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Go-go fusionists Crossover Band and Most Valuable Players think it’s time for D.C.’s native sound to grow up.
“Hmmm…the Coltrane Caesar Salad or the Lady Day crab cake?” contemplates a diner at the Takoma Station Tavern in Northwest Washington.
“Get the Caesar salad,” suggests her dinner companion. “You can never go wrong with Coltrane.”
Open since 1984, Takoma Station is Washington’s self-proclaimed “#1 jazz club.” Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Donald Byrd, and Gil Scott-Heron have all performed here. The walls are covered with pictures of jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Billie Holiday, and the menu is filled with soups and sandwiches that memorialize them.
This Monday night, young black professionals, many still dressed in their fashionable work clothes, fill the bar. The women sip apple martinis, and the men sip…apple martinis. And cosmopolitans, and other drinks that suggest that Takoma Station’s clientele is a bit more sophisticated than the usual beer-drinking, pretzel-eating, ESPN-watching happy-hour crowd.
Half-eaten plates of Sarah Vaughan Chicken Tenders are pushed aside, however, when tonight’s headliner, Crossover Band, takes to the stage and proceeds to play a selection of jazz and R&B covers that moves a few people to sway in their seats and snap their fingers. And after a brief intermission featuring some local comedians, things get a little more lively: Crossover draws the audience into the show with call and response, and even offers instruction on how to do the Crossover Strut, a line dance choreographed by the group.
Although the restaurant’s vibe seems more smooth jazz than P.A. Palace, the groove that gets the people off their bar stools is, unmistakably, the “pocket beat,” the syncopated percussion style that gives Washington’s go-go its unique sound. And despite its upscale trappings, Crossover, for all intents and purposes, is a go-go band.
“We wanted to do something different,” says Ricky “Rock Steady” Brown, 36, the band’s leader and conga player. “We wanted to do something that no one else had done: Take real R&B singers and jazz musicians and mix it with go-go.”
Along with bands such as Most Valuable Players (MVP) and Suttle Thoughts, Crossover is at the forefront of a new go-go movement, one that presents grown-up music in an atmosphere catering to those who are in their late 20s and early 30s.
For these young adults, go-gos used to provide a place to display D.C. pride, dance, and check out members of the opposite sex. And even now, long after they have become bogged down by real-world responsibilities, many still love the hard-hitting music performed by groups such as Backyard Band and 911. But some older fans no longer want to stand on their feet for three hours sweating alongside a gaggle of 18-year-olds in a crowded nightclub.
“I just like the feel in here,” says 27-year-old Northwest resident LaTanya Wynn of Crossover’s performance at Takoma Station. “You’re still hearing the music you like, but you can actually sit down in a comfortable chair, have something to eat. And the show usually ends around 12 or 12:30—not at 2 or 3. I have to get up and go to work in the morning.”
Crossover originally came together in 1997, after Kenny Greene, the lead singer of the D.C. R&B act Intro, suggested that Brown put together a band to support his group on a national tour. After being on the road for several months, the group split up, with some members going to other local go-go bands and Brown deciding to stay on the production side of things. But three months ago, the members of Crossover began playing together again, this time trying to create a sound that draws from their experience playing both R&B and go-go. Brown says that the band has already developed a loyal following: “We’ve gotten a great response. We’re all booked up.”
“These bands supposedly attract a more mature crowd; you don’t have to worry about people getting out of hand,” says 25-year-old Maryland resident Brandy Mills. “When you come of age, you don’t fit into the younger go-go scene, but you don’t really fit into that adult R&B scene, either. Crossover, MVP—they’re a compilation of both.”
Like Crossover, MVP was first formed several years ago, in 1995. The group played traditional go-go, but as the musicians began receiving offers to play with national R&B acts such as MeShell Ndegeocello, Sisters with Voices, and Marcus Miller, they eventually went their separate ways. Last year, however, the members
decided to reunite and give MVP another shot. “We were tired of playing for other bands,” says William “NuNu” Lytle, 30, the group’s conga player. “We wanted to come back together and create our own sound.
“It’s more for people our age,” says Lytle of that sound, which sets a mix of classic soul covers and original R&B tunes to a go-go beat. “People want to relax but still have fun. We cater to more of a dress-up crowd. No boots. People see boots and get scared.”
“Not knowing how to market the music to a larger audience is what keeps [the bands] out of some of the upscale nightclubs,” says Bryant “Lou” Roberts, 32, a vocalist who has worked with both Crossover and MVP and is currently singing with jazz group Spur of the Moment. “They don’t want us in there just because of the music’s reputation.”
Indeed, go-go’s reputation as a lightning rod for youthful misbehavior has dogged the music for decades, fueled by such well-publicized incidents as the shooting during a 1987 Rare Essence show at D.C.’s Masonic Temple, which wounded 11 people, and the goings-on at an unrestrained 1994 pool party/concert at the Fairland Aquatics Center in Laurel, Md., which was likened to an “orgy” by local media. Even now, many city club owners are reluctant to book go-go acts, including those that draw an older crowd.
“I don’t get involved in that,” says Takoma Station owner David Boyd, 36, of the negative images often tied to go-go. “These are professional musicians; they can tailor their sound to the establishment they’re playing in. If the person who’s paying them wants go-go, they play go-go. If the person paying them wants jazz, they can do that, too. They don’t just play one style of music.”
Their adaptability has helped Crossover and MVP bring go-go into venues that have shunned the music in the past. “It’s good to see this type of music in more of a concert-style environment,” says Roberts. “It’s more likely that someone will come in and discover you if you’re playing in a nice venue that a talent scout or whoever actually wouldn’t mind stopping in.
“A lot of these guys have been involved in the local entertainment scene for 10 to 15 years,” he continues. “They’ve enhanced their abilities and have become more creative and more willing to experiment with different styles of music….They’re changing up their style. But still, that urban style, that pocket beat is in us all. [The music] still has that element that makes you nod your head.”
In their attempt to capture a new market for their music and satisfy their need to branch out, groups such as Crossover and MVP might also be moving closer to the elusive holy grail of go-go: nationwide attention and perhaps even a major-label deal.
For as long as go-go has been around, there has been talk of the music’s moving into the national spotlight. But the go-go band to come closest to national popularity is Experience Unlimited, which had only a fleeting 1988 Top 40 hit with “Da Butt.” Still, local acts harbor dreams of making the big time.
“The world can accept this,” says Brown. “[Go-go] is heard in other cities. They accept it because of how it’s presented to them, how it’s marketed, but it’s still go-go.”
“Even larger national acts like the sound,” agrees Roberts. “Like Puff Daddy or Jill Scott. Jill Scott likes the sound—she has a great band backing her, but they just can’t quite duplicate that sound. But it shows that there is definitely a demand for the music.”
Though mixing go-go with R&B, jazz, and soul might give the music a better chance of receiving national attention, some believe it would be a hollow victory for the art. Many of the younger, more traditional bands have a grittier sound that thrives best in front of an energetic live audience. Recorded go-go—let alone the hybrid styles played by Crossover and MVP—has long been dismissed by purists for coming across as too polished or “studio.”
“A lot of these vocalists, for example, are creative, but they may sound monotone, or they don’t understand music theory—they don’t have good clear tone, the harmonies are ugly,” says Roberts. “But because [the public] doesn’t have the ear to pick it up, the harsher sound actually becomes the sound that they begin to prefer.
“If you hear a [go-go] song on the radio, music-industry folks will say it sounds terrible,” he continues. “But in a live environment, you’re not hearing that. It’s more the feel—you get caught up in that. A lot of musicians would like to steer away from the go-go scene, but it’s hard in this town. To just concentrate on an R&B or a jazz sound—you can’t do it in this town. Even if you want to get away, you might not know how to break away and, for instance, do an R&B thing that could possibly gain national attention.”
Which means that despite their recent contributions to the go-go scene, the members of both Crossover and MVP know they still have a tough road ahead. So right now, they’re simply concentrating their efforts on creating something positive for the music they love.
“In this day and time, everything is negative,” says Brown. “The way people characterize go-go is negative; we try to be more positive and balance it out. Someone might say, ‘We won’t go see Backyard, but we’ll go see Crossover, because they play something that both young people and older people want to hear.’ That’s what we try to capture.” CP