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In 2003, the best place to find Polo was onstage at nightclubs across the D.C. area—but if you showed up early to the go-go, you might’ve found him in the parking lot, taking a nap. I first met TCB’s lead talker that year, outside of the old Deno’s Metro Club on Bladensburg Road NE, when I interrupted his preshow snooze. I was writing a story about the venue and had stepped outside to talk on the phone and smoke. My voice woke him up, so he got out of the car—he was sporting a Polo jacket—walked over, and asked me for a cigarette. He was unsmiling but friendly, and we chatted for a minute.
He talked about a war against go-go—how local officials and the Metropolitan Police Department seemed to blame the music for late-night violence and were determined to stamp out the sound. This was a few years before Club U would shutter for good and more than seven years before Washington City Paper reported that MPD compiled a regular “go-go report” of shows in the area. Still, the writing was on the wall; he was standing in a D.C. neighborhood that used to be a hub of the music but had seen many of its nightclubs—the Icebox, the Taj Mahal—close. Even Deno’s would shut down soon.
Polo also talked, very briefly, about how he was taking go-go in a different direction, and how it was hard to get respect for what he was doing. At the time, his band had been on the scene for a minute but had recently debuted a new sound: bounce beat, a more forceful, drum-heavy style that was a departure from what most people recognized as go-go.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about Polo’s prescience in our conversation, as well as the one thing he was wrong about: As it turned out, he needn’t have worried about gaining the region’s attention.
Polo, born Reginald Burwell, died on Nov. 26 following a long illness, at the age of 42. But in the decade between that 2003 encounter and his death, he became a go-go legend, an innovator whose vision ushered in what was quite possibly the biggest sea change in the music since Chuck Brown created it. Polo and TCB didn’t just create a new sound; they inspired an entire new universe of go-go. The rototom-dependent subgenre was initially maligned—some called it “noise,” others argued that it wasn’t go-go at all. Criticism of bounce beat was similar to what was said about the trap rap bubbling in other cities around the same time: It was blasted for its sometimes suggestive lyrics, its thwacking beat, its tempos that vacillated between syrupy and frenetic. But over time, bounce beat made inroads.
It was eventually embraced, or at least accepted, by go-go fans both young and not so young. In a city that considers “swing” go-go the soundtrack of its story, this was no tiny feat. Even old-timers who deny the appeal of bounce beat understand why it exists. The brash style not only changed the way people danced and partied but became the music for a new chapter in D.C.’s story. If the swing sound carried a generation of Washingtonians through the rough ’70s and ’80s, a time when funk, jazz, and soul was a much-needed salve, bounce grounded them in the ’00s and ’10s, helped them keep their bearings at a time of shifting city demographics, when go-go’s epicenter realigned as the sound of black Washington, at least from the ’70s onward, was pushed to the suburbs. With its pummeling tone and tempo, bounce beat remains a perfect musical metaphor for what young people have experienced as they’ve watched their city be slowly replaced by something unrecognizable.
Polo didn’t always get love for that sound. But everyone recognized it was his.
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Burwell, who grew up in Eckington, joined the band that would become TCB in the late ’90s. He’d been in other groups, but it was with TCB’s core—percussionist Eddie “Luv” McCoy and drummer Neal Thomas—that he started tinkering with the sound that would evolve into bounce beat. They experimented with using rototoms and timbales to drive their music rather than merely accentuate it, tripling and quadrupling strikes to those drums. And they de-emphasized go-go’s traditional congas.
I talked to McCoy about the origins of the bounce in 2012, for a City Paper story that was never published. He said that Burwell was initially reluctant to let the city hear the sound. “He’d say, ‘No, no, no—they’re not ready!’” McCoy said. Finally, a fluke during a 2003 concert provided the moment the band needed. “We had a show, a guy named Big Butch had a show out [in] Riverdale at the firehouse out there, and the power had went out,” McCoy said. “What me and Neal did, we looked at each other, Polo said ‘let it go,’ and we hit it. The crowd went crazy.”
At a time when bands like Backyard, UnCalled 4, and Raw Image were moving the genre toward a more driving sound by using a more forceful “breakdown” beat, bounce beat seems, in retrospect, like a natural progression. Still, the music was initially dismissed by all but a core of believers. It took fans time to realize TCB’s innovation wasn’t a rejection of “traditional” go-go, but a shift. Instead of paying homage to the genre’s early greats by copying their style, bounce beat built on a strong foundation and showed that the music still had more ideas to explore, limited only by percussive innovation and imagination.
“Polo is a very, very good observer,” McCoy told me in 2012. “He learned from Chris from What? Band, Genghis from Backyard, Buggs from Junkyard. It’s like, Polo would take something so simple and it would become a hit. He had confidence, swag, determination, and what he learned from all the vets, he put in one big pot, served it up, and created a movement.”
With his small frame and heavy voice, Polo was the maestro of a beat so relentless that it could knock listeners out of reality, allowing them to focus on nothing but the music. Bounce fans loved him for it. Whether TCB was moving through its walloping cover of “Power” or more suggestive material, anyone who attended a live show was guaranteed an epic night. As many said when Polo died last week, he “changed the way we partied,” or “he taught us how to party.” Nothing builds loyalty like that.
In the 10 years since that now-famous Riverdale show, bounce bands have flooded the area: CCB, TOB, XIB, ABM, New Impressionz, Reaction, Drama Squad. They have battles for supremacy, but Polo is still acknowledged as the originator. When TCB decided to release a recording of an April 2, 2010 show later that year, the cover featured Polo, looming large over the members of TCB. The title: “There is Only One King.”
That show was one of Polo’s last. On Saturday, April 10, 2010, he collapsed onstage while performing at Forestville’s CFE Event Center. He was rushed to the hospital, but soon suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and fell into a coma.
* * *
In the three years since Polo was hospitalized, more go-go clubs have closed, and the music’s night-to-night connection to the city has become more tenuous. But bounce beat has continued to thrive.
TCB still plays, holding down the band’s front line while also holding Polo’s spot in it. They mourned Burwell’s absence and hoped for his eventual return, and they encouraged his fans to join them. They urged everyone to #Pray4Polo, filmed video get-well cards for him, and posted hopeful updates to TCB’s blog—Polo was out of hospice, Polo had squeezed someone’s hand.
They kept his image on their show fliers, encouraged everyone at every gig to put their “Ls” up for ’Lo, and sometimes performed with a cardboard cutout of him on stage. Why wouldn’t they want him there? Why wouldn’t fans want to see his face, even if it was nothing like watching him perform in the flesh? It was fitting that Polo continued to sit in with the band, even in two-dimensional form. The band and the fans kept a musical vigil through the day Burwell died. It likely won’t end soon.
In the last few weeks, the band went from promoting Polo’s birthday party—one of the biggest go-gos of the year, even during the years Polo was ill—to mourning his death.
“[A]s a band we already missed u huge almost 4years u fought but now that you’ve been [taken] to a better place [we’ll] always miss remember and party for u R.I.P. POLO !!!!!!!!” the band posted to its Instagram shortly after Burwell’s passing last week. His fans shared the sentiment. “It was always a celebration n ain’t nuffn [gonna] change it’s still going be a celebration! A celebration of your life!!” one commented.
On TCB’s Twitter feed, the photos and memories of Polo continued through the day, interspersed with promotions for the band’s next gig.
Which felt just right. As Polo knew, that beat doesn’t stop.
A public memorial service for Reginald “Polo” Burwell will take place 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 5 at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW.
Graphic by Carey Jordan; center photo courtesy Ben Adda