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We, the children of Marion Barry‘s mayoral years, remember the simple joys of attending a go-go where bands like Ayre Rayde, Rare Essence, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Little Benny and the Masters, and Junkyard hit pockets and sockets.
Those were all-night, sweating-the-chemicals-out-your-hair kind of parties. We were siced to hear our names and neighborhoods represented during roll call; we were transported if we ever got to meet What’s Up Woody, Lisa of the World, Tanya-F, Gangster George, and RE Randy, whose names we saw scrawled on brick walls, buses, trash cans, and bridges. The city was a blank canvas for go-go graffiti taggers like Disco Dan, later known as Cool “Disco” Dan.
Yes, 1980s D.C. stirs up a lot of unpleasant realities: drug warfare, racial tension, and an outrageous murder rate. But at the time, at least there were a few diversions from the social ills that plagued the city.
The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan is the long-awaited documentary that takes us back to another era in D.C.’s history—-and explores a subculture that is often misunderstood. It looks at a period that birthed the phantomlike go-go graffiti tagger and artist Cool “Disco” Dan (Danny Hogg), whose tag went on to become one of the city’s most everlasting. With his life story serving as the focal point, the documentary provides a colorful history lesson about neighborhood crews, go-go graffiti, and go-go music, followed by their decline and the emergence of punk music and a new era of graffiti.
With the narration of D.C. native Henry Rollins, directors Roger Gastman and Joseph Pattisall begin Dan’s story with his family moving from Boston to Maryland’s D.C. suburbs. He began to explore and immerse himself in drawing at a young age, especially when his father disciplined him. He is described as being “painfully shy,” to the point at which he felt apprehensive about the 1991 Washington Post article that revealed his identity; yet, he longed to be one of the local superstars who were shouted out at go-go shows and on PA tapes.
Despite Hogg’s shyness, “he was very open and honest about everything as we filmed,” says Gastman. But the documentary does tread some difficult ground, particularly the issue of Hogg’s mental health. His family talks about how Dan may have never recovered from his father’s absence and his premature death due to a brain aneurysm. The film basically credits his illness with keeping him off what were then very dangerous streets in the District; it also suggests his state of mind helps explain why he was so tough to pin down—-leaving even his family unaware of his whereabouts.
“Dan’s mental health issues were a part of the movie because in an odd way it may have saved him in a way by getting him out of the city for a year when things were getting really bad in D.C.,” says Pattisall. “But the flip side is it also caused him to become homeless when he came back.”
No one offers a real diagnosis for Hogg, however, or assigns his condition a particular name. “We felt that the need for mental health care resources and outreach, writ large, is much more important than focusing on a single condition,” says producer Caleb Neelon. It also doesn’t explore his present state of mind. “We didn’t want to go to much further into the state of his mental health in modern times beyond the epilogue at the end,” says Pattisall, “because the movie is about back then—-not the day-to day-of Dan in 2013.”
Beyond the hurdles Hogg dealt with in the 1980s, go-go was struggling to manage its own trials and tribulations, too. The scene suffered a decline after the high-profile 1984 robbery and murder of Catherine Fuller, for which eight were convicted of first-degree murder in 1985. Late last year, some of the convicted sought a new trial, claiming evidence had been suppressed and confessions extracted by violent means. A judge denied their request. At the time of the murder, crack had hit the nation’s capital, causing a spike in crime. Go-go music became a suspicious symbol in Washington as its crews began to appear too similar to gangs.
“The murder of that lady just messed things up. It stopped being fun,” says “Gangster” George, who is featured in the film and simply goes by George nowadays. “Anytime I went in that area to a go-go I stayed quiet. You see in the film where it is mentioned that folks was hollering out ‘Eighth and H’ and weren’t in that crew. I just stayed quiet,” he says.
With only nicknames of people to go on, Gastman and Pattisall spent 12 years conducting cold searches to round up people to take part in the documentary. Some Hogg approached, including George whom he ran into on the Metro one day and asked to participate. The filmmakers’ work paid off. “When we started this, I felt a huge burden about telling someone’s life story, and with it being Dan there’s a huge expectation,” says Pattisall. “I’m really glad it took as long as it did and we were able to get it right.”
George, too, seems gratified with the result. “They hit it right on the nose with this,” he says. “This film brings back so many memories. It’s telling the real story about D.C., especially about go-go.” Graffiti artist Asad “Ultra” Walker, who is also featured, hopes that upon seeing the film, “native graffiti writers will have pride and know that graffiti is not an entirely New York creation and that we have our own styles, traditions and hometown heroes.”
The film premieres Feb. 23 at AFI Silver Theatre. Both shows sold out. Tickets still available for the March 1 showing at 7:15 p.m. The film is accompanied by “Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, on view Feb. 23 to April 7. (Washington City Paper is a media sponsor.) A companion concert, the “Funk-Punk Throwback Jam” with Trouble Funk, Junkyard, Scream, and other D.C. bands takes place Feb. 24 at the 9:30 Club.
Photo by Tiffany E. Browne