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I was 2,800 miles away from home when I heard Chuck Brown had died. And quickly—after failing to relay the moment’s significance to some disinterested Californians—I resigned myself to processing the loss privately. (But not quietly.) It’s nearly impossible to explain Brown’s local importance to someone who’s never lived in D.C.
Lots of outsiders remember “Bustin’ Loose” as a funk hit and a source of hip-hop samples; sometimes you’ll find someone with a vague understanding of go-go as some D.C. shit. Only D.C. knows that Brown and the genre he evangelized mean much, much more.
Simply put: No living American musician is as important to his city as Brown was to D.C.
In part, that’s because nothing like go-go exists elsewhere in America. Every city has its local music scenes with their parochial variations—punk, rap—but they’re tethered to wider musical narratives that bridge regional developments. Even if New York hip-hop and Atlanta hip-hop seem dramatically different today, they exist on the same timeline. Go-go’s only timeline is go-go. It’s a heritage nestled almost exclusively within the D.C. area, and Brown sits as close as conceivable to its origin point.
The creation story has played an interesting role in the formation of Brown’s larger myth. Other markets might see their musical heroes move away and get famous, or stay in place and falter. D.C. developed the infrastructure to support stars like Brown as perpetual regional secrets. Within his turf, he was as famous, if not more famous, than any out-of-town celebrity. He wasn’t just a star, he was our star.
And he has been for nearly four decades. That’s a dominance that transcends at least three generations, making Brown the rare icon to whom grandparents could point and say, “In my day…” without losing the young ones for lack of context.
The short line on Brown’s passing has been that he created go-go. But that’s something of a misread. Genres aren’t created in a vacuum, they’re stacked on top of one another and shifted around until something different emerges. The dominant sound of today’s go-go—the bounce beat—has about as much to do with the proto-go-go of “We the People”-era Soul Searchers as “We the People”-era Soul Searchers have to do with the multitude of influences from which they cobbled their sound. Yet culturally, it’s been go-go since its inception, a meaning that cohered in Brown’s hands. Even as it changed, it stayed the same.
Brown evolved with time, too. But he took his own direction. As younger bands cranked harder, Brown cranked smoother. (Or maybe smarter.) But he never bemoaned or berated the vast evolutionary leaps his genre made with each decade. Quite the opposite. Run down go-go’s many generational iterations and odds are you’ll find a tape of Brown rocking alongside its representatives, from Rare Essence to Backyard Band to TOB, as recently as last year. This is precisely what an elder statesman should do: nurture evolution but never compromise in its wake.
That might be Brown’s most crucial contribution to the genre. He didn’t just help birth go-go. He let it thrive.