There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In the spring of 1987, D.C. go-go band Experience Unlimited traveled to New York to record “Da Butt,” a song commissioned by director Spike Lee for the film School Daze. At the time, the members of the group weren’t convinced the song would yield anything more than a paycheck and a trip to New York.
The track and the film were released the following year. In April 1988, 24 years ago this month, “Da Butt” reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. Back in those comparatively innocent days—before songs about “booty”, “rump,” and, eventually, “ass” became the norm—the anatomical title rendered the song somewhat risque. When “Da Butt” first exploded, Billboard called it an “unexpected” success story.
And it continues to fit that description now. At the time, the track was one of the very first go-go tunes to get airplay beyond D.C. In the near quarter century since the voice of EU vocalist Sugar Bear blasted out of speakers in Cleveland and Los Angeles and D.C. itself, no other go-go track has even come close to the late Reagan-era ubiquity of“Da Butt.”
So what was it about that tune? As it happens, “Da Butt” wasn’t created in the way go-go is typically created, wasn’t entirely written by go-go musicians, and wasn’t even recorded in the District. To some critics, all of this means go-go’s greatest hit wasn’t actually go-go at all. Those academic arguments, though, are a bit late: The song has moved from movie screen and radio to clubs, parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, talent shows, and sporting events. And yeah, they still play it in the go-go, too.
Everyone from disgraced local politicians to Republican presidential daughters have fallen under the spell of “Da Butt” at one time or another: Felonious D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. danced to it at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver; Bush family wild child Jenna Bush reportedly shook her booty to it at a bachelorette party a few years earlier.
Inevitably, even the go-go purists who questioned its pedigree have reluctantly come to embrace it. Here’s the story of how it happened:
BEFORE DA BUTT
Ju Ju House, drummer, EU: Me and a guy named Kent Wood, who passed away, were doing music in New York, working with Grace Jones, Chaka Khan, some other groups, and we met Spike. Spike knew about go-go, but didn’t know that much—he’d heard of it. Spike came out to the 9:30 Club, matter of fact, and checked the group out.
Charles C. Stephenson Jr., co-author of The Beat! Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C., former manager of EU: [In 1986], There was a party for Spike Lee at the 9:30 club—the old 9:30 club on F Street. And they wanted EU to be the entertainment for the party… Spike Lee was, like, enthralled, like, “Whoa.” And I guess the wheels in his mind started to move and he made the decision that night—this band has to be in my next movie.
Kevin “Kato” Hammond, go-go musician, founder of Take Me Out to the Go-Go Magazine and TMOTTGOGO.com: EU was already making noise anyway, at this point. A couple of members, including Ju Ju, made Grace Jones’ “Slave to the Rhythm” hot. They were on Kurtis Blow’s “Party Time.” They were already known. The Spike Lee thing, he was just the person able to put them forth.
Johnny Mercer, entertainment attorney, former lawyer for EU: Charles [Stephenson], [go-go impresario] Maxx [Kidd] and I, together with Sugar Bear from EU, we got together and put together these little innovations to get their music going. They had a song that was really popular in D.C., the “EU Freeze.” That had gotten to Philly, had gotten to New York. And people were really listening to D.C. music, even though it was underground. One of those people was Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records [and producer of the reggae film The Harder They Come]. At that time, Island Records was big into doing the reggae thing. Chris has gotten them to where they were and he felt go-go would be the next big thing.
DA BUTT: BACKSTORY
Mercer: Chris came to D.C., and he wanted to listen to all the go-go groups. He wanted to put a film together, and that film became the  go-go film Good to Go. It was one of worst films ever made—a horrible film. But what it did do was get a little more about go-go out there. Chuck [Brown] was in the film, and EU was in the film.
EU was the group that Chris really liked, but when they’d play, they’d change what they did the last time they played the song. They improvised. So what happened was, Chris took them out.
Natalie Hopkinson, author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City: What was the terrible go-go movie? Good to Go. Which is called Short Fuse now. Good to Go was supposed to break go-go open. These British people came in to do it, and it misfired—they were looking at it through their own racist, colonial frame, and it didn’t work. But, at the same time, I think Spike Lee was signed to Island Films, and was supposed to do School Daze under Island Films, right around the time that Good to Go flopped.
…It was around ’86 when Chris Blackwell invited Spike Lee to see some go-go shows, and Spike really got into it, and decided he wanted go-go in his next film. He was dropped by Island Films—they didn’t believe Spike could pull off a musical the way he wanted to do it. Columbia Films picked up the project and [Lee] still stuck with go-go. It’s ironic [the Island] project failed so miserably, and then [Lee] took a little piece of it and it worked the way it did. Chris Blackwell, indirectly, led to this happening.
Mercer: [After Good to Go], I was upset with Chris Blackwell, not just because Good to Go was a bad movie, but because he wasn’t promoting it. Chris has worked with Spike Lee around She’s Gotta Have It. I didn’t know anything about Spike Lee and I couldn’t care less. I was concerned about our film. [Blackwell] came to D.C. talking about Spike Lee and I said, “I don’t give a damn about Spike Lee. I’m talking about something much more important—go-go.” So, not long after, I’m in D.C. and at my law office and, well, guess who called me on the phone? Spike Lee.
You know, Spike kind of stutters, he said, “I, I, I, I’m doing this movie School Daze and I got this song I want EU to do, called “Doing da Butt.” I thought, “This guy must be on crack. Nobody will play this record. He’s out of his mind. He’s on crack.”
A couple weeks later, I get the song and I listened to it. To me, it was an average song. It didn’t have any of the [go-go] rhythm in it. It was done by jazz musician Marcus Miller and Mark Stevens, Chaka Khan’s brother. I took it to [an EU] rehearsal and they listened and they laughed. They said, “Maaaan, what is this? This ain’t no go-go!” And I said, “That’s why they got you guys.”
DA BUTT IS BORN
Mercer: We went to New York to do the song and we took three guys in the group: They wanted Sugar Bear to do the vocals, Ju Ju to do the drums, and Kent [Wood] was a magnificent keyboard player.
The first thing that Marcus Miller wanted Ju Ju to do was get on the drums and do the rhythm for the song. Spike was in there, too, and Ju Ju did what he always did in the go-go. He came up, took his shirt off. They gave him the signal to do his thing and he went into the rhythm. He’s a strong guy, must’ve played straight on for 20 minutes or more—he was sweating, but he was doing his thing. Marcus said, “Just let him go.”
House: Originally “Da Butt” was gonna be done by Cameo. The song did not go like what you hear now. We made a lot of changes—which we never got credit for. When I got my hands on it, there’s a trademark I do when I play drums—it’s on “Slave to the Rhythm” and it’s on “Da Butt.” It’s this little snare thing. Marcus loved that.
Mercer: Spike wanted to make sure that he mentioned as many places as possible in the song—in the rhythm break of the song. Chicago, New York all of that. If it was Chicago he wanted to say ‘Windy City!” If it was Detroit, he wanted “Motor City!”
We were like, “Spike, man, come on—we can’t do that.” So, I said, “Bear, why don’t you do that thing you do all the time in the go-go: “Talkin’ ’bout the girl with the big ol’ butt/Susie got a big ol’ butt/Oh yeah!” Spike went with us on that.
That night, Spike was saying, “This is a number-one song! This is hot!” I was like, man, he must be drinking something.
DA BUTT EXPLODES
Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliot, bass and lead vocals, EU: Donnie Simpson played it on the radio. I was at work and, in the course of six hours, I heard it about 10 times. That’s when I knew. Everybody was calling me—they were more excited than I was. I didn’t know it was EU until they said it.
Hammond: To my knowledge, it’s the biggest go-go song next to [Chuck Brown’s] “Bustin’ Loose,” which actually wasn’t considered go-go, only because it wasn’t called go-go yet. From those two songs, go-go probably got more nationally known than from any others—those both hit Soul Train, you know what I’m saying?
Elliot: When the video came out, it went to a whole other level. We had never had a video before—period.
Mercer: April 23, 1988, the song was number one on the Billboard R&B singles chart. We got all these calls from promoters, agents. Everyone was calling—it was really intense. So, when the song became number one, if you’ve seen any of the Billboard writing about it, one of things said was that it came from nowhere. [Reading] “The most unexpected, totally left field success of 1988 so far is EU’s ‘Da Butt.’”
We were an independent group and when the record companies really started to come, we were in a tremendous bargaining position. We looked at things very clearly, to see what would be best for us. We talked to just about every record company. The group decided to go with Virgin Records.
Virgin had to sign every guy in the group to the agreement—all 10 guys in the group got paid. We even had a situation where the guys who weren’t recording, they got paid some money even when they were in D.C. and were not recording.
Hammond: The song catapulted them and they were gone for a while, and they had to fit into a commercial live setting. During the time they were gone they signed to, I think, Virgin Records and went into a more commercialized thing. They came out later with “Taste of Your Love,” “Buck Wild” and all that. That was when The Box was hot, so we were still seeing them—they stayed in videos.
But just because one band leaves and evolves and does what they’re destined to do, that doesn’t stop time in D.C.
IS DA BUTT GO-GO?
Hopkinson: The first time I heard go-go was when I came to Howard [University], and someone brought it up in class. “Go-go, what is that?” And someone said “You know, like ‘Da Butt’—that’s go-go.” And someone from D.C. was like, “That is not go-go.” It has sort of been contested over the years whether it’s true go-go, and definitely, in my last round of research, it makes sense as to why.
…Spike Lee always wanted to start a dance craze, and when he was doing School Daze, he decided he wanted to do this. Marcus Miller wrote the music…it’s sort of like mimicking go-go, but it’s not a true, organic go-go thing. It’s seen through [Spike’s] middle-class Brooklyn lens. Spike Lee has even talked about how the “oh wee oh wee oh” came from The Wizard of Oz—it had nothing to do with D.C.
But because of that little bit of distance, it was translatable to more people. The thing about go-go is, it’s hard to understand unless you’re physically standing there. Everyone had tried to translate the energy, the rawness, the incredible experience, but it’s impossible to do that. What [Lee and Miller] did has the vitality and energy—a lot of the good qualities go-go has, but it’s different. But it’s close.
Hammond: It had to be commercial. You can’t yell, “We gonna do it for such and such on such road,” and appeal to a national audience. But you can say, “Tonya got a big old butt, Alicia got a big old butt…”
Nico the GoGo-Ologist, co-owner of GoGoradio.com: I thought it was a great look for go-go. At that time, there was nothing out that was substantial that gave go-go a face, and that song did. Other than “Bustin’ Loose” and “Drop the Bomb,” and maybe a little bit of “Pump Me Up,” and a couple of the rap collaborations with Doug E. Fresh and Kurtis Blow. It was really the only song that had legs on its own, without a national musical act pushing it.
Hammond: For anyone to discredit it, they just don’t know. I understand it, because I was watching it as it was happening. The song is very, very important, and you can’t talk about the history of go-go without it.
Nico: Some people in the go-go community don’t feel like it’s a true go-go track, which is BS. The nature of the industry is everybody hates on each other.
Musically, a lot of people in the go-go industry have issues with it. They say it’s cartoonish, it isn’t talking about anything. But it’s a fun song, and it’s a major part of the industry. It kept us afloat. It keeps us afloat. It’s a substantial part of go-go history, no matter what anybody thinks.
Stephenson: I think that “Da Butt” is probably the biggest-selling go-go tune in history. And when EU started recording it and started touring, they literally went around the country and then came back to Washington and their spark in terms of popularity as a local band had changed. They were experiencing national acclaim and all that, but the fact that they had to leave to tour, it made them lose their spark in terms of popularity locally.
Hammond: The style in go-go changed while they were gone. The way they had to be commercialized, and appeal to the national cultural and style, it could be considered bammafied. And back then, being called a bamma was the worst.
I remember when they came back to play “Go Go Live 2,” at the Capital Centre. I was playing with Lil’ Benny and the Masters. The style had changed in go-go, you had emerging rappers, such as Fat Rodney and Stinky Dink. The whole Rare Essence “Lock It” thing was the new thing. So, you had a show at the Cap Centre and we wore all-white custom Polo sweatsuits. Rare Essence, I think they had on white outfits, too.
EU came on. They had on blazers and slacks. They came directly from the tour, and they came in putting on a show as if they were putting it on in New Orleans. There is nothing wrong with that, but this was a go-go show.
It was the same people, but it wasn’t the EU people remember from the first Go Go Live, when they had on sweatsuits—probably from [the] Madness [Connection]. That was the Madness and Mickey Mouse wear era. [Ed. note: The band wore sweatsuits commemorating the 1988 Olympics.]
When they came out, and [EU singer] Junie came out singing “Taste of Your Love,” it was like seeing the Whispers. Not knocking it, but they weren’t hitting “Shake It Like a White Girl,” or “Go Ju Ju Go,” or any of the stuff everybody knew.
Elliot: There are haters everywhere. Just like people say Chuck Brown is not the Godfather, and he is. I can stamp that. People always have negative stuff to say about anything. They criticize Obama, they criticized Jesus Christ himself. You can’t get mad about it. I’m like this, people are entitled to their own opinions, but there are way more millions of fans that love the record than don’t.
Hammond: But it was never personal with the band. Everybody still loved them. Everybody always loved Sugar Bear—he’s a lovable person. He’s like a teddy bear, he has the perfect name. Sugar Bear could still walk into a McDonald’s and everybody says “That’s Sugar Bear! That’s Sugar Bear!”
House: I was glad we stepped outside. Coming home don’t mean anything if you’re going to be doing the same thing. Being able to tour around the world, from Arsenio Hall to Soul Train, I mean, hey—that’s what you work so hard for, sweat for. When you’re rehearsing, writing, being creative, the goal is to be able to hand it to the world. It’s not about just keeping it in D.C. Not with me, anyway.
D.C.’s EVENTUAL EMBRACE OF DA BUTT
Mercer: We stayed with Virgin Records for, maybe, three years. What really got us out was: 1)The guys wanted to do the music the way they wanted to do it and we just didn’t get to do the authentic go-go music we wanted to do. And 2) Virgin signed Janet Jackson, but had to get rid of four, five other acts to do it. And we were one of them. If you get kicked out because of Janet Jackson, you can’t whine about it—that was the best deal Virgin ever made.
Hopkinson: EU had this hit, this national thing, they’re traveling nationally, and people felt like they betrayed the local community, that they didn’t stay true, that they presented this watered down version of go-go. Then they came home, and people came back around, but not for years. How they eventually came back was through Maiesha & the Hip Huggers.
Hammond: From my point of view, EU was able to capitalize on it again through Maiesha & the Hip Huggers. Them, and maybe one or two other groups, formed the “grown and sexy” movement. When Maisesha started playing, I was married with kids. We’d go out and now we’re wearing blazers.
Mercer: EU always would’ve been satisfied with being one of the top groups in D.C. Their view was never so much to be a national group, it was to be best group in D.C.
Hammond: Maiseha was doing the ’70s thing, which my generation loves. Members from EU were doing it, and then everybody’s saying, “Wait a minute, these cats still sound good!” Maybe they were just at the mature stage before we got there. But that’s how they were able to recapture it. And they’re still doing it. They have their market. I have people telling me, “Sugar Bear and them crankin’.” Now they can play “Da Butt,” and it’s one of our songs again, a song everybody from grandparents to kids loves.
DA BUSINESS OF DA BUTT
Nico: A lot of people don’t realize that Marcus Miller owns that track. Bear continues to get paid to perform it, but it’s not his track.
Mercier: It’s insane to think that “Da Butt” didn’t sell a million records. Here’s what happened: “Da Butt” was part of the School Daze recording—at that time Manhattan Records had the rights to do the song, but not the rights to do it as a single. So, later on, we released it as “Da Butt ’89,” and then it was out again.
House: EU had the hit, but look around—we received a payoff, but not publishing and points. I’ve worked with Marcus [since then], and we talk about it. We know that song was definitely platinum. The song did way more than what was put on paper. Twenty-five years later, it’s still selling as if it was yesterday—look at the downloads!
Nico: What’s going on in the industry now, a lot of those faults are our own. That’s why we sit here today—how many years old is gogo? My thought is, like, ’76, Chuck would take it back a little further—and we have a lot to be proud of on the music side, but we don’t have anything to be really proud of on the business side. It’s sad, it’s sad. “Da Butt” is one of those songs—in a long line of songs—that shows our business was not taken care of.
House: Remember “Da Butt” jeans? Remember the hats? They even had “Da Butt” pens. So, I mean, people were making money not only in record sales, but also the little souvenirs, the T-shirts, the hats. The main thing is to always have control. Always. If I had to speak to a class, I’d tell the class to remember that, yes, the money looks good right now, but money can look good later on.
DA BUTT ENDURES
Stephenson: All of these marching bands around the country have played “Da Butt.” My daughter just started as a freshman at Elon University. She plays basketball. And when she went on her official visit to the school, the ladies on the team took her out—they try to impress the incoming freshmen with all there is to do on campus. They went to one party and they were playing “Da Butt,” dancing.
DJ Jeremy, DJ with Davis Entertainment Group: It’s a social thing—people are having fun at a party, and the song comes on and it engages people in a way that some other songs wouldn’t be able to do. And then you have, you know [singing]: “Sheila got a big ’ol butt/Oh, yeah!”
I’ve had it requested at a casino night and at some of the more formal black tie affairs. Generally it’s something requested to raise an eyebrow, or it’s done on a dare. That song and Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’.”
Bill Davis, owner, Davis Deejays: We consistently get requests for it. It’s wedding receptions, primarily, because of the span of age groups there. Occasionally we’ll get it at, say, a bar mitzvah, but those kids are more into Hot 99.5 music. Other than weddings and events where there’s a mixed age group, there are events where people grew up when the song was big—’80s dances, high school reunions, 50th birthday parties.
…It resurfaced in the ’90s, with 20-something weddings, then in the 2000s, with 30-something weddings, and now it’s the parents of people getting married asking for it—it’s grandmothers.
Hammond: I was at, what’s that grill thing? Capital Cookoff? EU played, and some people didn’t know the band, but as soon as they hit “Da Butt,” it’s, “Oh, that’s them!” “Da Butt” catapulted Sugar Bear to perform on the NAACP awards, doing a whole tribute to Spike Lee. People always cry, “When’s go-go gonna go national?” I say, “Shut up—it’s been national.”
Mercer: EU still is working. How many artists who were on the R&B charts in 1988 are still working? You won’t hear about Billy Ocean or Full Force of Al B. Sure, but EU is still working.
Elliot: It was a lottery ticket. And the good Lord blessed us to still be playing it to this day. I just heard it during March Madness, I heard school bands playing it. It’s an acknowledgement. I was watching the game on TV—Duke and somebody—and the school band played it. I said “WHAT? I know that song, that’s my song!” It’s a feeling words can’t describe, a very good feeling.
Hopkinson: It definitely lives on. I distinctly remember covering one of the inaugurations for Anthony Williams—I think it was when he was re-elected—and hearing “Da Butt” played. Like, “Anthony Williams got a big ol’ butt/Oh, yeah!” Such a strange thing, but it was appropriate.
House: I was in Japan, doing this thing with Chuck, and we went to this club, just hanging out, and they put “Da Butt” on. The people mimicked the dance, the whole scene from the video. If I’d had a video camera, I’d be a millionaire.
Elliot: It has affected two generations, and now it’s going to a third generation. People are still partying to it, requesting it. I’m over-humbled by it. It’s mind-blowing. Especially because we come from D.C.