There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
In the recent documentary Basketball County: In the Water, Suitland’s own Kevin Durant talks about how go-go’s distinctive beat shaped the way that he and other basketball stars from Prince George’s County move through the game. “Go-go is the music that played before games in the summertime, and it’s a rhythm and tempo we play with,” he said. “Style and flair have always been part of our games. Showcasing our ball handling and scoring, that’s always been an integral part of our brand of basketball. Go-go created this separation from every other region in the country.”
During the ’80s, Scott Van Pelt and the rest of Sandy Spring’s Sherwood High School basketball team also listened to D.C.’s homegrown funk.
“Go-go music was absolutely the sound and the rhythm of that game,” says Van Pelt. “It was always on, when we were riding the bus to school and when we played in the gym. Whether it was Trouble Funk or Experience Unlimited or Rare Essence, that was just the soundtrack of playing sports in an area that was thankfully multicultural and multiracial and exposed us to a lot of different things.”
“Especially for basketball, if you hear that beat and you’re in a layup line, you’re feeling like you could go rip the rim out of the backboard,” adds Van Pelt.
Unlike Durant and the other players featured in Basketball County, Van Pelt did not end up playing professionally; instead, he talks about basketball and other sports for ESPN’s nightly SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt. Late last year, he made the decision to move the show from the cable station’s headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, to Washington, D.C. Planning the program’s local debut, he says, “I was thinking what can we do to give the show a feel or look that says D.C.? I immediately thought, go-go music.”
Work on the new intro began shortly after Van Pelt mentioned in an interview that he would love to have Trouble Funk record his new theme music. Word got to bandleader “Big Tony” Fisher, who reached out to Van Pelt.
“I was surprised to find out how much he knows about go-go and Trouble Funk in particular,” says Big Tony. “He had a pretty good idea of what he was looking for, a go-go pocket along with the original theme hook that they had for years. He wanted me to put something around it and do it go-go style.”
The result is an instrumental breakdown that draws on the band’s signature introduction for two of its ’80s classics, “The Beat” and “Trouble Funk Express.” Last week, when Van Pelt debuted his new D.C. area studio, he also introduced his new musical intro, saying, “Let’s go! As the legendary sound of go-go royalty Trouble Funk brings us on the air, the only appropriate way to say hello as we begin from Washington, D.C.”
Big Tony could not have been happier. “It made me feel really proud to just be a part of this whole go-go movement,” he says. “So many people watching this show all over the world, and the fact that he wanted to brand his new show in D.C., that’s a big up. He proudly wants to represent the DMV, and to hear Scott give us our props, I was like, ‘Wow, he said that shit.’”
Go-go has continued to gain visibility in the past year as the #DontMuteDC and Long Live GoGo movements have raised the music’s profile. Earlier this year, the city government responded to weeks of musical protests against gentrification’s marginalization of both the city’s African American residents and their beloved go-go culture by designating the genre the official music of the District of Columbia.
“Go-go is starting to get the recognition that is way, way, way overdue,” Big Tony says. “Moving forward, we can get more recognition from tourists, just like New Orleans and any other place that has its own musical sound.”
Domo “Youngman” Lee, a drummer and producer currently with Project 71 and the WHAT?! Band, played drums on the SportsCenter intro.
“Having go-go on the national program on ESPN? You’re looking at a prime-time sports channel with a go-go beat,” he says. “And not only that, it’s go-go music by one of the most sampled go-go bands in history. So now we have Trouble Funk on ESPN, Rare Essence is about to put out a song with Snoop Dogg, and the go-go livestreams that are going on now during the pandemic are making go-go more accessible to the outside world.”
As a teenager, Van Pelt did not attend any of the weekly go-go shows in the D.C. area, but he and his Montgomery County friends did make their way to a few of the concert festivals, including the Back to School Boogies at the old RFK Stadium. Decades later, he is still a go-go fan, treasuring an ancient Trouble Funk cassette tape he hasn’t listened to for a long time.
“It’s not even white any more; it’s yellow,” Van Pelt says. “It’s got ‘Let’s Get Small’ and ‘Drop the Bomb.’”
Those two tracks and Trouble Funk’s “Don’t Touch That Stereo” top Van Pelt’s list of favorite go-go songs, and he is psyched to help go-go find a larger audience. Last month, when he heard the new SportsCenter intro’s final mix, Van Pelt couldn’t believe his good fortune.
“It was impossible to process that that’s a real thing,” he says. “If you told my 18-year-old self this would happen, my 18-year-old self would have a very difficult time processing how this could possibly be. But here we are.”