There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
If there’s one thing Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson has learned in his line of work, it’s that his fans always want fresh material. “I can’t go to the grocery store without someone asking, ‘When are you gonna put out another tape?’” says the guitarist and founding member of Rare Essence, a stalwart band on the local go-go scene for nearly 25 years.
About a decade ago, Johnson handled a lot fewer of these ad-hoc requests. Back then, the band put out new recordings monthly or even weekly. The releases were mainly live recordings off the band’s power audio board—aka “PA tapes” or “PAs.” The recordings, which are now predominantly CDs but retain their low-tech name, used to hit the streets mere days after a go-go show, sustaining fans between performances. They were available everywhere: at shows, from mom-and-pop retailers, and from street vendors.
But like cassette tapes themselves, PA tapes are on the outs, a dwindling reminder of simpler times in the local music biz. Because it has become so easy to copy CDs, bootlegging of live go-go recordings has run rampant—and become profitable. Bands are now hip to the profit potential of their music after seeing their PAs sitting in the bins of major record chains.
Accordingly, go-go acts have clamped down on the release of their PAs, an attempt at both quality control and fiscal containment. “There are fewer being released, I know, by Rare Essence in particular—and everybody else as well,” says Johnson, who estimates that Essence now releases only two to three PAs per year. “We’re not doing the weekly releases, monthly releases anymore.”
PA tapes were once so commonplace that their sale spawned a successful business, P.A. Palace. Although it’s the region’s largest retailer of go-go music, P.A. Palace’s selection of new go-go looks svelte these days, and revenue now comes from a greater assortment of products. The chain, which currently has two locations, sells everything from Nextel ring tones to magazines to Madden NFL 06. At the kiosk in the Centre at Forestville, older go-go CDs still have a decent presence under the glass case, but newer releases fight for space with hiphop mix tapes and the dragging, drunken tempos of the Southern rap innovation that is screwed and chopped music.
“What happened is, stuff like screwed music came in,” says Kevin “Kato” Hammond, editor of the Web magazine Take Me Out to the Go-Go. “So somebody goes to P.A. Palace, asks if there’s any [new go-go], and they say, ‘No, but check this out.’”
Maurice “Moe” Shorter, the former manager of Junk Yard Band, who still distributes the group’s music, agrees that the disappearance of PA tapes and the proliferation of hiphop music in the region are intertwined. “It goes along with the demise of go-go in general,” he says. “It doesn’t mean it will be extinct, but it has fallen off as people have more options in entertainment and hiphop has become more prominent in this area.”
The tug of war over the release of PA tapes in the go-go community isn’t new: Vendors have always wanted to be able to get the music in the hands of their customers as quickly as possible, bands have always wanted the selling of their recordings more strictly regulated to ensure that they see a profit, and fans, of course, have always just wanted their fix.
At one time, bootlegging was a necessary evil in go-go—the music was pirated without bands’ ever seeing much of a profit, but it was viewed as an effective way to get the music out to the people. But Shorter says that, in the mid-’90s, the first time that entire music stores could thrive on the sale of PA tapes, bands began to see their material as a potential source of income rather than just a promotional tool.
“I think the breaking point was the upstart of the P.A. Palace–type store,” says Shorter. “Another breaking point came quietly, when the commercial retail outlets—the Wiz, Kemp Mill—got into the game,” he says.
Carlton Tucker, owner of Mad T Music Box, a record store on 14th Street NW, says the decline of PA tapes stems from D.C.’s go-go-based provinciality. “We’ve never really been able to do it like they do in New York with the [hiphop] mix tapes,” Tucker says. “Rappers and DJs in New York put out mix tapes, put it out at a good price, it doesn’t get booted as much, and the artists and DJs make money.”
In hiphop, a strong mix-tape showing can be rewarded with a major-label deal—any profits that might have slipped away due to bootlegging are recouped tenfold. But in go-go, even small-scale booting is a sting. Historically, the chances that someone would hear a PA tape and sign a band to a big deal were infinitesimal—another verse in the age-old lament about go-go’s inability to break into the mainstream.
“It all goes back to ‘Why hasn’t go-go gone national?’” says Michael Thompson, of Lissen. “They can come take tracks, artists, and musicians from the city, but no one wants to share the love.”
The drop in the supply of PA tapes has created a demand for them among go-go fans. Tucker, who stocks classic go-go recordings dating as far back as 1986, is constantly bombarded with customer requests for new releases, and more often than not, he has to turn people away. “It got to the point, through the summer, I was getting 15 to 20 requests a day for a new Backyard,” he says.
“Right now, there’s a new Backyard, Lissen, and JunkYard out—all the groups have new stuff out. When new ones come out, they sell very well.”
And when Essence tells fans that a show may become a rare PA release, it’s overwhelmed with requests from those who want to hear shoutouts to themselves on CD. “We get a large influx of people that want to hear their name on the tape—and we do try to play music in between the names,” says Johnson.
Nowadays, when Essence does decide to put a PA tape out, it takes the recording back to the studio for polishing. “We’ve been doing this for a while now, mainly because we want to try to improve the quality of the tapes being put out,” says Johnson.
High fidelity is a tough value to take issue with, but Hammond says that adding a coat of shellac can rob PAs of their character—of the gritty edge that has always defined the music.
“One of the most popular Essence tapes to date is the 1982 Highland tape,” he says. “It was a show where they lost their power and they had to push the percussion for the longest time [while they got] the power back on, and you just hear the percussion goin’ hard. That might not be one of the top PA tapes today if they had taken the errors out.”
But Johnson says that many non-Washingtonians are turned off by the inherently unpolished sound of PA recordings. “When you get outside of [the area], a lot of people don’t really like the sound of go-go,” he says. “They attribute a lot of that sound to PA tapes. If the sound man had a good night, you’ve got a good tape—who wants to gamble like that? That’s why we take it back and fine-tune it in the studio.”
Professionalism has overtaken Essence’s distribution strategy, as well. In the old days, a retailer might plunk down several hundred dollars for the “master” copy of an Essence performance and then duplicate it as needed.
But for nearly a decade, Johnson & Co. have released their PAs and studio recordings through Laurel, Md.–based Liaison Distribution, where every disc gets a bar code and is SoundScan-traceable.
“It avoids bootlegging, reaches a larger audience, and we try and make sure the product is legitimized,” says Becky Marcus, the president of Liaison. “It’s counted toward SoundScan, we obtain licenses on the copyright side, that sort of thing.”
Johnson acknowledges that bootlegging is a huge reason behind Rare Essence’s decision to cut back on its release schedule. The band, which is releasing a recording of its Oct. 25 show at the Tradewinds this month, is resigned to the fact that its releases will be bootlegged, but putting out fewer CDs gives others fewer opportunities to make money from their recordings. “It’s hard going into this knowing that when you put a tape out on Tuesday, by Tuesday night, bootleggers have it, and they’re selling it $5 to $10 cheaper than the store,” he says. “But we release it anyway.”
Kwame Stoute, who runs the Mack Attack record store in Suitland, insists that the PA drought didn’t have to happen. In the mid-’90s, he says, several bands, retailers, and distributors had a meeting to see if they could reach a compromise that would provide all of them with an income and the public with a decent supply of PAs. “We had a deal on the table as far as becoming united and directly making a deal where we get tapes on a consistent basis,” Stoute says. “Everybody says things when we’re just talking, but when it comes time to execute it, you don’t even have half the people down with it.”
Thompson says that Lissen has all but stopped supplying local retailers with recordings of its performances. The band is currently selling a PA tape of a recent show at the Icon to promote its soon-to-be-released studio album Based on a True Story. The tape is supposed to be available for sale only at Lissen concerts, but it can be found through some local retailers, according to Thompson. “It’s hard to police where the recording goes. Even if you trust the sound man, other people get copies they’re not supposed to get, ” he says.
“I have no idea whether it’s a regular guy on the street or PA Palace, where they obtain copies of the shows,” Thompson continues. “But if there were some type of system, a strong business structure…If bands could profit from the music we perform, we would be more willing to release our recordings. We aren’t little kids in junior high—we’re guys working for a living and using the bands to further our careers as musicians.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Dean Haspiel.