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For a long time, a significant part of the go-go narrative has been its struggles: against a city that would police it into the suburbs, against an often indifferent mainstream. D.C. hip-hop has also helped define itself by a struggle: against go-go.
You hear from local hip-hop veterans all the time that D.C. is a go-go town, a fact that area rappers have discovered to their dismay. In large part, rapping was once confined to talking parts on go-go records; a full-time rap career was an uphill climb. “A lot of dudes were trying to do rap,” Black Indian, one of the few local rappers to get some national exposure in the 1990s, once told me. “If you were rapping, [folks] were like ‘What, you think you from New York?’”
In the late 1970s and ’80s, go-go developed parallel to and independent of hip-hop. But you only had to look to the memorials last week on Twitter to know that, absent a foundational D.C. hip-hop figure, Chuck Brown is the patriarch of local rap. “I can’t think of anyone else able to inspire our city like that,” rapper Tabi Bonney told me. “I just hope I can reach his level when it’s all said and done, and be just as busy as he was at 75 years old.”
The relationship between go-go and hip-hop has been complicated: MCs fusing hip-hop and go-go have had a hard time selling records. But ignore go-go, and you’re ignoring your roots.
Some of go-go’s national blips speak to its role as a source of hip-hop inspiration. Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shake Your Thang” had a go-go swing courtesy of E.U. “Ashley’s Roachclip,” a song from Brown’s pre-go-go days, has been sampled by everyone from 2 Live Crew and Eazy-E to Duran Duran and Milli Vanilli. The drum break to Brown’s biggest hit, “Bustin’ Loose,” was used by Nelly, Public Enemy, and Eric B. & Rakim. (Go-go bands, in turn, have long covered commercial hip-hop in their live acts.)
One slightly pat line of argument goes like this: Because the outside conceived of D.C. as a go-go town—in part thanks to the early success Brown ignited—rap from D.C. could never export. That’s too basic: The industry wasn’t paying attention, but MCs like Kokayi and Asheru and a handful of microscenes were making ripples. By the 1990s, the two genres still seemed separate: Go-go’s click-clacking swing was a far cry from the boom-bap that dominated the small U Street NW hip-hop scene.
The two sounds have certainly crosspollinated as local hip-hop has experienced a minor renaissance in the last few years. Live, Wale is often backed by the go-go outfit UCB. And his single “Pretty Girls”—featuring a sample from Backyard Band and a hook by its singer, Weensy—was the best moment on the rapper’s 2009 debut, Attention Deficit, although it peaked at 56 on Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop chart. It’s no surprise that much of the debate around Wale’s once-sputtering career centered on his fealty to his city and its sound.
But look around: Bonney, the city’s most visible backpacker, often incorporates go-go’s smoother side into his music. On its recent single “I Love Lamp,” Virginia band RDGLDGRN fused go-go’s percussion with hip-hop and Caribbean-inflected rock. Crooner Raheem DeVaughn released a bounce-beat remix of his single “Bulletproof”; he said last week he might record another go-go tune at some point. These are just a few examples.
D.C. may always be a go-go town. But as D.C. hip-hop artists have become a more confident force, their experiments with go-go are sounding more confident in turn. Chuck would dig that.