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The term “crank” means all kinds of things to different folks, but in the DMV, it usually means the part of a go-go band’s set that is hyped. Crank signifies both the hard thump and the heart and soul of go-go, the beat that keeps fans going all night.
“When it’s crankin’, it’s crankin’,” explains Rare Essence conga player Samuel “Smoke” Dews, one of go-go’s top purveyors of crank. “You don’t have to listen to it, and go, ‘Oh, that’s crank.’ When it’s crankin’, you’ll know.”
Backyard Band leader Anwan “Big G” Glover puts it this way: “The crank is like a combination of drums, conga, keyboard—and the energy onstage. It’s hard to explain,” he says. “The crank is I’ma light the stage on fire each night.”
An excellent example of crank is the new single “You Can’t Run From the Crank,” the first-ever collaboration between go-go’s two powerhouse bands, Rare Essence and Backyard Band. The digital-only single, by Rare Essence featuring Backyard Band, was recorded live by Essence at Fast Eddie’s in Camp Springs with lead rapper Calvin “Killa Cal” Henry on vocals. Later, three stars of Backyard Band—Big G, vocalist Leroy “Weensey” Brandon Jr., and rapper Carlos “Los” Chavels—added their own verses to the track.
Competition between top bands has nearly always characterized the go-go scene, and while individual musicians may migrate between bands, collaborations between bands are rare. “D.C. is known for the crabs in the barrel syndrome,” notes Backyard Band manager Rasaan Fuller. The new single, he says, is “a prime example of the synergy between bands coming together and trying to work together.”
Killa Cal joined Rare Essence a few months before the 2012 “Rare Essence vs. Backyard Armageddon” show at La Fontaine Bleue, regarded by many as one of the best go-go shows ever. “I was thrown right into it,” he says. “There’s a long-going rivalry, but there’s always been respect.”
Some would argue that any rivalries are shadowed by go-go’s strong sense of community. “I think it would be disrespectful to say there’s a rivalry—we look up to Rare Essence in a huge way,” says Big G. “I was a little kid sneaking in Celebrity Hall, the Black Hole, to watch them. These days, we bring our own to the table, and they recognize us and we recognize them. Andre been doing it so long, he is triple OG.”
It was Whiteboy who came up with the idea of releasing a record together. Making it happen took time, he says, but once Backyard agreed, their professionalism was impressive. “It took all three of them 36 minutes to record their individual sessions,” says Whiteboy. “When they came in, they hadn’t heard the song. They listened to it a few times while the engineer was getting set up. And when it was their turn to go in and do their part, they went in and just knocked it out. They all did it in the first take.”
Weensey came up with his line in the chorus—“twin towers banging in the paint”—right there on the spot. “It’s a basketball reference, like when you got two centers fighting for a rebound,” he explains. “Rare Essence and Backyard, both big bands, trying to get that rebound, trying to get that number one spot. It’s like we’re at the NCAA, and we both trying to win the game.”
Many in the go-go community are hoping that “You Can’t Run From the Crank” may signify the dawn of a new era of collaboration between go-go bands—and greater success for them all. “This is a big deal, and it could be the shot in the arm that we need,” says WPGC-95.5’s on-air personality DJ Flexx, who debuted the record today. “I think Essence should collaborate with everybody—Junkyard, Backyard, EU, Team Familiar…We need to keep the music alive.”
Rare Essence and Backyard recently shared the stage at this year’s Emancipation Festival, and they are both performing on a go-go cruise in July. “I think we can be moving so much further with our music if we do more collaborations,” says Big G. “We have so much talent. If we can do more collaborations like this, it would be dope.”
The music for “You Can’t Run From the Crank” was mostly written by Rare Essence keyboardist Roy Battle, with the hook devised by Killa Cal. Cal’s own verse extols Smoke, who won the 2013 “King of the Congas” competition before joining RE two years later. (A bit of trivia for completists: Cal’s verse here represents his spin on Daddy O’s flow on Stetsasonic’s 1988 “Sally.”)
While “Can’t Run From the Crank” celebrates go-go, it is also a defiant declaration that the music is here to stay. No one can erase go-go culture, not the
venues that eschew the music—from grand concert halls to broke-down clubs—nor the radio programmers who won’t give go-go airplay. “A lot of people who are in decision-making roles in radio right now really don’t understand or respect go-go and the role that it has played in the history of the DMV,” says Flexx. “They need to learn to respect and understand the culture of the music.”
With or without radio support, “You Can’t Run From the Crank” may become this summer’s go-go anthem, booming out of car windows all over the DMV, its message aimed at both go-go’s fans and those who fail to appreciate the D.C. groove. “You can’t run from go-go,” says Killa Cal. “It’s not going anywhere. And now we ganged up on you to help you see that.”