There are few traditions in go-go as enduring as roll call. Originated by go-go founder Chuck Brown and then perfected by Rare Essence’s James “Funk Thomas” in the late ’70s, the ritual might seem unremarkable. But when a band’s lead talker name checks familiar faces in the audience over percolating go-go beats, the music’s essential sense of community is reaffirmed.
Roll calls have continually evolved during thousands of go-go shows all over the District, Maryland, and Virginia. Now, Calvin “Killa Cal” Henry’s new track “Birthday Roll Call” is tapping into the tradition with a classic old-school sound that’s all about rump-shaking percussion and sing-song chants.
As both a rapper for Rare Essence and an independent artist, Killa Cal has too many fans to name on this track. So he figured out a way to be inclusive: “Instead of shouting out all the people and crews on ‘Birthday Roll Call,’ we’re shouting out the zodiac signs,” he says. “That way, nobody’s left out.”
The new song is the brainchild of Roy “RB” Battle, who explains that he was tired of hearing the same old birthday songs at parties and barbecues. Battle currently play keyboards for RE and often serves as the band’s producer and engineer. He and Killa Cal share a writing credit with the gifted Mz Laydee, who provides additional vocals. (The chemistry between the rapper and Mz. Laydee won’t come as a surprise to those who know they are real-life partners.)
“Birthday Roll Call” came out of the same series of studio sessions that yielded the 2017 Rare Essence and Backyard Band collaboration “You Can’t Run From the Crank.” For this track, Battle played keyboards and horns and also produced with some help from Rob Fulson. The players included Darryl “Blue Eyes” Arrington on drums, Darrin “Mr. X” Frazier on keyboards, Doug Crowley on bass,and Brion “BJ” Scott, son of the legendary Milton “Go-Go Mickey” Freeman. “I formulated the team of musicians, but the intention of the sessions was for Cal,” says Battle. “We wanted to come up with a library of fresh material for him to pull from.”
A go-go veteran who has worked with Proper Utensils, the Huck-A-Bucks, Hot Cold Sweat, and the Pleasure Band, Battle has nothing but admiration for his Rare Essence bandmate. “Cal’s number one gift is his creativity, his ability to rap off the top of his head, and then there’s his energy,” says Battle. “He’s also such a people person, and if you combine all those factors, it makes him a super dynamic talent on stage.”
Growing up in Prince George’s County, Killa Cal was all about Yo! MTV Raps until the day his uncle came by and played the 1987 “Go Go Live” video. “That was my introduction to everyone,” he says. “We would hear Chuck Brown on the radio, but it was so different being able to see that video. It taught us everything—how to dance to the music, how to react to the call and response, who was in the band. We couldn’t get that on the radio or a PA tape.”
While at Hampton University, Killa Cal performed as both lead talker and rapper with The Underground Band, a local go-go act. He also performed separately at hip-hop shows. Returning to the D.C. area after graduating with a degree in advertising, he guested with several go-go groups—most notably the WHAT?! Band—before officially joining Rare Essence in 2012.
The new single precedes his forthcoming all-rap album, Killa Cal Ripken, due out July 21 and featuring cameos by both local and national artists, including Breana Marin, Loaded Lux, King Los, and KingPen Slim.
“In rap, you have so many different moods and emotions. You can go from low and depressing to conscious, for example, speaking about certain political issues,” Killa Cal explains. “Rapping for a go-go band, the live aspect produces more energy. With go-go, there are two emotions—hype and real hype.”
On “Birthday Roll Call,” the hype starts with Killa’s Cal’s very first line—“If it’s your birthday, make some noooooiiissse!!!!!!”—evoking RE’s frequent guest performer, DJ Kool. From there, it’s nothing but a party celebrating everybody’s birthday, one zodiac sign at a time. With his July 19 birthday, Cal is a Cancer.