City Paper is not for tourists
It’s nearly 2 a.m. at the Touché Supper Club, and Rare Essence lead talker James “Funk” Thomas is deep in roll call. Over fusillades of percussion, he’s greeting familiar faces in the crowd: folks from his neighborhood, longtime fans, young women in the front, and the guys who come every week.
And then Funk shifts from people to places. He’s giving shout outs to venues Rare Essence played in the ’70s and ’80s: the old Panorama Room in Anacostia, the East Side in Southwest, and the Masonic Temple on U Street NW. “If you’ve been to Club U, if you’ve been to Triples nightclub, if you’ve been to the Metro Club, we gonna do all that tonight, y’all,” he promises. “Let’s go all the way back, y’all.”
The audience roars back affirmation, outstretched hands slapping the air to the intoxicating beat.
Touché Supper Club is located in Northeast’s gentrified H Street district, but inside the club, tonight belongs to a different D.C.: the predominantly African-American city where go-go began and has thrived for generations. All 11 members of Rare Essence are crammed onto the stage along with two club photographers documenting the show. Conga player Samuel “Smoke” Dews is wearing a T-shirt that reads “Wind Me Up, Chuck,” a tribute to the late “godfather” Chuck Brown, creator of go-go’s distinctive sound.
Go-go’s continual celebration of its own history is just one aspect of the music’s self-contained culture. Tonight, like so many nights before, Funk is celebrating go-go on several levels: He’s recognizing the music’s fans, its past, and the music itself. By name-checking the long-shuttered venues, Funk is revisiting go-go’s precious history as the heart and soul of a huge swath of D.C.’s African-American community.
Rare Essence is now in its fourth decade as one of D.C.’s top go-go bands. The group has prevailed despite dozens of lineup changes, several deaths, drug violence that threatened the music’s very existence, and the gentrification that has displaced a dismayingly large percentage of the city’s black community. In many ways, the story of Rare Essence reflects the story of black D.C. It’s the story of a group of young boys from Southeast’s Washington Highlands neighborhood who dreamed of becoming music stars. Their story encompasses the pride and optimism of Mayor Marion Barry’s early years in office, as well as the heartbreak of the late ’80s crack epidemic.
The story of Rare Essence is also the story of a homegrown funk music that refuses to fade away.
On May 6, Rare Essence is releasing Turn It Up, the band’s first studio album in 15 years. Not counting the hundreds of PA recordings the band has churned out, Turn It Up is Rare Essence’s 15th official album, and it’s aimed squarely at the music’s core DMV audience and, just maybe, the world beyond.
No other go-go act, aside from Chuck Brown, has been as influential within the go-go community as Rare Essence. In 2010, when the band was celebrating its 31st anniversary, go-go historian Kato Hammond designed a graphic for his TMOTTGoGo website. Using a “Welcome to D.C.” sign, he replaced the D.C. with R.E.
“Rare Essence has never lost that top tier position in almost five decades,” says Hammond. “That’s a big thing. That’s a Grateful Dead type of standing.”
Others in the local music community point to the band’s branding, professionalism and consistent release of new original music. “Rare Essence is in the elite group of bands that have stood the test of time,” says Tom Goldfogle, former manager of Chuck Brown. “They’ve had some changes in personnel, but they remain as relevant today as when they first started.”
Tonight’s Touché Supper Club show is evidence of that. The club is jam-packed, with more folks filing through the door. One of them, Darryl Blackwell, born and raised in Washington Highlands, has been a fan since the late ’70s, when he used to hit the go-go shows at Highlands Recreation Center. Now 50, Blackwell doesn’t get out as much as he used to.
“I love Rare Essence,” says Blackwell. “Whether by listening to CDs or going to the shows, I’m gonna stay a fan for life.”
The origins of go-go have been well documented. The music dates back to the mid-’70s, when local bandleader Chuck Brown, a former boxer and ex-con, wanted to best his competitors in D.C.’s live music scene. Brown believed that pauses between songs slowed down the party, and so he worked with drummer Ricky Wellman to devise a percussion breakdown that could link songs together. Soon, his band was playing those breakdowns during the songs as well.
The first go-go hit, Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers’ 1979 “Bustin’ Loose,” was also a national hit. It predates the classic go-go sound, but the elements were already in place: percolating percussion patterns, call-and-response chants, a rump-shaking party mood, and the bandleader’s charismatic personality. “That’s how the sound you hear now got started,” Brown told City Paper in 1990. “You take those percussion breakdowns, mix a little music, and the other bands had something they could adapt to.”
One of those other pioneering go-go bands belonged—in a way—to Annie Mack Thomas. A mother of four who was keenly interested in music, Thomas’ house on Xenia Street SE was filled with records, and she regularly took her family to hear the soul and R&B greats who performed at the Howard Theatre.
Eager to encourage her sons’ interest in music, Miss Mack—as she was known to all—bought James his own turntable when he was eight. Her youngest, Quentin Davidson, got a drum set at age six, and after that, all he wanted in this world was to start a band. The boys’ uncle, D.C. Sam, had his own drum and bugle corps and gave Quentin his first lessons. “The drum set was in the dining room,” notes James Funk, “so the rest of us had to sit through the beginnings.”
By the time he was 13, Quentin had enlisted several of his schoolmates at Saint Thomas More Catholic School for his band: Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, Michael “Funky Ned” Neal, John “Bighorn” Jones, and Quentin’s cousin, David Green.
One afternoon, while the boys were practicing at Johnson’s house, a small kid holding a trumpet knocked on the door. He played Kool & The Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” for them, and immediately “Little” Benny Harley became the newest member of the band. The boys went through various names—Connections Unlimited, Thesis, and the Young Dynamos—before settling on Rare Essence, after a brand of perfume.
James had already started working as DJ Jas. Funk at Chuck Brown’s shows, and he soon decided that Rare Essence should adopt Brown’s new go-go sound. The first step would be taking the boys—all 13 or 14—to hear Brown perform. “That night was like the beginning of a new band,” says Funk. “Their eyes just lit up, like a kid getting ready to go into Toys ‘R’ Us… You could even tell when they came to that next rehearsal, it was a total different band.”
Brown helped Funk shape the band they jokingly called “the Baby Soul Searchers,” and some of the grownup Soul Searchers coached the boys, helping them master their instruments. Because Quentin was always heavy on the bass drum, he became known as “Footz.”
Whiteboy’s godmother arranged the fledgling band’s first gig at the nearby Linda Pollin recreation center. “We were extremely nervous,” recalls Whiteboy, Rare Essence’s guitarist and only original member. “We only knew two songs. We played both songs back and forth all night.”
Miss Mack legally incorporated the band and served as manager with help from Funk. Her mother, Mattie Lee Mack—known as Miss Sis—became secretary. And Michael Neal’s mother, Margarine Neal—”Miss Neal,” of course—was appointed treasurer.
“They brought stability to what it was we were trying to do,” says Whiteboy. “Along with Funk, they brought a sense of direction because we didn’t know. All we knew is that we wanted to play.”
The three women and Funk enforced a strict practice schedule, and anyone who was late or missed practice was fined. “If you can’t make rehearsals, then we got a problem already,” says Funk. “Even if we just sitting around in rehearsal, that’s some kind of social thing, a spiritual thing that connects us and keeps us connected.”
Funk continued his career as a DJ, but by 1978, he had joined Rare Essence as a lead talker. “Quentin got tired of me giving orders from backstage and told me to get out front,” he says. Throughout the years, Funk has come and gone but has always remained connected to Rare Essence—since 2001, he has performed regularly with the band.
While the boys of Rare Essence honed their musical skills, Marion Barry’s Summer Youth Employment Program played a huge role in raising the band’s profile. During the summers of ’78, ’79, and ’80, the boys were paid to perform at parks all over the city as part of the Showmobile performance series.
Funk says that Rare Essence played more often than other Showmobile acts because the other bands were more particular about where they played. “I guess they thought they was a cut above,” he says. “But for us? Alright. Ivy City? We’ll go there. Douglas Terrace? We’ll go there, too. All them little holes—we’ll go over there.”
As the band’s popularity grew, kids began following Rare Essence to venues all over the city. “It got to the point where wherever we performed there was this sea of boomboxes,” says Michael Neal, who left the band in 1998 for tours with Maxwell and Meshell Ndegeocello. “People had their radios on their shoulders.”
Bookings came faster and the band’s three matriarchs became fixtures at Rare Essence shows. They often collected admission at the door dressed in red and white, the band’s colors, with Miss Sis topping it off with her signature red tam over bleach-blonde hair.
“Those three ladies kept that organization together,” promoter Darryl Brooks told the Washington Post just after Annie Mack’s death in 2003. (Miss Sis died in 1998.) “Those ladies ran. When they couldn’t get the clubs right, they would take over the clubs—they would do the security, the doors, everything.”
“They gave so much to their community,” he added. “They gave that band a foundation. They kept a lot of families together. They kept a whole lot of kids out of trouble. And they sold a lot of records.”
During the ’80s, competition between the top go-go bands—Rare Essence along with Trouble Funk, Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers, and Experience Unlimited—was intense, and Miss Mack believed that a good stage show required uniforms. Early on, those uniforms were usually red and white silk, and Miss Neal sewed them herself. Mandatory dress rehearsals were part of the drill, just to make sure everything fit right.
Far more challenging was monitoring the boys at the clubs. “We had to watch everywhere they went if we was playing any place where there was alcohol,” Miss Neal recalls. “And you know how young kids are, they were trying us all kinds of ways. They kept Miss Mack and I busy watching them, and they trying to duck us.”
Most of Rare Essence’s early singles were party tunes, tracks like “Shoo-Be-Do-Wop” and “Body Moves,” which was produced by Brown and Funk and distributed by Fantasy Records in 1982. But “Back Up Against the Wall,” released in 1983, depicted the grim realities of poverty in the shadows of federal Washington, limning the desperation that comes when ends won’t meet:
“Times are so very hard, sometimes I think I’m living in hell/ It’s not easy to find a job, when will everything be well/ I can’t get no money, gotta pay your bill/ Gotta get the dollar before I lose the will/ Try to find a hustle, but it’s just too hard/ Gotta get it together before it goes too far/ Some people say they just can’t cope/ So what do they do, I say they turn to dope/ Seems like there’s just no hope at all/ Now how you gonna do it with your back up against the wall?”
“Little” Benny Harley, the diminutive trumpeter with a big voice, soon became one of Rare Essence’s most popular performers. He was also the first of a number of high-profile band members to leave. In 1984, he recorded his own single under Little Benny & the Masters, “Who Comes to Boogie,” which became a chart-topping hit in England. For the boys of Rare Essence, his departure was an enormous blow. “That was a heartfelt thing,” says Funk. “I begged him. I really cried when he left, like a big ol’ baby.”
Around the same time, Island Records chief Chris Blackwell became infatuated with go-go and announced he would bring the music to a worldwide audience, just as he’d done with reggae via Bob Marley.
Rare Essence was apprehensive about signing with any major label. Perhaps there was less incentive to sign because the band was doing so well. The mid-’80s were go-go’s golden era: The bands were wildly popular, and it seemed like every black neighborhood in the D.C. area had at least one up-and-coming go-go band. Rare Essence was often playing six nights a week, and on some weekend nights, they could play two or even three separate shows in different quadrants of the city.
“We would start out doing 8 to 12 someplace at a high school or wherever,” recalls Whiteboy. “Then we would end up at the Howard Theatre at 2:30 or 3 o’clock in the morning and go to 6 a.m.”
Rare Essence ended up signing with Polygram in 1984. But “Flipside,” the 1986 techno-funk styled single that was the only result, was an embarrassment. “They didn’t want a go-go band. They thought they did,” says Whiteboy. “We gave them 10 or 12 other songs before ‘Flipside,’ and the only reason we recorded that record was to get out of the deal.”
A 1988 deal with Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records also proved disappointing, although Rare Essence’s local hit, “Lock It,” appeared on the soundtrack for the film Strictly Business that was released by the label. But once again, a label seeking to sell records worldwide wasn’t interested in pure go-go, they wanted a diluted radio-friendly sound that was anathema to the band.
Rare Essence learned a crucial lesson: “That we should probably do it ourselves because we know what it is we wanna do,” says Whiteboy. “The labels they think they know what they want, but they don’t really know the inside of what go-go is and what makes go-go work.”
“What we’re trying to do is just stay true to what it is we are,” he adds. “Which is a go-go band, whether it be unpopular outside of here or not. That’s how we’ve been able to outlast a whole lot of other artists, national and international artists.”
By 1987, the drug-related violence that had swept through America’s urban areas hit D.C. hard. As the crack epidemic took hold, dealers’ disputes were often settled quickly and with terrible finality. “Nobody was fighting with their fists any more,” recalls Michael Neal. “I remember the days when a guy would get stomped. After a few minutes, that guy got up and went home to his momma. Those days changed.”
Go-go shows attracted people from all over the city, so they offered a convenient setting for dealers looking to settle scores. “If I see you at the club, that’s my opportunity to have whatever kind of words with you,” says Neal. “If this is where those people who would do those kind of things see each other, it just happens to be. I mean, suppose they’re vegans and they meet each other at the produce stand at the Giant?”
On April 11, 1987, gunmen sprayed bullets into a crowd leaving a Rare Essence show at U Street’s Masonic Temple. Eleven people were shot. In the years that followed, the death toll around the city rose, but any time violence took place during or after a go-go show, the media blamed the music. And so did police and local politicians.
It was easier to point fingers at the go-go bands than to dig deeper and explore the inner city miseries behind the violence. “They never blamed the drug culture,” says Margarine Neal. “They always just blamed whatever bands were there, especially when we were there.”
Either due to ignorance about the go-go scene or plain old racism, go-go—a distinctly African-American form of music—was censured again and again. Go-go bands kept thousands of kids off the streets and out of trouble, but that was hardly ever acknowledged. “Sometimes we weren’t even a part of what was going on, but our name would come up,” says Margarine Neal. “At the time, most of the guys who were doing the writing were white, so what would you expect?”
While there seemed to be no direct connection between go-go bands and the city’s drug culture, the two worlds did intersect. “I think the most painful night for me… was a young boy that was murdered right in the Black Hole, Celebrity Hall,” says Michael Neal. “I remember the sound of the gun going off, people screaming, of course. And the young man crawling up on stage and lying behind Footz’s drum set. And that’s where he died. He had a big hole right through his heart.”
In 1989, Fat Rodney, a popular local rapper who frequently joined Rare Essence on stage, was fatally shot outside Crystal Skate in Temple Hills. And five years later, on a warm September night in 1994, the violence took one of Rare Essence’s own. A motorist discovered the body of Quentin “Footz” Davidson along Route 50 in Landover. According to police, he had been shot in the chest. His murder remains unsolved. “It still is devastating,” says Funk. “He was my blood brother, but he was also the heart of the band.”
Footz was 33 when he died, leaving behind six children and an enduring musical legacy.
“His beats were incredible—and clean. He played as if you were in the studio as far as keeping the straight 16,” says Charles “Shorty Corleone” Garris, a rapper and singer who joined Rare Essence in 1993. “There might need to be a workshop about how Footz set new standards for go-go drummers. It all started with his breakbeats—he was the breakbeat king.”
More than 20 years later, most Rare Essence sets include a tribute to Footz: “Put your hands in the air, and let’s do it for Footz.”
A student of go-go might divide Rare Essence’s lengthy run into four not-quite-distinct periods.
The first was the earliest days, when Little Benny was with the band and they were still developing their go-go style. The second might be its old school sound of the mid-’80s, characterized by intensified percussion and Funk’s easy charisma. A good example of this is the Live at Breeze’s Metro Club album, which included the Rare Essence classic “One on One” and was affectionately known as “the album that kept the whole neighborhood rockin’.”
The third period is the Donnell Floyd era. Floyd was still a student at Duke Ellington School of the Arts when he joined Rare Essence in 1983. He started as the band’s saxophone player, but over time, Floyd wielded a greater influence over the band, both as a rapper and co-writer of the band’s biggest hits of the ’90s: “Lock It,” “Work the Walls,” and “Overnight Scenario,” all of which have a harder, more hip-hop influenced sound.
Floyd left in 2001 over a dispute about publishing rights, and now he leads Team Familiar, which includes a number of other Rare Essence alums, including popular conga player “Go-Go” Mickey Freeman.
Go-Go Mickey participates in the occasional Rare Essence “reunion” shows—featuring bandmembers who have left the group—but Floyd doesn’t. Still, Floyd appreciates his tenure with the band. “Rare Essence is a great fraternity,” he says. “And at the end of the day, no matter what our differences are, I am proud to have been part of that fraternity.”
Whiteboy, who officially took over the band’s management in the late ’90s, has continually replaced departing band members with new blood. The band’s fourth and current phase includes Samuel “Smoke” Dews, the prodigiously gifted conga player and winner of the 2013 “King of Congas” local competition (Go-Go Mickey was one of the judges). Whiteboy also recruited Calvin Henry, better known as rapper “Killa Cal,” in 2012.
On the new album’s first single and title track, Killa Cal and Shorty Corleone are joined by longtime D.C. favorite DJ Kool for an energetic party anthem that is sure to be pumping out of car windows this summer. The rest of the album is by no means filler and includes collaborations with Raheem DeVaughn and Black Alley’s Kacey Williams. (For those who still buy CDs, this one’s brilliant cover was designed by D.C.’s reigning muralist, Aniekan Udofia.)
If anyone associated with Rare Essence represents go-go’s tenacity, it would be James Funk. During the late ’80s, he overcame a crack addiction. And when he emerged clean from Montgomery General Hospital’s First Things First program, hundreds of fans celebrated his return at a welcome home party at the Ibex Club. His openness about his struggle spoke volumes over the “Just Say No” sloganeering of the time. Since then, he’s remained a true local hero, a role model deeply loved and respected by fans and colleagues alike.
During his occasional hiatuses from the band, Funk formed a side band, Proper Utensils. But his allegiance was—and will always be—with Rare Essence.
“I remember Funk saying that as long as he lives, he would never see Rare Essence go down,” Hammond says. “Every time the band has started to take a dip in ratings and popularity, Funk has stepped in? Funk is their savior.”
In one of several go-go documentaries filmed during the ’80s, Funk talked about his connection with Rare Essence fans. “I try to picture myself in the audience,” he said. “I can concentrate on the crowd, from front to back, side to side. They need role models. Some of them be fatherless or motherless; they don’t have that image. And it kind of does something to them mentally. Maybe not mentally, but they have low self-esteem.”
Off stage, Funk seems lethargic, reticent, and a bit of a mumbler. But when he’s onstage, his transformation is complete: He’s friendly, engaging, and somehow manages to make playing air guitar look pretty cool.
“Every rapper has some kind of metronome—their hand or leg doing something to keep them in rhythm,” Hammond says. “Funk looks like he actually has a pick in his hand, and he’s picking strings, with the other hand holding strings on a fret. He’s listening intently. If his eyes closed and his head is down, he’s listening to every single instrument on that stage.”
These days, Funk still works as a DJ, both at clubs and on Saturday mornings on D.C.’s “Jazz and Justice” station WPFW. He performs at about half of Rare Essence’s shows, and when he does, the band plays more of an old-school set. “When he’s not on there, we just keep pounding start to finish,” says Whiteboy. “So it’s more uptempo, and we’re playing to a younger demographic.”
Juggling the young- and old-school fans is part of what keeps Rare Essence going strong. “We have a loyal fan base,” says Whiteboy. “They love Rare Essence. They love go-go music, and they’re introducing their children to the music.”
In the years since Brown died, the Washington Post and other publications have mulled the possibility of go-go’s imminent demise. If you haven’t been around go-go since way back, you might not recognize the genre’s unofficial blueprint for survival, which goes something like this: The harder things get, go-go will move that much deeper underground.
“Go-go has always been about ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ and that’s how it’s been for Rare Essence, too,” Hammond says. “Go-go is intertwined with D.C. culture, and it goes deeper than just the music. Community connection has a lot to do with it.”
These days, finding venues can be challenging for go-go acts, including Rare Essence. But plenty of go-go bands continue to perform regularly: Backyard Band, Junkyard Band, Team Familiar, Experience Unlimited, and Be’la Dona, among others.
“All the go-go bands want to continue what they started. It’s not only their livelihood, it’s their culture, and it’s their form of expression and way of life,” says Goldfogle. “It’s important for Whiteboy to continue Rare Essence and continue to have that conversation with D.C., which is what go-go in D.C. is—a conversation between the band and the audience.”
And maybe a little more than that. Growing up in the District, Killa Cal says that the city had the NFL team, “we had Marion Barry, and we had Rare Essence.”
“Some people may not see it on that level, but that’s a part of our culture, and it is on that level. Rare Essence has love and the admiration of the fans, the people and the city. Rare Essence is D.C. Period.”