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At the beginning of The Pocket, a sprawling new documentary about the District’s go-go scene, shots of tourists taking in Washington’s sights are contrasted with an interview with Tre, the young singer of the Uncalled 4 Band. He’s driving through Anacostia, nary a tour bus in sight. “D.C. ain’t everything,” he says, observing that go-go’s cultural reach barely extends past the city limits.
Nicholas Shumaker and Michael Cahill, who together wrote, co-directed, and edited The Pocket, share his frustration. Shumaker had only a vague sense of go-go as a punk-rock fan growing up in Detroit. “I always thought it was like some relic of hiphop past, like antiquated gangsta rap,” he says.
His interest grew after he moved to D.C. to attend Georgetown University and a friend lent him some Backyard Band records. Last December, he successfully pitched a story about go-go to a skateboarding magazine. His friend Cahill, a cameraman for the National Geographic Channel, asked to come along to tape an interview with the Uncalled 4 Band. But Shumaker says he “never pursued the article after that”—he and Cahill decided the story of go-go would be better served by a documentary.
The pair soon found themselves at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland filming a panel discussion on go-go featuring, among others, Chuck Brown, whose 1978 hit “Busting Loose” is widely credited with inventing the syncopated, conga-based beat that’s the basis of most go-go. There they met Thomas Sayers Ellis, Case Western University English professor, D.C. native, and go-go fan. Through some of Ellis’ contacts, the two garnered access to WKYS’s Go-Go Rudy, the Backyard Band, and Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott of Experience Unlimited, whose 1988 single “Da Butt,” featured on Spike Lee’s School Daze soundtrack, marked the genre’s last real moment in the national spotlight. (Shumaker describes the narrowly released 1986 Art Garfunkel film Good to Go as “so bad it’s not even funny.”)
Harder to come by was an interview with Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, whom Shumaker describes as a go-go fanatic and “one of the busiest guys I’ve ever met.” “He’s got old posters, PA tapes from the ’80s—the guy knows his go-go,” Shumaker says. “That’s when it really struck me that, despite the racial homogeneity of the scene, go-go has affected pretty much every musician who’s lived in D.C.”
Yet in none of The Pocket’s concert scenes does a white face appear in the crowd. (Why go-go isn’t consumed more by white kids, who make up a significant portion of hiphop’s audience, is a question the film lets pass.) Shumaker says he and Cahill “concluded that the best way to talk about race was to do it silently. I think the central theme of, say, Washington Post articles about go-go is that white kids go to a show and say ‘I’m now a minority,’ and we didn’t want the film to be about us at all.”
Still, he thinks that the boundaries between the city’s white and black music scenes are blurring, noting that Q and Not U and the Uncalled 4 Band, both scheduled to play at The Pocket’s Aug. 31 premiere at the Lincoln Theatre, are planning to perform a set together that night. “It’s not like we don’t have these long-standing racial walls,” he says, “but you can at least put a little dent in it once in a while.” —Andrew Beaujon
For more information, visit www.thedcpocket.com or call the Lincoln Theatre at (202) 328-6000.