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Roy Battle wasn’t the average music student at Bowie State University when he enrolled six years ago to pursue a B.A. in music technology. As the keyboardist for Rare Essence for the past 19 years, Battle has co-written and produced many go-go hits, from the Huck-A-Bucks’ “The Bud” all the way up to last fall’s Chuck Brown Band release “Go Nats,” celebrating the Nationals’ World Series win. He has also served as a minister of music at area churches for 14 years.
He came to BSU at the urging of his longtime friend and mentor, Professor Gilbert Pryor, who heads the university’s Music Technology Department. In 2017, Pryor suggested that Battle might write a song for him as an independent study senior project. At the same time, Battle’s music composition professor, William Smith, also gave his students a songwriting assignment. Battle figured one song might suffice. “I realized I could come up with an idea that I could use for both of those assignments,” Battle says. “I didn’t know if I could double dip like that, but I thought I might try.”
Driving home one afternoon from Bowie State, Battle began composing a song he would call “Let’s Ride.” Finalizing the project, however, took some time.
He tinkered with his initial concept, and eventually enlisted Sylver Logan Sharp, the former Chic singer, to add lyrics and vocals. When Battle presented the song to Smith and Pryor, he asked whether they might consider recording it. They immediately agreed.
“The way that this song came about, it was a dream come true,” Pryor says. “I wanted him to use that creative talent that he has to do his senior project, and that’s what he did.”
Now, three years later, the song has just been released on Battle’s Maroon Hill Records label, and, in a way, it belongs to Pryor. The Battle-Sharp composition is Pryor’s newest single, “Let’s Ride,” a laid-back, smooth jazz/R&B/funk melange featuring Pryor’s trumpet, Smith on tenor saxophone, and vocals by Sharp. Battle plays keyboards on the track and serves as producer with some help from co-producer Robert Folson.
As the song’s co-writer and vocalist, Sharp was able to help deliver Battle’s vision. “This is the kind of song you play when you’re in the car driving down a country road on your way somewhere,” she says. “You roll down windows, and listen to music that just puts you in a space.”
Three years is a long time to craft a song, and Battle, who is best known for powerhouse go-go tracks, attributes the delay to figuring out the best way to change lanes. “I think part of it was my hesitation putting out a song like this … because it’s so musical and has more of a smooth jazz feel,” he says. “I was confident of the song’s sound, but not its reception.”
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He also needed to determine how to balance the song’s blend of styles. Eventually, Battle brought several go-go artists into the studio, including bass guitarist Douglas Crowley (Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers, Chuck Brown Band), lead guitarist Stanley Cooper (Little Benny & the Legends), pianist Leroy “Scooter” Taylor (Vibe Band, Marcus Miller), and former Rare Essence conga player Milton “Go-Go Mickey” Freeman (more recently with Team Familiar and Still Familiar).
“It took some time to be able to figure out different aspects of it, bringing on Mickey to flesh it out, to make it the full song that I was looking for,” says Battle. “Now, I’m very happy with the way it turned out.”
So is WPGC 95.5-FM’s DJ Jealousy, who is playing “Let’s Ride” regularly during his Sunday night shows. “It’s a feel-good song, particularly for the times we’re in now,” DJ Jealousy says. “It’s a song that makes you feel like you’re in the middle of summer; and we’re riding around with our sunroofs down, and wearing our white shorts and linen clothes. I believe it’s one of those summertime wedding songs that’s going to be played for the next 15 to 20 years.”
An interesting footnote to this record is that nearly everyone associated with it has a history of collaboration. Pryor is a revered teacher who has taught generations of area musicians: He is, for example, the guy who taught Little Benny how to play the trumpet. Pryor has performed with Chuck Brown and Little Benny & the Masters in its early incarnation, and played trumpet on Brown and Eva Cassidy’s cherished album, The Other Side.
During the ’80s, Pryor served as music specialist at the D.C. Department of Recreation, running the Showmobile music program, which played a key role in developing many young musicians who would become go-go’s beloved stars. Pryor hired Battle, then a teenager, to play trombone in the Rec Department’s Ambassador’s Band, and also to teach younger kids. Later, Pryor helped Battle work with the first all-female go-go band, Pleasure.
For Go-Go Mickey, who played with the Rec Department’s Young Ambassador’s Band, his ties with Pryor span generations. His father, Milton “Big Mickey” Freeman, played with Pryor in the R&B group Mickey & the Blazers. Pryor taught Go-Go Mickey’s daughter music at Forestville High School. And in recent years, he and Pryor have played together at Beulah Baptist Church in Northeast D.C.
Pryor notes that the value of connections between go-go artists and area music professors who specialize in other genres of music cannot be overstated. “A lot of the professors and teachers who grew up in this area more than likely have the ability to translate an understanding about go-go to their students,” he says. “This is very important in terms of preservation of the culture.”
Those links have also influenced the sound of “Let’s Ride,” explains Pryor. “It’s really a mixture of jazz, funk, and go-go,” he says. “In some ways, it reminds me of Tom Browne’s “Funkin’ for Jamaica.’”
Battle is currently working on his master’s degree from Berklee College of Music. His father LeRoy Battle, a jazz drummer and music educator who played frequently with Billie Holiday, graduated from Julliard, but Battle chose Berklee based on the strength of its online program. And for anyone wondering how he fared in that BSU music composition class, he got an A.