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As a bookend of sorts to Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’ take on D.C.’s massive contribution to punk rock, Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital, Kip Lornell and Charles C. Stephenson Jr.’s The Beat: Go Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip Hop couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
As important as this city’s influence on punk has been, go-go is strictly a D.C. phenomenon, woven inextricably into the District’s culture and politics. As Lornell (a Smithsonian Institution researcher and George Washington University professor) and Stephenson (longtime go-go activist and former manager of breakout band Experience Unlimited) remind the reader, go-go was the beat of the Barry era, the heavily syncopated soundtrack to D.C.’s years of crack and violence. Though the authors take pains to separate the music (and the musicians) from the violence and mayhem that often accompanied shows of that era, it’s a testament to go-go’s power that much of The Beat takes on a sociological, rather than strictly musicological, bent.
“The book reflects my own academic interests and background,” says Lornell. “I don’t think that you can understand go-go without looking at the politics, the economics, and the crews.”
The authors of The Beat also underscore another go-go essential: The music was a black thing, the sound of Chocolate City. “Go-go, you can see,” write the authors in the preface, “is so intimately connected with Washington, D.C., and its black citizens that you cannot separate the two.” Despite a few nods to supportive elements in the mainstream media (including Washington Post writer Richard Harrington and a series of articles in the Washington City Paper), The Beat is a story about the District’s black community”equal parts black life, youth culture, local politics, the mass media, hip-hop culture, urban aesthetics, entrepreneurship, and the struggles of everyday life”told through a blend of interview, anecdote, and scholarship.
The Beat’s account of go-go’s disastrous encounter with film, via the 1986 movie Good to Go, is a particularly pungent examination of the collision between the music and the larger culture surrounding it. Lornell agrees that the making of the flickand its disappointing aftermathwas a pivotal episode in the history of go-go. “A lot of people thought that go-go had a chance, like reggae, to explode,” he says. “A lot of hopes were wrapped up in it.” The film’s emphasis on violence and crime, rather than on music, represented a lost opportunity for go-go to break out of D.C.
Go-go has deserved a comprehensive history for about 10 years, and The Beat comes very close to providing one. Though much of it reads like a history verging into elegy, the book concludes with a somewhat upbeat dialogue between the authors. Lornell explains that this exchange, “Go-Go 2001,” provides readers with a chance to evaluate the differing takes that he and Stephenson have on go-go’s future.
“He’s more optimistic than I am,” Lornell says, pointing out that Stephenson’s belief that go-go needs proper promotion is quite different from his own belief that go-go’s tags as a “black thing” and a “D.C. thing” have circumscribed its wider appeal. Lornell believes, however, that the collaboration with Stephenson greatly aided the finished project.
“I could have written a good book about go-go without Charles,” Lornell concludes. “But I wrote a better, and different, book with his help.” Richard Byrne