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Early last Wednesday morning, inside the front door of the Ibex club on Georgia Avenue NW, a young black man stood steely-eyed in a whirlpool of security guards and D.C. cops as an emergency medical technician carefully peeled away several bloody layers of his clothes. The man’s slight trembles and gasps were nearly inaudible above the pounding bass from Back Yard, the go-go band playing upstairs. The EMS stripped away the last T-shirt to reveal two gashes, which in turn revealed bone across the man’s shoulder blades.
A thick rivulet of blood ran down his back and stained his underwear, which rode several inches higher than his low-slung jeans. The ambulance crew dabbed the blood with wads of gauze, prompting the man to flinch in pain. A beefy bouncer had to restrain a tall, angry guy in a Lycra cap who jumped up and yelled, “The security guard did this! Your motherfuckin’ security guard got a shank on him!” A short time later, police “cuffed and stuffed” the security guard into a police car.
Watching from inside his police cruiser across the street as the bleeding man was wheeled to the ambulance, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Officer Sean LaGrand glanced at the long, mean scar running across the top of his left hand. Last March, he, too, was sliced up in the Ibex while trying to break up a fight at a go-go show. “I know they want to have a place for the kids to hang out,” says LaGrand. “But maybe they need to open some more rec centers. This just isn’t safe. There’s nothing positive about this kind of go-go.”
Go-go, D.C.’s indigenous blend of sweet soul, supple funk, and percolating African-influenced rhythms, arose in the late ’70s when Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers stretched percussion breaks to song length, providing the foundation for a new sound. The songs, laced with vocal borrowings from R&B and, now, rap radio staples, themselves stretch to marathon lengths as the players in the large bands step in and out of the mix, chasing the groove. But go-go’s charms are continually overwhelmed by a well-deserved reputation for concomitant violence. It’s great music, but you take a very real risk when you head out for go-go.
Last Wednesday’s stabbing—the third in two weeks—was fairly routine for an Ibex go-go show. Lately, the club has been a reliable incubator for violent crime in Northwest Washington. Last Sunday, a man was arrested for spraying bullets into a crowd outside the club. He exchanged gunfire with police, but mercifully no one was hit. On Jan. 17, after getting into an argument inside the club, a 23-year-old man was shot and set ablaze in a car at the corner of 13th and Jefferson Streets NW, just a few blocks away. In 1995, there were 12 assaults involving deadly weapons inside the club. Outside, there were three armed robberies, six assaults with deadly weapons, eight shootings, and one homicide. Add in the multitude of fistfights, assaults on police officers, drug and gun possession arrests, 144 car break-ins, and 81 auto thefts reported around the Ibex last year, and you might conclude go-go is about mayhem, not music.
The cops are no fans of live go-go. Several members of the police department’s 4th District believe the Ibex is a public nuisance and a drain on law enforcement that should be permanently shut down. But club managers, musicians, and fans insist the Ibex is a cultural institution that not only provides much-needed entertainment for
the city’s youth, but that also preserves unique music
that is as central to D.C.’s cultural identity as bluegrass
is to Kentucky’s.
Located at the corner of Georgia and Missouri Avenues NW, the Ibex is one of few clubs in the city that still regularly feature go-go bands like Optimystic Tribe, Back Yard, Junkyard, the Huck-a-Bucks, and Rare Essence. Since its heyday in the early 1980s, go-go has struggled to shed an image tarnished by a wave of violence that started in 1987, when 11 people were shot outside a Rare Essence show at the Masonic Temple at 10th and U Streets NW. Elected officials responded by attacking the dance halls, challenging club liquor licenses, instituting teen curfews, and changing neighborhood zoning regulations.
The effort shut down many hot showplaces like Chapter III and the Black Hole, and go-go music was forced to go underground or out to the suburbs to survive. Media attention to go-go has flagged accordingly, but local enthusiasm for it has not. Clubs like the Ibex and the East Side in Southwest are thriving, and Chapter III and the Black Hole have been reincarnated as the Mirage and the Capital City Pavilion. The venues may have changed, but the violence that accompanies go-go is as bad as ever—you just don’t hear about it anymore. In a city generally inured to violence, dance-hall stabbings simply don’t get a rise out of people.
On a Tuesday in late January, several young women are lining up outside the Ibex at 10:30 p.m. to see Back Yard, a band that attracts hundreds of young Washingtonians to the club every Tuesday night. Dressed in tight black stretch pants, leather platform boots, and inches and inches of plaits streaming from their heads, the girls move toward the security gantlet that controls entry to the club. Once inside, the girls strip off their shoes and hand them over to a woman wearing a yellow “Bouncers & Bodyguards” T-shirt. She pats the girls down and bangs their shoes together, searching for weapons. Men are subjected to an even more invasive crotch search. I have to get special permission to bring in my pen, which is considered a weapon here. A bouncer sends me up to the club’s second floor in search of the manager.
The “Marvin Gaye Room” is deceptively sedate, laid out like a restaurant, with small tables covered by real cloth tablecloths and walls decorated with local artwork. There’s a big TV screen at one end and a food window at the other, from which emanates a stream of heaping platters of fried chicken, buffalo wings, and corn bread. The smell of marijuana smoke cuts through the aroma of french fries, and a well-insulated ceiling muffles the band playing upstairs. A few young black men in Raiders caps and Eddie Bauer coats are sitting around trying to charm gorgeous, indifferent women in leather coats and denim bustiers.
Ron Green, the manager, is leaning against the bar, surveying the scene and sipping a drink out of a cheap plastic cup. A New Jersey native, Green is a balding, rotund man dressed in a blue double-breasted jacket, green polo shirt, slacks, and sneakers. He looks at me warily through wire-rimmed glasses as I introduce myself, but he allows me to keep my pen, “in the interest of the First Amendment.”
In the same interest, he takes an immediate position on the go-go/violence debate. “If, for once, I thought that we were the cause of the violence and that the words they say incited violence, we wouldn’t be doing go-go,” Green says.
Green never directly acknowledges that violence is a problem with go-go or with the club, even though in 1993 six people were shot in front of the Ibex on a single night. Instead, he’s quick to point out that the Ibex is more than just a go-go club. Green’s weekly lineup includes soul and R&B groups, as well as male dancers on Thursdays. “Our most decadent night,” says Green. Saturdays feature legendary D.C. street orator Rufus “Catfish” Mayfield; karaoke and amateur talent take the stage on Fridays.
“What perturbs me in particular about D.C.’s media is that we struggle here to present quality shows week after week and we get no recognition,” says Green.
Green, who believes go-go is “something positive the kids do,” and an alternative to professional basketball as a career track for inner-city youth, also says, “We’re looking for responsible ways to present go-go.” Along with employing a large security force and several off-duty cops, Green notes that the bands, other clubs, and promoters have formed the Go-Go Alliance, which holds regular meetings to find ways to make go-go safer.
“Go-go music is a very popular genre among the young in a large segment of the community,” says Green. “There are local heroes, celebrities, and I’m sure most of the media can’t name who they are. If Detroit had reacted to Motown the way D.C. has reacted to go-go, we probably wouldn’t have had a very rich strain of music that America now embraces. We forget how regional music really is. This, my dear, is a cultural institution.”
Perhaps, but one reason clubs like the Ibex and the East Side are willing to brave bullets to host bands like Rare Essence and Back Yard is that go-go is big business. Between 400 and 600 young people, who buy gallons of pricey drinks, pay a $15 cover to see the same bands play week after week.
Far more people regularly show up at 1 a.m. on a Wednesday to hear Back Yard than attend the Ibex karaoke night or local shows at the 9:30 Club and other white, mainstream clubs. Green says that the bands earn between $1,000 and $3,000 a night playing there, which leads him to suggest that rather than outlawing the music, the city should get behind go-go as a local treasure and “gently collect taxes on it.”
Charmingly gruff and paternal, Green seems sincere in his desire to support a locally inspired art form. And I want to buy his pitch that go-go music is a constructive, artistic outlet for the city’s youth. The shows are genuinely high-energy, and there is no doubt that the kids Green is catering to have been sorely neglected by the mainstream entertainment industry. But the crime statistics belie Green’s assertion that go-go is just good, clean fun. And the media can’t take all the blame for go-go’s sullied image.
Last Tuesday, Washington City Paper photographer Darrow Montgomery attempted to take a picture of Back Yard on stage. After the second flash popped, the lead singer,“Genghis,” stopped the music, turned up the lights, and jumped off the stage, threatening the photographer and yelling into the mike, “Don’t you be bringing that shit in here. I’ll take you right here. I don’t care if I go to jail right now, motherfucker.” When Montgomery apologized for any misunderstanding and attempted to explain that the band’s manager had given him permission, the singer knocked his flash to the ground, shouting, “The manager is not my fucking mother.”
Perhaps it was not an entirely unexpected event, considering that the band had started its set off with a tirade against the “news media that wants to shut us down” and a few digs at “the white man.” However poor his manners and however lousy his public relations, Genghis had a point. CP’s white photographer and white reporter were drawn to the Ibex not by the beats, but by the beatings. And the band’s singer and the club’s security thug certainly didn’t make it hard to find the trouble we’d come looking for. Such scenes don’t lend much credence to Green’s declaration that go-go bands are “anti-violence.” Truth be told, the question being debated in the community these days is no longer whether or not go-go music incites violence, but why.
Hundreds of young people begin to climb up to the Ibex’s third-floor dance hall around midnight on Jan. 31. The predominantly male crowd (women are enticed in with a $5 discount) is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Back Yard, after patiently tolerating an opening set by Optimystic Tribe. Around 12:45, the 10-member band finally gets its complicated array of equipment set up. The group begins with the traditional call and response. Playing off recent Super Bowl sentiments, the band starts chanting, “Fuck the Cowboys!” Then the lead singer takes a few jabs at people from Southwest, prompting a minor furor in one corner of the audience.
The band starts to jam in earnest, cranking up the bass. It’s so heavy that the PA seems to spit out gusts of wind. The beat is accompanied by the lead singer’s mellifluous croon: “Love me all night long.” As the music reaches a fever pitch, girls climb over the railing of the ballroom’s balcony and hang off the edge, swaying their hips to the beat.
Young men wearing fatigues, Timberlands, hooded sweat shirts, and sunglasses rock back and forth to the beat. Dancing is unavoidable. When the strobe begins to flash, the scene grows hypnotic. The kids crowding the stage press their faces against the gigantic stacks of speakers, tilting into the eardrum-bursting beats. Despite the militaristic funk, the words, when intelligible, are fairly innocuous.
Back Yard builds the nearly carnal tension with the music itself, using a stunning array of polyrhythms to whip the packed crowd into a frenzy. An off-duty officer working at the club says that sometimes the club’s power will go out, and the band will keep playing, using only the drums. In the darkened ballroom, the crowd will keep dancing, going wild.
Terrence Cooper, 27, has been Back Yard’s manager for 10 years. In the semiquiet spaces between songs, he defends go-go, explaining that the music has survived for almost 20 years. “It’s basically Top 40 music that we put a beat behind. All we do is play songs off the radio,” says Cooper. “We’ve been fighting for years to keep this going. We try to get the police to work with us to keep the violence down. I don’t know what gets into people. We just want to party. We don’t say, ‘go out and hurt nobody.’ ”
Cooper blames drugs for the violence that breaks out at Back Yard’s shows. While many of the club patrons bear a striking resemblance to the guys who staff the city’s open-air drug markets, police confirm that the violence that breaks out at the Ibex today is different from that of the late ’80s, when Jamaican gangs were fighting bloody turf battles in nearby neighborhoods. Drive-by shootings are less common. The beefs inside the club are more personal—and even less proportionate to the responses they provoke.
The drug of choice of today’s go-go fans, however, is alcohol. Not a beer in sight, Ibex patrons are downing fruity-colored mixed drinks that look more like Kool-Aid than cocktails. But their strength may be partly responsible for patrons’ short fuses. The most popular are the 96 and 95 Tom Collins, regular Collins drinks dosed with either blue currant liqueur or grenadine. Then there’s the Freak, a mix of Absolut, Absolut Citron, Peachtree schnapps, cranberry and pineapple juices, and Alize, a passion-fruit cognac. The other popular drink is the Chronic, a lethal blend of vodka, rum, gin, tequila, Triple Sec, melon liqueur, and blue currant. It comes out a very potent bong-water green.
The people who frequent the Ibex have their own theories, however, for why violence so often becomes go-go’s finale. They describe the same fierce territorialism that drives violence in many cities, but that is all the more striking, considering how small the District is geographically. Club patrons tell of disputes that involve a difference of but a few city blocks. At the Ibex, claiming birth in the District’s inner city can be a badge of honor and a sign of toughness. At the same time, accusing someone of hailing from Southwest can constitute a call to arms.
In the ladies’ room during the Back Yard show, three Eastern High School girls who are stealthily gulping down a cocktail explain that fights at the Ibex usually involve people who already know each other. One of the girls, who will only identify herself and her friends as the “301 Honies,” says, “It’s not a gang thing. It’s the neighborhoods. It’s like, old people who didn’t like each other, they get in fights.” She says some fights happen between D.C. residents and suburbanites who don’t understand that the club is “just for D.C. kids.”
A guy from Bouncers & Bodyguards, who doesn’t give his name, says the Ibex is “an uptown club,” and that most of the Tuesday-night regulars live between 7th and 14th Streets near Georgia Avenue. “The Tuesday-night crowd don’t mix with nobody,” he says, shaking his head.
The bouncer says he can’t understand why many of the club regulars, who socialize with each other outside the Ibex during the week, so often end up slashing each other apart on the dance floor. “When they’re not in the club, these guys play sports together. The play basketball in the summer leagues. But when they’re in the club, something happens. They even play basketball with the police officers. The bands play basketball.” But whatever’s happening at the Ibex, he says, “It don’t have nothin’ to do with the music.”
Perhaps anytime 500 or 600 testosterone-laden, Chronic-sipping young men are crammed into a small, loud space problems will arise, no matter what kind of music is playing. But because go-gos don’t really get going until about 1 a.m., they seem to be disproportionally populated by adults without day jobs and kids without watchful parents—in general, people more likely than most to turn an accidental bump in the hallway into a duel to the death.
In fact, violence seems to be such a fact of life for Ibex regulars that they actually believe fights, stabbings, and shootings are standard fare for any kind of club. “It’s about the same here as anywhere you go. Rock groups, heavy metal, you have the same thing,” says Kwame Stoute, who tapes all of Back Yard’s shows for the band. If the fault for the trouble lies with anyone, he adds, it’s the police, whose 4th District station is practically across the street. “If you can’t have peace and order right in front of the police station, something is wrong.”
One off-duty cop at the club says he believes that with better management, go-go could spread nationally, rivaling other popular forms like funk and rap. He confesses, however, a familiarity with go-go violence—in October, he was jumped inside the club by some knuckleheads who broke his jaw. Still, he shrugs off the beating, saying, “It was just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In the face of increasing police attention, the Ibex management has attempted to take a few pre-emptive measures to try to head off any efforts to shut the club down. Ron Green met with 4th District Inspector Michael Fitzgerald recently to discuss ways they could work together to keep the club open and safe, including hiring more off-duty cops for security, which Fitzgerald believes is a step in the right direction.
It remains to be seen whether such measures can win out over the bloodlust that threatens the scene. Rooted in blind turf loyalty—itself the twisted inverse of the local pride responsible for go-go’s success—the violence is often provoked by the presence of the police themselves, for whom the Ibex patrons seem to have no great love.
Meanwhile, a song on Back Yard’s 1995 release, We Like It Raw, proclaims, “I live for my block, I die for my block.” And some go-go fans seem destined to make those words their own. CP