It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday and Edward Stewart’s camera crew still outnumbers the audience for Suttle Thoughts at Northeast nightclub Fur. A few people are shaking it in the front; others stand politely in the back, arms crossed.
“You gotta show us more love than this,” says the Thoughts frontman, Gene Pratt. The audience for the 13-piece go-go outfit slowly fills out during the set, chanting along and in response: “You better be street if you’re looking at me.”
Pratt doesn’t mind playing first, he says later, because he “want[s] to be the one to kick the party off.” It comes with the territory of being a musician. But being part of D.C.’s go-go scene presents its own barriers. “There’s bad press that go-go doesn’t deserve, as far as violence,” he says. “It’s bad when we’re limited in what places we can and cannot play.”
Such hurdles are just what D.C. native, North Hollywood transplant, and American Film Institute producing fellow Stewart wants to examine in what he calls “the official documentary on go-go,” 68 Sq. Miles.
“The good and the bad,” says Stewart, is what Miles will show—though he’d rather not play up the less-flattering associations that go-go’s often pegged with. “These are only positive conversations,” he says of the film, which features interviews with Chuck Brown, Ayre Rayde, Stinky Dink, and Billy the Kidd, among others. For the most part, Stewart lets the heads do the talking when it comes to defining the “go-go lifestyle,” deferring in one instance to D.C. hiphopper Cam: “Slouch socks, white T-shirts, and chicken wings with mumbo sauce.”
Stewart, 35, says the film is not just about go-go, but also about its influence on pop music. “Producers like Chucky Thompson [Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Mo] and Rich Harrison [J.Lo, Beyoncé] have been able to weave the go-go sound into pop music.”
But there’s an element of disenfranchisement that has shaped the attitude of D.C. go-go, Stewart says, hence his film’s subtitle, “The Sounds Silence of a City.” He was inspired to begin the project after a lifetime of seeing so many misconceptions flourish: The musicians aren’t trained, the genre’s all about beating on buckets, live shows mean violence. “I wanted to tell a story that was very personal to me by growing up in the District,” says Stewart. “And as a filmmaker, I want to break down these misconceptions.”
Also important, says Stewart, is that the story of D.C. go-go be told from an outsider’s perspective so that the layperson can understand. “I’m approaching the piece as if I’m coming from Ohio or Indianapolis,” he laughs.
The yet-unfinished film will divide the genre’s growth into decades, from go-go’s inception (its roots can be traced back as far as the ’60s) to Beyoncé’s Harrison-produced anthem “Crazy in Love.” “That was the moment that I said ‘Wow,’” says Stewart. “That [song is] go-go, every day of the week.”
The genre’s longevity and the entrepreneurship of the musicians impress Stewart the most. “These guys here don’t need an agent. They play three or four times a week.” He thinks DJ Iran from WKYS-FM says it best: “He said to me, ‘Could you image 50 Cent trying to do Madison Square Garden three or four times a week for 20 years?’ That’s what Rare Essence has been able to do.”