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His illness was rumored for weeks, but the May 16 news still came as a shock: The Godfather of Go-Go was dead. Immediately, D.C. was overwhelmed by grief, disbelief, and reflection. The founder of the District’s homegrown sound had died of multiple organ failure due to sepsis. The city, though, wasn’t quite ready to send him home. The same night Brown died, scores of fans descended on the Howard Theatre to dance and celebrate his legacy. What better way to commemorate his life?
The native Washingtonian learned how to play guitar in prison; in the 1970s, Chuck devised go-go’s syncopated, nonstop beat as a way to keep the party going well into the night. The idea, he said, is that the music just “goes and goes.” Yet he couldn’t have predicted the impact go-go would have locally and nationally. It became D.C.’s signature sound, appreciated well outside the city. Acts like Jill Scott and The Roots flirted with go-go’s percussive clatter, and St. Louis rapper Nelly sampled Chuck’s smash “Bustin’ Loose” for his 2002 chart-topper, “Hot in Herre.” (Eventually he even coughed up some royalty payments for it.) “If you’re in the DMV area, and you’re doing a show with Chuck Brown, he is the headliner,” Foreign Exchange frontman Phonte Coleman said after Brown died. Reflected hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa: “He was that god that started go-go music, which brought Rare Essence, E.U.”
Those groups and others built a local microeconomy thanks to Brown’s creation. Brown himself filmed ad spots with the D.C. Lottery and the Washington Post. And even as hip-hop became popular here, Brown remained the city’s biggest star. The affable icon always posed for pictures with his fans, stopping for smiles and hugs long after one of his marathon sets at the Ebony Inn or Kilimanjaro had ended. We felt he belonged to us, no matter how popular he and his music became (and especially after go-go failed to become a national concern). Even if D.C. becomes known for its hip-hop exports, it’ll always be a go-go town. Those click-clacking congas. That stampeding percussion. Through it all, Chuck remains the headliner.