On the corner of 12th and F Streets NW, a lean, brown-skinned fellow, looking younger than his 30 years, quietly peddles his wares—row after row of go-go tapes, old and new. His name is Dominic Hobson, but folks around here know him just as Nico. Behind the gold specs, Bullets cap, and unassuming demeanor lies a veritable go-go encyclopedia and probably the music’s biggest fan.
“I’m here 24-7-365,” he says proudly, as he rests in the open door of the cargo van parked next to his stand. “Close down for the winter? I started in the winter. I’m here every day.”
And the go-go fans are there every day, from noon to 7 p.m.—junior-high kids, Metro workers, downtown professional types, married couples, some traveling from as far as Virginia and Baltimore. Week after week, repeat customers call on Nico to be their music historian of a home-grown subculture few outsiders ever try to understand.
Aside from E.U. (Experience Unlimited)’s brief 1988 stay in the Top 40 with “Doin’ the Butt,” the music doesn’t get much radio play, even in its city of origin. But its sound is ubiquitous—the driving, syncopated beats, call-and-response chanting, JBs-style horn interjections—blaring from broken-down Buicks and Georgia Avenue storefronts.
“Go-go tapes have actually been a part of go-go culture since the music began,” Nico explains. Though he didn’t start selling tapes professionally until 1992, he was a high-school tape trader in the early ’80s. “Back then you might trade a tape for a meal. Like, ‘Yo, shorty. I’m hungry. Hook me up.’” Since those days, Nico’s catalog has grown to over 5,000 tapes. Each day he has about 1,800 on hand for his streetside operation.
With phenomenal recall, Nico talks with his customers about shows the way other guys throw around baseball statistics. One night a guy wants the Back Yard tape where they sing that Smokey Robinson song. “Smokey Robinson? Back Yard ain’t never played Smokey,” Nico says, but the customer insists. Finally, Nico figures out that Back Yard was doing a cover of last year’s D’Angelo cover of “Cruisin’,” which, in fact, Smokey Robinson did record in 1979. “Yeah, I got that. It’s the 7/18/95 show at the Ibex.” In seconds, he pulls out one of several huge black cases and puts his finger on exactly the right tape. He not only keeps track of his own sprawling inventory but of his customers’ collections. Regulars often try to buy the same tape twice, and he has to remind them that they already own it.
Go-go is like a religion in some ways—the bands play the same old songs, as if they were Bible stories passed down through generations. Fervent listeners come each week, seeking not something new but the comfort of things familiar, rhythms and vibes that make the heart glad. Unlike most other groups, go-go bands let their fans up onstage and sometimes allow them to speak into the mike. You can pass the lead talker a piece of paper with your name on it and he’ll give you a shoutout.
“A lot of the kids feel like if they go to the show, they should be able to get the tapes,” Nico explains. “If you get your name on the tape it makes you almost like a celebrity, like, ‘Yeah, I’m on that joint. That’s me, shorty.’”
“Certain people used to come into the shows with their own radio and record the shows. That’s how impersonal it was with the bands. They didn’t mind. Now it’s such an industry.” When the bootleg “box tapes” started to be banned, tape selling became a lucrative venture, with the same kind of allure as other illicit activities.
“In ’87 everybody thought they was big-time hustlers, like about the time when DJ Scorpio dropped that groove, ‘Stone Cold Hustler.’ People were selling tapes out of their cars, on the strip. You knew who the tape sellers were.”
Working by the Metro Center subway, if it wasn’t the rent-a-cops giving him a hard time, then it was the real five-O telling him he couldn’t sell on public grounds. It didn’t take Nico long to go legitimate, complete with a vendor’s license and card table. Building a customer base, however, was a whole other battle. “I used to sell anything I could get my hands on. Condoms. Body oils. Toothpaste. Tylenol. Just to get somebody to buy a tape. Pocketknives. Anything,” he recalls. “I still got a lot of this stuff at my house.”
But then to make sure he stood out from the fray, he started profiling in brand new Diamante station wagons that he would rent, a different color every week.
“I liked it ’cause it gave me an image. People wanted to come to the stand just to see what I had,” he says. “I used to pull up and people would run over here. In 1994, I used to have so many people at my table. I used to make five, six hundred a day, every day.”
It wasn’t long before the imitators and perpetrators tried to stake their claim to a piece of the go-go tape market. Along with a spate of new construction around Metro Center, increased competition—often from people hustling what he claims are inferior goods—cut into Nico’s business.
“Basically people were seeing one brother making money, so they started sponging off the seller. They’d buy a tape and then make copies. The quality would go down and down,” he says. “It gave go-go tapes a bad name, since you didn’t know when you were getting a good-quality tape or a bad one.”
Nowadays tapes sell for an average of $10. But like coins and stamps, the rarer concerts pull high prices with hard-core go-go aficionados. “You can’t even get no ’79 Chuck [Brown],” says Nico. “If you get your hands on that, it’s like gold. If I had a ’79 Chuck, no matter how bad he sounded, I could sell that for $500.”
Nico knows the rules of business—keep the customer happy and constantly innovate. He figures that most people listen to the tapes in their cars. When they buy a tape they want to know what it’s going to sound like when they’re rolling down the avenue, so he has hooked up a Sony car stereo, fitted it into a box frame neatly covered in black carpet, and added small detachable speakers, which he clips to his table.
He still sells some sundries, such as incense, batteries, and music videos. But center stage is held by the rows of empty cassette cases, with group, venue, and show date stamped by hand. He’ll give you a one-minute summary of the current hitmakers—Huck-a-Bucks, Junkyard Band, Rare Essence, E.U., Chuck Brown, Back Yard. If he doesn’t have it on hand, he can usually get it within two days. “I have a reputation for giving people what they ask for. I basically give people a custom tape. That’s been the key to my success. I spoil my customers.”
“All of our customers have nicknames,” says Mark Anderson, Nico’s best friend and business partner. “Even the people who aren’t our customers—we give the homeless nicknames: ‘Grand Hyatt,’ ‘Pride,’ ‘Capt. Caveman,’ ‘Drop,’ the shoeshine man.”
Anderson was initially reluctant to join his friend’s business. “I’m an outdoorsman, but I don’t like being in one spot. But he needed that muscle to help him out and intimidate a few brothers,” says Anderson, who, at 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, isn’t someone you want to beef with.
Listen to the talk around Nico’s stand long enough and you start to feel like you’re in an old-time barbershop. Anderson works the crowd, while Nico handles inventory. Talk mostly centers on music and sports. The brothers crane their necks to see a particularly callipygian sister in a blue satin minidress walk by in time to the rhythm coming from Nico’s stereo. But this doesn’t distract them for long.
The music—and Nico’s knowledge of it—is the main reason why people come. “He’s a go-go man,” says a loyal customer known on the corner as “E-Double”—“E” for Eric and “double” as in XXL-size. “Nico can tell you what’s on the tape. Other brothers on the street will say, ‘I don’t know, but it’s crankin’.’ Plus, his tapes sound better. Instead of just fast-forwarding them, he listens to it and records it at regular speed. He puts his name on his tape. He cares about it.”
Nico’s love and knowledge of go-go comes from experience. His first go-go memories are of going to shows as a shrimp-size 11-year-old. “My cousin Benny was taking me out to River Terrace to see Rare Essence outside underneath a tent. He had me on his shoulders.” Nico remembers a time when you could see three bands for $1.50. You might start off at the Atlas, go down to the high school, and close out the night at the Howard Theatre.
Everything’s changed now. Inflation. Violence. Even the tape industry. “The problem with tape selling now is that there are too many people out here. They don’t care about the quality of the tapes. Don’t know nothing about the music,” he complains. “Just trying to make a dollar.”
For Nico, the privilege of being hooked into the music comes with heavy responsibility. “It’s my intent to always be a representative of the bands here in D.C. Their tapes come out like they would like them to come out. Go-go doesn’t have a good name, so I figure if I can help it out, that’s what I’m gonna do.” Underneath the street noise and conversation, the ever-present music plays, its affirming rhythm pulsing on: “…Y’all tired yet? Hell nah!…Still gettin’ busy? Still gettin’ busy….” CP