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I meet my friend Nico “the GoGo-Ologist” on a recent Sunday afternoon in the studios of GoGoRadio Live, nestled in Temple Hills, Md.’s Iverson Mall, just past a waiting room filled with photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis’ black-and-white go-go action shots. Nearly every wall is plastered with vintage Day-Glo ads for classic acts like Northeast Groovers, Hot Cold Sweat, and Trouble Funk.
Under the eyes of a life-sized cutout of the late Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, we talk about GoGoRadio’s upcoming fifth anniversary, the demise of prominent go-go storefront retailer (and Nico’s Iverson Mall neighbor) P.A. Palace, go-go’s links to the monster hit show Empire, and why go-go might have to die in order to be born again.
Now in its fifth decade, D.C.’s homegrown go-go scene is showing mixed vital signs. By all accounts, Rare Essence made a righteous showing at Austin’s SXSW last month, the festival’s first-ever go-go performance. But as one of the oldest continuously operating go-go bands, along with Trouble Funk and Experience Unlimited, it highlights the scene’s aging core audience. Black Alley, one of the shiny new lights of go-go, also played Austin—but its members reject the go-go label, saying the band plays “hood rock.” Given that go-go-identified bands earn more police scrutiny and fewer gigs, I get it. Last summer, when I worked with some D.C. teens on a music project for the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, they told me that go-go is “is dying softly.”
This kind of talk seems to just energize Nico. He’s the general manager and CEO of GoGoRadio Live, a 24-hour music site, and he’s still banking on the future. (He hopes to revive a union-like organization for go-go musicians and industry workers to represent their legal, economic, and political interests, too.) Nico’s relaunching the site May 1 at the mall studios off Maryland’s Branch Avenue, where many of the black-owned cultural institutions, churches, clothing retailers, and music stores that were once the beating heart of the District have migrated.
When Nico and I first met a decade ago, he managed a go-go music store on H Street NE back when whispers about a streetcar and revitalized bar scene in the neighborhood were still just conspiracy theories. In my 2012 book, Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, Nico’s life story unfolded in a chapter called “The Archive”—a nod to his work as curator of a private collection of thousands of live go-go recordings.
I have been trying to help Nico raise money to digitize his collection, contributing to a proposed city resolution to honor historic go-go sites, and advising several D.C. black history archives interested in boosting their go-go holdings. I’m mostly just glad that, in the DMV, there are still believers like Nico throwing the soul of the Chocolate City a lifeline.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Hopkinson: When I was in high school in Indianapolis in the 1990s, I had the best job a teenager could have: working at the Camelot and then Sound Warehouse selling music. But by the time I left undergrad at Howard, music stores were dying because of the Internet. With all other types of music retail dying, how does it even make sense for P.A. Palace to grow into a chain of four music stores from 1994 to 2015?
Nico: D.C. and go-go as a whole have always been behind the scale in music. To be honest, I was late getting on the CD thing. The tapes [live recordings on cassettes straight from the sound board of the P.A.] gave a warm feeling. You feel the music a lot more than you could on CD. When you start going digital you lose that warmth.
Hopkinson: P.A. Palace’s 21-year run fits in with go-go’s whole vibe: It does its own thing. What finally did them in?
Nico: Today, you can’t rely on go-go financially because the bands don’t put out enough new quality music. Original studio recordings give new life to the [live] P.A. recordings. Fans have no reason to check you to buy something new. It’s hard to develop and bring in new fans without investing in yourself. Bands are not writing original music, going into the studios, and recording, mastering, packaging. To put it blunt, they are lazy. All that they are doing are covers. It’s sad because there is so much talent in the city.
Hopkinson: But the problem P.A. Palace had is a problem in the music industry, period. People don’t think they have to pay for music. That’s what [Fox’s hit show] Empire is about. If you are going to have an empire, you can’t just sell music. You have to sell magazines, liquor, luxury goods, do sports management. You also need to be publicly traded.
Nico: It is all about visibility. Diddy and Jay Z are a good example. They stay relevant by pushing out their product on various media outlets to stay visible. Beyoncé is the most genius of them all. She is crossing both [black and white] markets. All the advertising, promotion, marketing—everything for her tour—Pepsi paid for all of that.
Hopkinson: That’s why I feel like, as badly written as it is, Empire is a genius concept because at the end of the day, they are selling music—original music. So the storyline is crying about how hard it is to sell music, but in the process, they are selling a ton of music.
Nico: It’s a music video in a TV format.
Hopkinson: Why didn’t anyone think of that before? I was at a wedding yesterday, and they were playing, [sings] “Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop.” I was like, what? This is a wedding.
Nico: The track is hot though.
Hopkinson: It is hot. [Laughs.] I saw an ad for Rare Essence backing an Empire viewing party in D.C. They showed Empire on the big screens, and then the band comes out after. Brilliant!
Nico: That was wise of the promoters [Epic Concepts]. If not, you lose a big part of your walk-up audience because they are at home watching Empire. They did it first with Scandal. When it got really big on Thursdays, bands wait ‘til the show is over before they start playing.
Hopkinson: A lot of go-go is also moving online. Tell me about GoGoRadio.
Nico: The whole idea with GoGoRadio is that a lot of people outside of the culture don’t understand go-go unless they have been there to experience it. So just streaming the music wasn’t enough. We needed live personalities who were on the circuit to give a face to the music. So we got key individuals like DJ Rico, Supa Dan, and Purp Haze. Then when I added Billy the Kidd and 32 [David Ellis], it was a wrap. Go-go never had that big of a platform in terrestrial radio. When there is new original music, we promote it. The most recent studio album was by CCB, Perfect Levels, and Rare Essence’s new single “Cups to the Floor” is doing well.
Hopkinson: One of your most popular shows on the 6-10 p.m. slot is Bounce Beat Radio, which focuses on the newer generation of go-go. It has a more hard-edged sound popular with the 30-and-under crowd.
Nico: The reason why their show is popular, these young kids don’t get to go out as much because there aren’t as many venues available to them. Where else are they going to get it? They hear it live right here. Some of the bands are MTM, ABM, YBI, TOB, A2C, Major Band, Drama Squad, TE, Dream Team, and can’t forget about the Kingz, TCB. The hosts of Bounce Beat Radio show are Cocky, the former manager of 3DB, C-Bo, who was the lead talker of 3DB, and Shooters from ABM. And then the deejay is DJ Blackhouse. The show averages anywhere from 500 to 750 listeners.
Hopkinson: There’s been some outside interest too. SXSW festival organizers asked the D.C. government to bring some live go-go to Austin this year. There are archives popping up at George Washington University and MLK Library interested in go-go. [At-large D.C. Councilmember] David Grosso’s office has begun talking about doing some sort of resolution to honor the key sites where Chuck Brown created the go-go sound. That is preserving the past, but what is the future of go-go?
Nico: People think go-go is dead. Actually, it’s not thriving as it once was, but it’s staying strong. The people that are in the circle of the culture know what’s going on and still come out on a regular. But truly only a couple of bands are thriving in this market. The visibility has really died down.
Hopkinson: What about venues? Gentrification is hurting all kinds of D.C. artists, but go-go artists are hit really hard.
Nico: Venues are lacking. But there are some new ones. Malachai Johns, former manager of Mambo Sauce, he was in the studio yesterday. He is currently booking bands at Maryland Live! Casino. Be’La Dona has been up there, Faycez U Know, Trouble Funk. Secret Society—they don’t call themselves a go-go band, but most of those band members have go-go backgrounds. They are the regular house band up there on karaoke night.
Hopkinson: You’ve been pretty hardcore in your criticism of go-go—the level of musicianship, the level of professionalism and organization, the parties causing a ruckus in neighborhoods. You say the culture does not give back enough to the community. You seem a bit negative about it. What keeps you motivated to devote your life’s work to it?
Nico: I wouldn’t say “negative.” I would say “realistic.” What keeps me going? This is my bloodline! This is a culture. This is not just music. A culture is truly a bloodline that has to be passed on from my child to the next child. We have to be willing to stop doing business like it’s 30 years ago. It’s bands like Familiar Faces and Rare Essence from the older generation that understand the politics and will not be suppressed. This is something that has taken care of me, taken care of many families. It’s its own genre of music. You want to see it thrive as much as possible. Derrick Holmes from the Vybe Band told me that go-go might have to die out in order for it to come back. That was very profound. But you know what? He might be right. If that is the case, this station will be here to help push it along.
GoGoRadio will relaunch at GoWin.media on May 1.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery