City Paper is not for tourists
A Washington musical, of, by, and for the people
go-go (goø’ goø’) n [[short for a gogo, Fr. in plenty, ad lib., in clover a, to + gogo, abundance, jocular redupl. of gogue, joy, prob. of echoic orig.]] 1 an indigenous D.C. musical form characterized by extended groove, syncopated percussion, and call and response 2 the most famous of Chuck Brown’s children 3 a rebellious enclave that refuses to recognize the mechanized rule of anti-music 4 a place where people go to dance and hear go-go 5 America’s most slept-on contributor to pop music—a source of ill samples for rappers in need of a hit (see Salt N Pepa, Kurtis Blow, most recently, Jay-Z) 7 the official musical dialect of Chocolate City—adj. of or pertaining to go-go or a go-go
former manager of Experience Unlimited
Robert “Dyke” Reed
member of Trouble Funk
leader of Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, the first go-go band
Timothy “T-Bone” David
percussionist for Trouble Funk
Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson
lead guitarist for Rare Essence
“Little” Benny Harley
trumpeter for Rare Essence, the Legends
former member of Hot Cold Sweat
Kevin “Kato” Hammond
publisher of TMOTTGOGO magazine
former manager for Junkyard Band, JY Band
Christopher “Kip” Lornell
professor at George Washington University,
working on a history of go-go
managing editor of TMOTTGOGO magazine
photographer for TMOTTGOGO magazine
Washington has a long tradition of live music, stretching back to the days of Duke Ellington. That healthy live-music legacy in the District laid the foundation for go-go.
Charles Stephenson: D.C. was always a band town. I came from New York in the early ’70s. In New York, you’d see a kid walking down the street and he’d have a basketball in his hands. Well, down here you’d still see the kid with a basketball, but you’d also see a kid walking down the street with a horn, or you’d see him with a guitar or drumsticks. When I first came here, it was all about the Young Senators and Black Heat. You could not tell me that there wasn’t a turntable on the stage—the groups were that good.
Robert “Dyke” Reed: There were a lot of bands in D.C. before go-go even existed. You had bands like Lead-head, Brute, and Osiris. Eddie Kendricks had left the Temptations and was here playing with the Young Senators. They would play at clubs like the Mach 4, the Warner Theatre, the Lincoln Theatre, and even the Howard Theatre. I would go see the bands at all these places.
Darryll Brooks: We had a very rich live performance culture. Back then, Kool & the Gang was big. The Commodores were big. We had the Howard Theatre. We had the opportunity to see live performances. Also, the high schools in this area had marching bands. There used to be a lot of competition between uptown bands and Southeast, or, like, Spingarn and Eastern bands. We were very educated, musically.
Stephenson: Go-gos—and we’re talking about the place—have always been a force in Washington. This has always been a cabaret, go-go city. So people here have always been into live groups….You can go all the way back to Duke Ellington and some of them guys. Live music has always been important to the social and cultural fabric of this town, and that hasn’t changed.
Brooks: We weren’t going to a lot of clubs in [the early ’60s]. Clubs weren’t letting black folks in. We would go to Northeast Gardens up off of North Capitol Street, and you could get a cabaret there. The place held about 400 people. Sororities and social groups would hire bands, and that was a way of employment. The Chuck Browns, the Stacy & the Sound Servers, the Young Senators, Black Heat—those were the groups that they were using. And whichever band could keep people on the dance floor the longest was the hottest band.
In the mid-’70s, Chuck Brown created go-go, accenting his music with heavy syncopated percussion. The final element that Brown added was filling the break between songs with a percussion breakdown.
Chuck Brown: I put together the Soul Searchers in ’66. Back in ’71, I cut a record called We the People. I had an idea for go-go at that time, but it wasn’t time for it to catch on yet. First of all, the beats were too fast, and you had disco records coming in at 120 beats per minute. Back then, you had to sound like a radio. We were a Top 40 band, but you had to sound like a radio in order to survive.
Timothy “T-Bone” David: Trouble Funk was originally Trouble Band back in the early ’60s, and we were basically like a Top 40 band.
Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson: When Rare Essence first started, the music wasn’t even called go-go. I don’t know what you call it, but it wasn’t even go-go music. The songs we were doing were the songs that were popular at the time: Earth, Wind and Fire, Cameo, Parliament. Rare Essence came together when we were in elementary school. A couple of us were in the same class, and we knew that each of us played instruments. Everybody played baseball or football, but between seasons we were looking for something to do, so we got together to try and make some noise. And after a while, the noise started to make a little sense.
Stephenson: EU was a group of guys practicing across the hall from where I lived in Southeast. One day, a friend and me went across the hall to hear what they were playing and to meet the guys. Later, they asked if we would manage them. My friend opted not to, [but] I said, “Sure.” The first thing we talked about was a name. I also explained that in order for them to break into a market they would have to broaden their field. They were influenced by Jimi Hendrix, so they named themselves Experience Unlimited, which they got from the Jimi Hendrix Experience. They were more of a funk band; they always had a really good lead guitar, and they always had a heavy funk sound.
“Little” Benny Harley: Rare Essence was Young Dynamos back then. They were practicing in Whiteboy’s living room. I was like 10 at the time. I came from band practice one day, and I heard them playing. I said, “Lemme go ahead and knock on their door, and play some Kool & the Gang, and blow their heads open.” So I played for ’em, and they said, “Oh, man, we could use you.” This was, like, ’76. [Quentin] Footz [Davidson] changed the name from Young Dynamos to Rare Essence. He got the name from this perfume, Essence Rare. We were playing Top 40—a lot of Brick, the Ohio Players, and songs like that.
Brooks: I got introduced to go-go by going to cabarets as a young man in Washington, D.C., going to picnics and barbecues and all that sort of thing. The percussion part of go-go kept people on the dance floor. I think Smokey Robinson had a record out called “Going to a Go-Go,” and somehow or another that tagged itself with home-grown music or shows that were happening around here. Local promoters would do go-gos.
Brown: In 1973, I put out another album, called Funk for the Folks, and if you notice, I had a tune on there called “Blow Your Whistle,” for all the people getting down at the go-go. At that time, the go-go itself was an affair—the dance hall, the function. The idea came to me to make some go-go music, but I couldn’t put it together until I heard a tune on the radio by Grover Washington [Jr.] called “Mr. Magic.” It was brand-new, and we jumped right on it. I noticed that the beat was an old beat we used to use in the church that I used to belong to. It was a “bomp—bombom-boombomp-bombom-boombomp.” It was fast, and I said, “Wait a minute, that might be what I’ve been looking for.” Grover Washington had given me an idea that opened the door, you dig? Now, I can take that beat and syncopate that beat and twist it around a little bit and slow it down, twist it around and slow it down, and lock in to the audience. Because when we were playing Top 40, we would play straight through the song and stop and think of another song to play. But now we going to cancel that idea, and go into talking to the audience in between songs.
Charles Fenwick: Go-go bands evolved around the club circuit. We had a beat called the fatback beat, and it was syncopated, and that’s always been there. Around 1970, the clubs started to want the groups to play continuously, so that’s what they did. Chuck brought in the congas.
Johnson: I didn’t know that much about Chuck Brown when we first started. I had heard of him, though. But there was a dude named Andre Parker who played guitar, and I heard him and said, “I wanna play guitar,” and so for Christmas I got a guitar. We didn’t really have any vocals then, but the little vocals we had, Footz was trying to do it. We set up a little microphone back there with him, and he tried to do something. We were the youngest group. Our first paying gig was over at the Linda Pollin Recreation Center in Southeast. My godmother’s club had a kiddie cabaret. They didn’t want a band at first, but she suggested that they hire her godson’s band. The paid us all $10 to play. We were like 12 or something. A lot of the clubs we were playing in, we wasn’t old enough to get into. That’s where the mothers came in. They would all pack us in the car and take us over to the gig. After we finished playing, we had to leave. You had to be at least 18 to get in there, and we were 12 and 13 and 14. We had no business being in there.
Stephenson: One day, the guys came back from a gig in Southeast. They were really excited, and they said that I had to hear these guys who they had just heard playing what we called “the beat.” It turned out that these guys were Rare Essence. This group, Rare Essence, had emulated Chuck. EU was one of the popular bands in town, but as things began to change we began to lose followers to people who really wanted to party. Chuck was already playing the beat. He would efficiently play a song, and his drummer would just keep on with the beat. It was that beat that Rare Essence began to duplicate, and we duplicated Chuck.
Brown: After we got through a song, I would break the song down and let the percussion keep playing. The percussion idea came from my old band, the Los Latinos. We called the band Los Latinos because we had a funk groove with a Latin feel. There wasn’t many bands using congas, nobody but the Latin bands. I decided to take that idea and bring it with the funk. So when we got into the go-go groove, we slowed it down. At that time, all the disco beats was like 120 beats per minute, everything jumping sky high. So we said, “We’re going to chop that in half, 60 bpm, and slow that beat down, and syncopate that beat so people can understand what’s going on there.” So as we would break a tune down, the audience would get into it. And then we had more people on the floor. We had a lot of people standing around with neckties on, but they got up, and you could see the neckties on the floor. And that way we had a chance to vibe with the audience, and they had a chance to vibe with us. They would say something to me, something like a slick hook or something, and I would say something back to ’em. And the next thing you knew, call and response. I fired two drummers to get the beat the way I wanted it. But I told my band that, after a while, everybody in town was going to be playing this beat.
Brooks: I remember being at the Panorama Room up in Southeast at a cabaret. Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers was the band, and people used to try and get Chuck to say their name.
David: I first heard Chuck Brown back in the ’60s, Chuck’s been around so long. We started opening up for him in ’77 at the Club Lebaron. We’d go from 12 o’clock to 6 a.m. The first time I heard Chuck, I was amazed. There was so much discipline in the sound. It was unbelievable standing right in front of him and hearing the sound that was coming off that stage. When we started playing at the Club Lebaron, we converted from Top 40 to go-go.
Harley: When we really started playing, Chuck let us open up for him at the Club Lebaron. James Funk was the first one to let us hear how Chuck played, and we automatically jumped to that because we liked it. And we started playing our music like that.
Kevin “Kato” Hammond: The first time I heard go-go, I was 14. I went to the Club Lebaron, and Trouble Funk and EU were there. I think I was either just old enough to get in or maybe it was because I was with my older brother. I really don’t know how I got in there, come to think of it, but I did. And I had a tape recorder with me. A week later, I caught Rare Essence out at Anacostia Park, and I was just taken away because of their style. EU and Trouble played, but Essence had the style because of all their gimmicks and tricks. Essence just seemed smooth, and once I saw them, that was it—I was gone. And if you ask anybody who knew me then, I walked around with a Rare Essence notebook. If you read my caption in my high school yearbook, it’s a quote from a Rare Essence rap. I was just hooked. I was a head.
Moe Shorter: We had a sports league in Barry Farms, where I was raised, and the assistant manager for Rare Essence ran our sports league. And to raise money for us to buy trophies he would have Rare Essence come play down at Barry Farms Rec Center. So I would help him do that. I would sell soda or help at the door or whatever. That was my first introduction to go-go. Then, like in ’77, ’78, Trouble Funk started coming down there, and Barry Farms became the place to come play, at least over in Southeast. I had heard of Chuck Brown, but I had never seen him perform. As a matter of fact, my uncle had some of his records.
In 1979, Chuck Brown released the record “Bustin’ Loose.” The song inspired several other bands, like Trouble Funk and Rare Essence, to follow suit.
Brown: I was uptight when I cut “Bustin’ Loose.” I was trying to figure out what to do. That was during that disco era. Now, go-go started catching on in ’76 over at the Magic Room, and I played “Bustin’ Loose” for two years before I cut it. I had to change a few drummers to get that tune like I wanted it, and I changed a few musicians to get that tune like I wanted it. Matter of fact, I changed damn near the whole band to get that tune like I wanted it. After I played it for two years, I got married to it. I didn’t want to record the tune, but my producer said, “If you don’t cut it, man, somebody’s going to steal it.” I just had that feeling that if it was pushed right, it was going to be fairly big. I can’t say I didn’t know it would hit, because I did. Then, when it was released, it was a gigantic hit. It took me a while to come back with another hit, and it took me two years to finish writing “Bustin’ Loose,” and I only used two verses of everything I had.
Christopher “Kip” Lornell: “Bustin’ Loose” had a huge impact. It helped to solidify the importance of this emerging music, not only in Washington but, at least temporarily, across the country. That record brought go-go to the attention of people outside of Washington. Go-go was already happening in D.C. If you were on the go-go scene, you knew that. If you weren’t on the scene, you knew it after “Bustin’ Loose.”
Mark Ward: My brother, he’s four years older than me, and my first time hearing go-go was when he came in the house coming from the Moonlight Inn. And he was like, “I got that fresh dub.” He had the boom box, and it was real loud. I couldn’t stand it, because I didn’t even know what it was. It was like 6 in the morning; I had like an hour left of sleep, and he was blasting the radio. I didn’t pay much attention until the summertime came and I heard Trouble Funk’s “E Flat Boogie.”
Johnson: Our first record was “Body Moves,” which was like in 1980. We might have been like around 17 or 18 at the time the record was cut. We had our own label, and we got the records pressed. We’d go get them and take them to the different record stores.
Preston Blue: The summer of my eighth-grade year, I had gone to California to stay with my aunt and uncle. When I came back, everybody was talking about “EU Freeze.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. This had to be like ’79 or ’80. And when we got out of school that year, everybody would run home because at the same time every day they played “EU Freeze” on WHUR. Of all stations, WHUR was playing go-go music. I was like, “What’s this?” All my buddies schooled me. A buddy of mine gave me four Rare Essence tapes almost like to catch up or to say, “This is what we’re into now.” And from then on, for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I wasn’t listening to nothing but go-go. And it went like that until my freshman year of college. If a go-go band ain’t hit it, I ain’t know nothing about it.
Stephenson: This was a time when you had to record yourself. “EU Freeze” was just another vamp that the band came up with. It started out in the show when we would just freeze and everybody in the crowd would just freeze. And there were people who referred to the band as EU Freeze.
David: We had a real big tune, “Drop the Bomb.” I think we sold 50,000 copies locally. I’m not sure how many we sold nationwide. “Drop the Bomb” was a big tune; I think “Pump Me Up” was bigger. As a matter of fact, “Pump Me Up” today is still going strong; a lot of the rappers still use it. But people really knew “Drop the Bomb” because it was the last song we played during the ’80s. At the end of the show, we would always have a big explosion. We would say, “Drop the bomb!” three times, and each time it would get louder. And people would say when we came, “Trouble Funk is coming. They dropping the bomb.”
Reed: “Drop the Bomb” was written at a live show. We were starting real late, and we started saying, “You wanna drop the bomb on this person over here! You wanna drop the bomb on this person over there!” Sugar Hill Records heard us, and they were amazed. They wanted to know where this group was from. They told us they were interested in our group. We did “Pump Me Up,” “Drop the Bomb,” and “Hey Fellas” on Sugar Hill. But Sugar Hill never paid us a dime. Sad to say, but true. But it got our music out there.
In 1985, Island Records produced the movie Good to Go. The movie was supposed to catapult go-go into the national spotlight in much the same manner that The Harder They Come had served to popularize reggae. But Good to Go was based not on the go-go scene, but on a brutal gang rape and murder that occurred in the District in the early ’80s. With the film’s centerpiece so violent, go-go was reduced to little more than a soundtrack for sadism.
Shorter: The violence stereotype has been around since the early ’80s. When go-go first started out, just like hiphop, it was party music. If you listen to the tunes, it’s party music, but there would always be little fights going back and forth. But the fights always stayed at the go-go; it never spilled into the neighborhoods or anything like that. I think it became a real issue and got blown out of proportion with the movie Good to Go. What the movie portrayed was the woman’s murder revolving around guys coming and going to the go-go. From that point, the papers really started picking up on the violence thing.
Johnson: The people who made Good to Go lost track of what they really wanted to do. People focused more on the violence in the movie, as opposed to the music and the partying. They had a lot of good party scenes in the movie, but people focused more on the rape by the gang and the dude smoking boat. But the focus should have been the music and the fact that you can get three or four hundred people into a place and they all can have a good time and leave and go home. Those three or four people who smoke boat and go and hurt somebody, that’s going to be anywhere. If you can get three or four hundred people to have a good time and leave and go home, then that should be the focus. Deal with the drug issue, because that is an issue—but that ain’t what we were focused on.
Brown: I never thought nothing of that movie, with all that violence. What does all that shooting and cars turning over have to do with the price of scrapple? That has nothing whatsoever to do with go-go. People who did that came from out of New York and didn’t know what they were doing. What was it doing with those scenes in there? You got cars turning over and people shooting at each other. I hate that. And the movie was supposed to be about go-go? In New York, at the premiere, they threw beer cans at the screen. In Good to Go, the music was good, but the script could go. They had me on the screen for two damn minutes.
Hammond: I was supposed to be in Good to Go. At the time I was going to Bowie State, and they had the auditions. I think they were up at Howard or Gallaudet. I went to high school at Duke Ellington, and a lot of people I went to school with were in the movie. Before they even started shooting, I saw the script, and I used to laugh at the script. I was like, “This shit is a trip.” But it was even worse on film. The movie isn’t even called Good to Go anymore; it’s called Short Fuse. You know that’s bad, when you gotta change a title to generate video sales.
Blue: How can you have a go-go movie and not have Rare Essence in it? It’s like in New York, they do a movie about hiphop and it’s starring the Sugar Hill Gang. All the cats in the Bronx would be like, “How can you do that and not have Grandmaster Flash and Kool Herc in there?”
Although Good to Go did very little for the image of go-go, it precipitated a lot of major-label interest. A few groups, like Trouble Funk, already had major-label experience. Other local groups were thrilled at the opportunity to showcase Washington’s home-grown music to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, most of the big labels were really trying to sell go-go bands doing pop music.
Reed: Chris Blackwell, at Island Records, liked raw live talent, and when he saw Trouble Funk, he was amazed. We signed with them and got the opportunity to go international. We got to tour Europe and Asia. But toward the end of our contract, they wanted us to sound like all the other groups out there. But Trouble is a hard-core group. You can’t water down James Brown, you can’t water down Parliament, and you can’t water down Trouble.
David: At that particular point, go-go was real hot. We was playing overseas on a 35- to 45-day tour and playing every night in different places. And it was hot, especially overseas. But you can’t really water go-go down, because it sounds best live and raw, and to take it into the studio and water it down takes away from it. You won’t get the same thing you get when it’s live. You won’t get the audience participating. To take that away and put it on record is commercializing it, and it’s not the same.
Johnson: We signed with Polygram and did one single, and they didn’t do anything with it. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t even a go-go single. It was some type of a party record that was bordering on disco. We sent them countless songs, trying to get them to put a record out. I guess they were trying to capitalize off of what Island was doing. But when we started sending them the stuff, they were like, “Nah, we don’t like that.” Eventually, we decided to do the pop record so we could get out of the contract and go on about our business.
The songs we sent them were go-go songs, but they were songs. They had a lot of percussion in them, but we had hooks, we had verses, and we had a breakdown. We used the same formula people have been using forever for a record; it’s just that the percussions were up unusually loud for the rest of the country. We thought they wanted to capitalize off this section of music and spread it around the world. But a lot of them had aspirations to make a hiphop-go-go band, but it didn’t work.
Shorter: Junkyard got hooked up with Def Jam by performing on the streets. Rick Rubin was in town, and he was just going through downtown D.C., and he just saw the guys performing. He didn’t approach us, but he had seen us. This white guy out of New Jersey who was into promoting saw us, and he was blown away. He approached us and said, “Hey, man, I can do some things for you guys.” This was like ’84, ’85, and at the time I was assistant manager. So the main manager was like, “OK, man, go ahead—show us what you can do.” We didn’t know who Rick Rubin was. Matter of fact, we probably didn’t know who Def Jam was. So the white dude said, “I’m gonna try to get y’all a deal.” So he went talking to Def Jam, and Rick was like, “Oh yeah, I saw these guys perform.” And we was like, “Damn, the white dude hooked it up.”
We was signed to a multiyear product deal. “Sardines” was the only thing released, and that was actually the B-side. That came out in ’86, but it didn’t become a hit until like ’88, ’89. Def Jam never pushed the record—they wasn’t doing nothing. They had us sitting on a shelf. We was supposed to do an album after that, and we went into the studio and recorded stuff, but they were just holding on to it. We was like, “Nah, we could do this by ourselves.” They paid us a little bit of money, but everything they made off of “Sardines,” they haven’t paid us. I called Def Jam back in the early ’90s to inquire about royalties. Personnel had changed, but the people I talked to, their attitude was, “If you think we owe you some money, sue us. ‘Cause we ain’t giving you nothing.” They know that I pay my lawyers by the hour, and theirs are on staff. I don’t have that long money, so they was like, “Sue us.”
Stephenson: I booked EU a gig at the 9:30 Club, and it turned out to be Spike Lee’s birthday party. Well, Spike heard the band, and he went off. At the time, he was working on this film School Daze. So EU recorded “Da Butt.” It was like a craze, and the song turned out to be one of the largest go-go records of all time. “Da Butt” was a real fun and jovial kind of song. Its affiliation to the movie made it popular.
Go-go is the beat, and “Da Butt” had that beat. But it was structured like a song and not a jam. In order to commercialize the song they had to smooth it out. They had Ju-Ju, who was one of the premier go-go drummers of all time. It might be a highbrow form of go-go, but it’s go-go.
Shorter: “Da Butt” was good. It was watered-down version of go-go, but we liked what was going on with “Da Butt.” We liked that EU got out there. But I will say this: EU could have done a lot more for go-go. In their minds, they were doing things for go-go, and they were. However, they didn’t bring anybody else out with them on tour. They toured the country. They toured the world. They ain’t called no other go-go band to go and play with them.
Hammond: The labels tried to remake EU, and that was a mistake, to be perfectly honest. They were able to bounce back. But what they did was taboo. It ain’t like they sold out; it’s like they lost touch. But it’s like that. Once you get some light on you, you got all these people that wanna dust you off, clean you up, and spit-shine you.
Johnson: When EU came with “Da Butt,” all of a sudden everybody was interested again, because they had a national hit record again. “Da Butt” was a slick version of go-go, but it is a go-go record. “Da Butt” did wonders for everybody around here. All of a sudden, Andre Harrell from Uptown Records was calling. After a show we did at the Apollo, he came backstage and said, “I like y’all. I wanna sign y’all right now.” We had to figure out who Andre Harrell was, because he was new at the time. But then people was like, “That’s the dude from Uptown Records; he managed Heavy D.” So then I was like, “Yeah. This dude seems like a go-getter. Let’s get with him.” So we signed to Uptown Records in ’88. Uptown was a brand-new company; Andre didn’t even have his deal on MCA at the time. He had Heavy D on MCA, and then he had Al B. Sure on Warner Brothers. He was like, “If you’re interested, I can just shop you right now. Columbia’s interested; I think I can get Arista interested.” So we was like, “Yeah, Andre, go ahead. We going get with you on that.”
In the process of that, Andre kind of lost focus, because MCA came into the picture and was like, “We want to be your label exclusively.” So then Andre came out with Guy. He had Father MC, and he had just signed Mary J. Blige. He came down to see us a couple of times, and that’s when he picked up [Sean] “Puffy” [Combs]. Puffy was doing parties around here. Andre came down to see us, and he had a meeting with Puffy at the same time, so he introduced us and he was like, “This dude is probably gonna be interning with me, and I’m gonna have him to work with you all.” So we was like, “OK, cool, if that’s what you wanna do.” Puffy started to do some things with us. He tried to help us get some producers to come down here, because Andre wanted to use a hiphop producer with a go-go beat. We tried that a couple of times and it didn’t really work, and Puffy ended up going to New York.
Lornell: People who don’t live in D.C. don’t understand that go-go is a musical event that you may not be able to capture in the digital and analog realm. Go-go didn’t take off nationally because of a combination of outside producers who don’t understand go-go and local producers who were underfunded. But it’s not easy to translate go-go into the recorded medium. When I teach at GW, I try to explain what it’s like to be in a Pentecostal church by playing recordings, and it just doesn’t convey the experience. Go-go is the same.
In addition to failing to garner national appeal in the ’80s, go-go came under fire from the media and the D.C. Council for allegedly inciting violence.
David: A lot of people started stereotyping go-go with drugs and violence because of Good to Go. Around ’85, ’87, kids outside of the go-go, ones that couldn’t get in, would cause problems. Or sometimes the crews around D.C., partying inside, would bump into somebody. Or you’d have your little group here and somebody would step on your shoe, and it causes a problem. By the late ’80s, you couldn’t even perform without somebody in the audience interfering with your concert. It wasn’t like that in the ’70s. A lot of the people that were coming to our shows back then, you tell them where you’re playing and they say, “Well, you know, I can’t make it to the go-go, man, ’cause it’s not the same. Things are too rough out here.”
Johnson: The violence thing didn’t come until the ’80s. We had fights up at the Howard Theatre or the Coliseum. But those were fistfights; you fight with a guy and the next week you might see the same guy and y’all might be partying together. It wasn’t until the guns came into play that people were actually getting shot—people were like, “I ain’t going over there, ’cause I might get shot,” or “We can’t hire you in our club because we don’t know who going to get shot.”
Shorter: The beef usually starts elsewhere, and they bring it to the go-go. I’ll tell you the funniest thing I heard. Back in ’95, we were doing a show and two guys got to fighting, and they were getting put out. One guy was struggling with Security, and they were holding him back, and they were pushing the other guy out the door. So the guy they were pushing out the door, he yells, “That’s all right, nigga, I’m a get you at church tomorrow.” So the little rivalry they got in the ‘hood, he’s taking it wherever he can take it.
Stephenson: [Then-Ward 1 Councilmember] Frank Smith was proposing a curfew bill that would have shut down a lot of these venues. So in the early ’80s, I put together the Ad Hoc Committee to Save Go Go. I would appear on TV shows with Frank Smith and debate the issue; it allowed folks to see go-go in another light. We wanted the city to focus on the problem because we were affected; we were beset by drugs and violence. So if you were doing an anti-drug rally, we wanted to come and play so that the people would come out. But we had lazy leadership, and it was so easy to say go-go was the cause of all these problems society was experiencing. But I think we were more a victim of the violence than the schools.
Shorter: A lot of venues closed because of the association of violence with go-go music. Either that or they just flat-out denied us the right to come into their place. You try to bring a show in, and the first question they ask you is “What kind of music is it?” If you say rap or go-go, they say, “Nah, we ain’t having it.”
Johnson: The violence thing really put a damper on the business aspect. Now clubs that were in business with you all of the sudden don’t want to do business with you. Clubs were afraid that somebody might get shot, the police would come down and take their liquor license, and suddenly there ain’t no club anymore. Even today, a lot of the clubs will be like, “Man, I can’t take a chance.” The other aspect is that we spend a huge amount of money on security now. Whereas before we only needed one or two police officers just for visibility, we need nine or 10 cops to be outside and also 15 bouncers to be on the inside.
Stephenson: Every place in society was experiencing a rise in violence and senseless killings. But we were a ripe target, because we were powerless and we didn’t have a voice. So it was easy for the politicians to beat up on go-go. The owners of the venues, the bands, the audience—they were not an organized voice. But I used to say, “Not one go-go band is bringing weapons into this town.” The go-go band members are fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers—we were all affected by this violence.You had a lot of the Catholic churches, and they had dance halls. They began to shut down or deny go-gos on their premises. Then you had facilities like the Black Hole, which changed its name several times, or Breeze’s Metro Club, which did the same. A lot of the venues that were once popular were just shut down because of the leadership in the city. And then there were other venues that stayed around but never allowed go-go to be played in their facility.
Despite both the bad rap go-go got from the city and its inability to crack the Billboard 200, go-go still made its presence felt. Go-go artists were able to cultivate a deep sense of loyalty among their audiences. Go-go’s influence began to show up in the rap world, as more producers started using go-go tracks.
David: We did a lot of shows with the rappers. When we were out on tour, a lot of the guys, like Public Enemy before they even got started, would be at all our shows. They would sample a lot of our stuff, too. They’d sample the material, and they’d slip it in. It would be way undercover, but you know your stuff when you hear it. Kid ‘N Play, on “Rollin’ With Kid ‘N Play” used the bongo part that I did on [the] Saturday Night Live [album], and they just stuck it in and said one of their guys was playing percussion. One time, we were playing at the Capital Center, and I saw Kid. I said, “Man, don’t be stealing my stuff, man.” He was kind of embarrassed about it, but he knew they had took it. I gave him my number and everything. I told him, “If you need some percussion, man, call me. I’ll give you the real thing— you won’t have to sample it.”
Johnson: We played with all the rappers. We was the first ones to bring Grandmaster Flash here. But D.C. has always been real supportive of the go-go groups. We brought Flash to the Club Lebaron, and people were standing around looking because they didn’t understand. So people started to talk like, “Man, hurry up, man, get off the stage.” But Flash was like, “Yo, yo, yo—you need to come and watch my hands.” But they wasn’t with it.
Shorter: We did a lot of recording for Def Jam, and they sold our tracks to Hurby Luv Bug. Man, our tracks is out there. They tried to say, “Well, we didn’t do that.” But I’m like, “Look, man, I know my music. Ain’t nobody out here playing cans but us, and I hear cans in this music right here.” Salt-N-Pepa’s “My Mike Sounds Nice” got our tracks. Them cans and buckets in the background, that’s ours, man. Ain’t nobody out there playing no cans and buckets. And I know the sound of a can, ’cause we been around them for 10 years. Def Jam owe us. They need to see us. Def Jam done sold “Sardines,” and it’s been on different compilations around the country. They sold that record to a lot of people, and we ain’t been paid yet.
Johnson: Back in ’91, we did a show with Chubb Rock, Naughty by Nature, and it might have been one or two other go-go groups. The promoter asked us would we close the show and we was like, “Yeah.” But Chubb had the big record. He had “Treat ‘Em Right,” and “Just the Two of Us,” and they were big. The radio played ’em, and the clubs played ’em all the time. We told Chubb, “Look, here you might want to let us close the show, because these people can get picky.” And Chubb was like, “Man, what you talking about? I got the biggest record out there. I’m Chubb Rock.” So we was like, “OK, fine.” So we go on right before Chubb Rock, and everybody’s dancing and having a good time. The minute that we finished we was like, “All right, y’all, Chubb Rock is up next. Hold on for Chubb Rock.” They started to head out to the exit. I guess they had seen everything they wanted to see. And he came out and got mad and cussed everybody out. But we tried to tell him what to do on this end. It’s gotten to the point where a lot of the hiphop groups won’t play behind us.
Go-go has changed considerably over the past 10 years. The indirect influence of hiphop and the approach of groups like JY Band have made the music percussion-centered. Much to the dismay of older go-go heads, horns are a rare sight among many of the younger go-go bands. But unlike hiphop, go-go is still a range of styles, from that of funky groups like the Legends to that of drum-centered groups like Backyard Band.
Stephenson: A lot of the big record labels feel like they never got what they should have got out of go-go. But the go-go cats figure, Hey, if I’m at the top of my game, I can play like five times a week and get paid. So what’s the problem if you can do that and you’re right here? You ain’t all over the country, but you ain’t worried about record producers, either. Go-go never got the acceptance of MTV or BET. Even to this day, BET doesn’t prop go-go, and I think that’s a travesty given that they’re right here. Aside from EU and maybe Chuck, they don’t prop go-go at all. I’ll never forget one year in the Washington City Paper’s end-of-the-year review, they said that go-go would never go beyond the Beltway. Maybe that’s true, but I think that people in positions of power helped retard the music. If it’s your child and you don’t put the best clothes on it, what do you expect? If you don’t think highly of it, why should anybody else?
David: Go-go groups have changed quite a bit. We were doing a lot of music and percussion and, from hearing tapes of a lot of other groups, it’s mainly just percussion now. We had breakdowns where it would be just percussion, but now it’s like they kind of feature more percussion than anything else. I think it’s the influence of rap, and from a lot of the kids listening to Rare Essence, EU, and Trouble Funk. I can still feel the music. Some of it is real good. You can listen to it and say, “That’s kind of hot there.” The thing is that whenever you start putting yourself out, you have to think past the Beltway. And a lot these groups are just thinking about D.C.
Reed: Go-go music now is not even close to where it was 10 years back. Now groups use other rappers’ hooks for their songs, and it’s almost all percussion.
Harley: Today’s go-go is totally different. It’s totally percussion. All you gotta do is call a few names and throw a few hooks in there for the various crews, and they think you’re the hottest thing in there. But I grew up listening to Chuck Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire, and so I like music. They don’t have no more growth. They just making a beat. Who wants to hear a record and it’s just a beat?
Brown: Now D.C.’s got their own sound. And it’s based right here, and it’s been all over the world, and it’s still going around the world. It’s a lot of bands that ain’t been around the world; it’s a lot of bands that ain’t been out of D.C., because they gotta keep the music interesting. You gotta come up with some new ideas, so it’ll be unique.
Stephenson: Now you’re getting different flavors in go-go. You got Backyard and Junk who just go hard. You got Essence putting more pizzazz on it—still basically go-go, though. Now I hear the guys are bringing some horns back. And Chuck can give you whatever and still give you that go-go feel. What has developed here is a range. So now you graduate from Backyard to Essence. You graduate from Essence to Chuck. You go see Chuck, you going to see a 35-plus crowd, and they chilling. They don’t want no stuff, and they don’t want them younguns around. They want to go somewhere, have a good time, get in their car, and go home. They don’t want to have anybody push up on them. Essence, they’re intermediate right now. They’re for your 20-year-olds. So you got the little guys who think they’re jive hustlers coming to see Essence. And then you got the younger groups you got Backyard, Junkyard, and OP [Tribe].
Hammond: Go-go is doing good. It’s always been doing good. But it’s waiting right now to jump to the next level. There hasn’t been any real innovation in 10 years. It’s waiting, but I smell something coming soon. I’ve got that feeling. CP