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From Jonzun Crew to Planet Patrol: Boston's Overlooked Electro History

By Stereo Williams

If you begin to trace back the origins of the musical genre now known as Electro, reputable music historians typically start at it evolving from Boogie Funk, being heavily influenced by Germany’s Kraftwerk, Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra, and the Synth Pop scene emerging from Sheffield, England post the introduction of the TR-808 in 1980. They’ll often pick influential tracks from the Electro continuum such as Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” (1977) and “Numbers” (1981), Yellow Magic Orchestra “Firecracker” (1978), Gary Numan's “Cars” (1979), Ryuichi Sakamoto “Riot In Lagos” (1980), D-Train “You’re The One For Me” (1982), Warp 9 “Nunk” (1982), Man Parrish “Hip Hop Be Bop” (1982), Thomas Dolby “She Blinded Me With Science” (1982) then Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force “Planet Rock” (1982) but they all tend to leave out an essential element to the timeline of the creation of Electro — the influence of Boston Funk/Space Funk on the genre.

While Arthur Baker and John Robie are usually credited as innovators in the sound of Electro and cited as major reasons for its growth, Arthur Baker’s role as a member of the Boston Funk All-Stars and his regular Boston collaborators and associates contributions to Electro are often wholesale erased. Considering that Jonzun Crew were also serving as in-house producers for Tommy Boy at the same time as Arthur Baker, I find that odd. Arthur Baker either collaborated with or mentored everyone from Shep Pettibone, Jellybean Benitez, the Latin Rascals, 

Fact of the matter is, Jonzun Crew’s 1982 production “Pak Man (Look Out For The OVC)” — renamed “Pak Jam (Look Out For The OVC)” when re-released on Tommy Boy in 1983 — should be cited in that same timeline of songs influential to Electro amongst other Boston Funk productions. While the contributions of producers from Tokyo, Düsseldorf, Berlin, Sheffield, London, New York, New Jersey, Miami, Detroit, Los Angeles etc. are oft brought up when Electro, Latin Hip Hop/Freestyle and Techno/House are discussed, Boston is rarely mentioned among them, if ever.

When Arthur Baker began his music production career, he transitioned from being a DJ and a music journalist at New Music Report and John Luongo’s Boston publication Nightfall to making records. He first encountered Boston’s most prominent Funk musicians and producers while working on Tom Moulton’s 1979 Boogie Funk/Disco Casablanca album “TJM” — which was actually Baker’s album that Moulton took credit for. Baker worked with prominent Boston musicians  and producers like Tony Carbone, Russell Presto, John Luongo, Michael Jonzun and Maurice Starr of The Johnsons, later Jonzun Crew.

Afterwards, Baker put together or was a part of multiple Boston Funk outfits with members of Johnzun Crew and other Boston Funk All Stars, many with the same lineup but recording under different names, they included Northend, Glory, Ritz, and Blaze. The 1981 Ritz selection “Workin’ Out” on Posse Records and the 1981 Jonzun Crew jam (as The Johnsons featuring Maurice Starr) “Jail Bait” should also be included in the list. When you listen to them, their influence on Arthur Baker’s later production is evident.

Fact of the matter is, a lot of the music that’s perceived as “Electro” by outsiders was merely considered to be “Boston Funk” by Bostonians and Massachusetts residents. Arthur Baker made a version of “Planet Rock” devoid of the Kraftwerk references in case Tom Silverman wanted to avoid the likelihood of being sued but Silverman opted to release the Kraftwerk version, so Baker called Boston vocalists who were in Boston Funk outfits Energetics and The Ambitions, re-named them Planet Patrol as released what is now regarded as an early Electro classic “Play At Your Own Risk” in 1982. 

The Boston singers just regarded it as another Boston/Space Funk production to add vocals to whereas Soulsonic Force members Mr. Biggs and G.L.O.B.E. had to be convinced to rap on the beat because they flat out refused to when they heard it. They completely abhorred it. To them, it wasn’t even real music. Compare that to youngsters like New Edition from Roxbury who rapped over Boston Funk/Space Funk production by Michael Jonzun, Maurice Starr and Arthur Baker between 1982 and 1983 without reservation because in Boston that “Electro” sound wasn’t regarded as an aberration. It was the music the town specialized in. It was everywhere you went, heard on every local radio station and was the sound pushed forward by several local bands and acts in the hyper competitive Boston talent show circuit.

Back in Boston, Space Funk released by Boston Funk groups was the prevailing sound between 1981 and 1983, Jonzun Crew had released “Space Is The Place” (1982), Hypertension made “Got This Feelin’” (1982), Maurice Starr protégé Dwayne Omarr had “This Party’s Jam Packed” (1982) and Tony Rose and the Boston Funk prodigy Prince Charles Alexander made “Video Freak (Defend It)” under the name Trigger Finger & The Space Cadets all around the same time. None of these landmark productions are mentioned alongside Electrik Funk “On A Journey (I Sing The Funk Electric)” (1982), Electra “Feels Good” (1982) or Sinnamon “Thanks To You” (1982) even though they were all out at the same time and were floating around the same record pools shared by NYC/NJ/CT/PA/MA DJ’s of the era. I find this to be highly suspicious.

In 1983, we’re introduced to other groundbreaking songs such as Warp 9 “Light Years Away” and “Beat Wave”, Hashim “Al-Naafyish (The Soul)”, Cybotron “Clear”, George Kranz “Din Daa Daa”, Shannon “Let The Music Play”, etc. Arthur Baker and John Robie follow up to “Planet Rock” with “Looking For The Perfect Beat” and produced “Confusion” for New Order while Jonzun Crew emerge with “Pak Jam”, “We Are The Jonzun Crew”, “Electro Boogie Encounter”, “Lost In Space” and the Black radio smash “Space Cowboy” whose charts momentum was ultimately squashed by George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” while Planet Patrol released the hit “Cheap Thrills”. 1983 is crucial to the Electro timeline because it instantly diverges into the realm of Freestyle/Latin Hip Hop.

The crucial elements in Electro production were the implementation of the TR-808 drum machine in accompaniment with the Prophet-5 keyboard, CMI Fairlight or Emulator 1 sampler, and the usage of technology to change voices. While Stevie Wonder and Roger Troutman made the Talk Box popular — most notably on Zapp’s 1980 hit “More Bounce To The Ounce” — it was Boston’s Jonzun Crew who were the first in Black and popular music to implement the vocoder to achieve this effect between 1981 and 1982 on hits like “Jail Bait” and “Pak Man”. 

What followed was Midnight Star using this same technique on 1983 hits like “No Parking On The Dance Floor” and “Freak-A-Zoid” and Newcleus implemented it on “Jam On Revenge (The Wikki-Wikki Song)” although Boston Funk artists from Tony Rose, Prince Charles Alexander, Michael Jonzun, Maurice Starr and Dwayne Omarr are all on records dated 1981 and 1982 using this technique first but never got properly credited for their innovations. Arthur Baker and John Robie used a similar technique on “Planet Rock” in 1982 for that very reason.

In California, Electro was so influential to its burgeoning Hip-Hop scene that former Boston musician turned writer, producer, and director Topper Carew captured it in his 1983 documentary Breakin’ N’ Enterin'. Based around the Electro played in the club called Radiotron, The Unknown DJ founded the label Techno Hop in 1984. How this would’ve been possible without the contributions of Boston Funk/Space Funk, the early influential releases and hits produced by Boston Funk acts on Tommy Boy between 1982 and 1983, I don’t see how that would be possible. 

While the genre of Electro is known for iconic tracks like Art Of Noise “Beat Box”, Strafe “Set It Off” and Newcleus “Jam On It” among others, past 1984, few people even thought about Boston in terms of the genre even though it played a prominent role in its creation. When we revisit the production of Arthur Baker and John Robie, Juan Atkins, Lottie Golden and Richard Scher, Shep Pettibone, Jellybean Benitez, Tony Moran and Albert Cabrera of Latin Rascals, Andy “Panda” Tripoli, Egyptian Lover, The Unknown DJ and others within the space of Electro, Freestyle/Latin Hip Hop and Dance music but fail to acknowledge the contributions of Boston Funk producers like Michael Jonzun, Maurice Starr, Tony Rose, Prince Charles Alexander and Dwayne Omarr to that same continuum we are doing a disservice to both the historical record and music fans alike. 

Since Nelson George’s 2013 documentary “Finding The Funk” completely overlooked Boston Funk’s existence, it aided in the ongoing erasure of the influence of Boston Funk on Black music in general — but especially on Electro and subgenres that sprang directly from it. Whereas Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May are collectively known as The Belleville Three and are widely acknowledged as the pioneers of Techno from Detroit, Boston’s style of Space Funk and how it’s role in the birth of Electro has been completely disregarded remains a mystery to this day given the facts.