, shot, stabbed or bludgeoned to death as part of case.
Atlanta was on edge.
“We knew that there was a situation going on and we just kind of watched our backs,” Mojo said. “I don’t think I was afraid because I felt that I could take care of myself. I’m not going to let nobody stray me away and be a victim.”
On Sept. 16, 1979, a month after the bodies of Edward and Alfred were discovered, a song called “Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugarhill Gang was released. At more than seven minutes, it was a form of music few people in the South had really ever heard before — at least on wax.
Rap music had arrived.
“When ‘Rapper’s Delight’ came out, man, we went crazy. I sat down and wrote down every word of that song,” Mojo remembered. “It took me about three or four days, but I learned it and went back to Washington High and I would rap this song and the whole school would be out there.”
He soon took his act to the old Ashby Theatre on the corner of what is now Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Built in 1934 as one of the first Black movie theaters in the city, the Ashby had seen better days.
Mojo saw that as an opportunity.
“I went up in there and I said, ‘Hey, man, I’m having parties up in here,’” Mojo said. “I turned it into ‘Mojo’s Disco Lounge’ and I had people coming from Decatur, Southside, Eastside, everywhere. That’s how popular I was.”
Mojo had a deejay spin the records while he rocked the mic, rapping over whatever music was hot.
“The parties at the old Ashby Theater were a fun, safe option for teens who were really on edge during a tense time in Atlanta,” said Leo Willingham, the assistant senior editor for sports at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who also grew up in the West End.
In 1981, Wayne Williams, who was known to hang out around Atlanta’s burgeoning music scene recruiting young talent, was arrested for the murder of Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne, two adults whose names were on the list of missing and murdered. Police suspected that he was also responsible for most of the child murders and he was convicted in 1982.
It was the same year that Mojo graduated from high school.
“I came on the scene in 1982 after the child murders had ceased and the curfew was lifted,” Mojo said. “After ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ I just decided that I want to make Atlanta just as big as New York. That is what I set out to do.”
Mojo’s first attempt at recording a rap song was called, “Batman,” where he talked about, well, Batman. There was a line in the song where he said, “Let Mojo handle it.”
Everyone who heard Mojo’s original take loved that line. So he re-wrote it to “Battmann: Let Mo-Jo Handle It.”
Backed by the local Velvetone Records, he found a 16-track studio in downtown Atlanta and recorded it with live instruments. In a testament to Atlanta’s musical roots and a link to its future, John “Skin” Alexander Simpson of the S.O.S. Band played bass on it and Brick’s Ambric Bridgeforth played keyboards.
Bunnie Jackson-Ransom, the former wife of Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, managed both Brick and The S.O.S. Band. And Jimmy Brown, the lead singer of Brick, is the father of Organized Noize’s Sleepy Brown, who helped develop Goodie Mob and Outkast’s sound.
“We had a lot of heavy hitters in there,” Mojo said. “Once it came out, the song was going neck and neck with Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” In those days, you could track record store sales and every time someone picked up “Sexual Healing,” they picked up “Battmann: Let Mo-Jo Handle It.”
The song is a time capsule of early rap, full of bravado over an electronic and disco beat.
Now I’m sorry if I didn’t introduce myself/
Well I’m Mo-Jo, the little disco/
I’m not that old, I’m very young/
But I just know how to use my tongue/
In Atlanta Georgia at Booker T/
Is where I started rockin’ to the soulful beat/
I’m Mo-Jo, I’m a real MC/
I’m capable of being on any TV/
ABC or a CBS - Wherever I am I will do my best!!
“To this day, people still say ‘Let Mojo handle it’,” said Willingham, who graduated with Mojo in 1982 from Washington High School. “He was the first. He was an innovator.”
In the same year that classics “The Message” and “Planet Rock” out of New York were laying rap’s foundation, “Let Mo-Jo Handle It” became the first Atlanta rap song to be played on WAOK-AM radio’s live broadcast from the popular Sans Souci nightclub.
“Mojo was really making noise in Atlanta,” MC Shy D said. “When I was trying to get on, I was going all around the city trying to make it happen. I was like ‘Yo, this the only brother out here on the radio doing his thing, so I gotta find that man right there.’ I searched the streets until I found him. Then I started carrying crates for him.”
MC Shy D went from carrying Mojo’s crates to becoming the first rapper from Atlanta to break out nationally and tour the country as a headliner.
The artwork on the single featured a smiling picture of Mojo in a tuxedo next to a comic strip of Mojo as a superhero who used rap music to fight crime, or “handle it.”
Wilson, who attended Benjamin E. Mays High School in southwest Atlanta, said Mojo as a superhero fighting crime was a needed signal coming out of the darkness of the child murders.
“We have to frame the way in which we understand what was happening in Atlanta at the time,” Wilson said. “Because not only were we experiencing the Atlanta child murders, but we were also seeing the rise of a Black middle class and the rise of a Black political leadership class. All of this is happening at the same time.”
In 1984, relying heavily on funk and electronic beats, Mojo had an even bigger local hit with the synth-heavy “Jump, Stomp and Twist.”
But New York rap outfits like Run-DMC and Kurtis Blow were looming large and establishing New York as the sound and face of rap and hip-hop. And while their records were being played in Atlanta in the same rotation as Mojo’s, his records weren’t being played in New York.
“If a song was playing on the radio in Atlanta, it was just playing on the radio in Atlanta and maybe throughout Georgia,” Mojo said. “Now if a song is playing on the radio in Atlanta, you can best believe the song is playing all around the country.”
When big acts like Run-DMC, Blow and the Fat Boys would come to Atlanta, Mojo — as the only real hip-hop artist in the city — would often open for them.
While he commanded the respect of the New York rappers, who were always kind to him, the New York-centric crowds weren’t feeling him.
“The people from New York did not like it at all. They were not kind to me,” Mojo said. “They felt that I was biting on New York.”
Mojo attended the 1984 Fresh Fest, an early hip-hop festival that featured a young Jermaine Dupri as a backup dancer for headliners Whodini. He wasn’t scheduled to perform, but when the announcer gave him a shoutout from the stage, the crowd booed him.
“Of course, it bothered me,” Mojo said. “But it had nothing to do with my craft. It was all about me being from Atlanta. I was from down South and they had a problem with it.”
Although his first song came out in 1982, he didn’t even appear in the AJC until 1987 and that was in a photo caption about a camp that he had worked in. The first known reference to Mojo as a rapper didn’t come until 2002, some 20 years after his debut.
“They got looked over. And then when the journalists came in, not from Atlanta, not understanding what Atlanta was, to write about us, they started with OutKast and Goodie Mob. The new South,” said Korey “Big Oomp” Roberson, who in 1996 established Atlanta’s first independent rap label, Big Oomp Records. “They missed that whole era of music, so it never got talked about.”
A local record store owner suggested that maybe Mojo should curse in his songs to get a broader audience and “sell more records.”
“I’m not a pimp. I wasn’t a gangster,” Mojo said. “I couldn’t see myself doing that because all the music I’ve ever done was music to make people feel good. To make people want to get up and dance and have a good time. That’s why I backed off.”
It was over.
In 1987,Mojo got a job driving trucks and delivering packages forUPS, because he “wasn’t going to let the music business starve me and I was going to be a starving artist.”
But in the 33 years he worked there, he saw Kris Kross open up for Michael Jackson and Arrested Development win a Grammy for Best New Artist.
He saw T.I. claim Bankhead and invent trap music and Organized Noize and Goodie Mob define Atlanta’s sound.
He saw OutKast become one of the biggest groups in the world. And he is watching now as Atlanta is the undisputed hip-hop capital of the world.
All from Atlanta.
“I just came too early. No doubt about it,” Mojo said. “I used to think about it all the time, but whatever’s meant for you is for you. I have no regrets about what I was able to achieve in the music business or what I was not able to achieve. My recognition comes from Heaven.”
With 2023 being the 50th anniversary of the creation of hip-hop, Mojo has been busy this year. He has opened a few shows in Atlanta; released a single with Kilo Ali and DJ Smurf called “Yeek, Yeek,” which features MC Shy D in the music video; and just signed a licensing deal with a London-based distributor to re-release “Jump, Stomp and Twist” in Europe.
“That’s all I do now is music,” Mojo said. “That fire is still burning inside of me because I woke up one day and figured that I did not have an expiration date.”
On this day in his Paulding County home, he can barely hear himself think. His rottweiler,Lady, is barking and locked in a back room to not frighten his guests. One asks if he can still rap. Mojo laughs and walks over to his keyboard.
Instead of rapping, he gently plays “Easy” by the Commodores.
Credit: Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com
Credit: Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com
Last year, at the 40th reunion of Washington High School’s Class of 1982, his classmates gave him a trophy recognizing him as Atlanta’s first rapper.
“In typical (Mojo) style (always a musician), he pumped out a quick melody — on the piano,” Willingham said. “I am really happy to see Mojo get his recognition. I can still hear and recite the lyrics to his songs 40 years later. It was well deserved and long overdue.”
The trophy is the most prominent object on the fireplace mantle that also holds his grandfather’s World War I flag, old framed records and photos of his 17-year-old daughter, Jania.
Credit: Cathy Bradford/Special to the AJC
Credit: Cathy Bradford/Special to the AJC
He spots an old photo album and flips through it. Pictures of him on stage. Pictures with him and other old-school rappers. Shirtless in a classic ‘80s rapper’s stance.
He sits down on the couch wearing a City Connect “ATL” Hank Aaron Braves jersey with a matching hat and Jordans. Lady is still barking.
“I don’t feel any special way about it. I appreciate all the honors, but I did what I did to show the world that Atlanta can be just like New York or anywhere else,” Mojo said. “What I did back then, I was just having fun. But to be honest with you, it seems like it was just yesterday.”
Ernie Suggs is an enterprise reporter covering race and culture for the AJC since 1997. A 1990 graduate of N.C. Central University and a 2009 Harvard University Nieman Fellow, he is also the former vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists. His obsession with Prince, Spike Lee movies, Hamilton and the New York Yankees is odd.