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There’s a YouTube clip from a few years ago in which Philadelphia songstress Jill Scott appears to be completely overcome by admiration. She’s in the middle of her set at the Summer Spirit Festival at Merriweather Post Pavillion, and she’s about to perform with Chuck Brown.
“When I heard that band and those drums, I knew that Africa still resided in us,” says Scott, whose 2000 hit “It’s Love” is a straightforward go-go jam. “So when I did that little song, I didn’t expect much. I just wanted to give homage to somebody so great. And the fact that he’s on the stage with me tonight, I don’t even know what to say.”
A year later, in 2009, Brown was back at the Merriweather; this time, Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq, and The Foreign Exchange got a close look at Brown’s captivating stage show. “If you’re in the DMV area, and you’re doing a show with Chuck Brown, he is the headliner,” Foreign Exchange frontman Phonte Coleman tells Arts Desk. “It was his artistry, just seeing him control the crowd like that.” Phonte, who grew up in North Carolina, had relatives from D.C. who brought Chuck’s music down south. “After two or three family reunions, you realized this is go-go,” he says.
Much has been made about Chuck’s importance to black Washington. He created go-go, which became the sound of Chocolate City even if it never made much noise outside it. When news broke of his passing, Phonte and others took to Twitter and paid their respects:
“Damn DC: Long Live The Legacy Of The Immortal Sound of Mr Chuck Brown!” tweeted Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots, who in 2010 performed with Brown on NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
“May God bless the soul of The God Father of GoGo Chuck Brown!” tweeted Chicago MC Common.
Locally, the impact of Brown’s death was much heavier. He was the king of D.C., the icon whose majestic stature felt bigger than the city itself. He once played with the National Symphony Orchestra. His music—-sampled by Nelly, Eric B. & Rakim, and Public Enemy—-helped lay the foundation for hip-hop’s incessant grooves and funk-based production.
“I can’t think of anyone else able to inspire our city like that,” says D.C. rapper Tabi Bonney. “I just hope I can reach his level when it’s all said and done, and be just as busy as he was at 75 years old.”
Then there’s “Chuck Brown Way,” the Northwest D.C. block renamed for him in 2009. “He got his roses while he was living,” says soul singer Raheem DeVaughn. “A lot of people don’t get that opportunity.”
DeVaughn says he’ll remember Brown’s humility and sincerity. “He had a million-dollar smile,” Devaughn says. “Everybody called him ‘Pop.’ He was the people’s champ.” To honor Brown’s legacy, DeVaughn urges the local go-go community to keep making quality music.
Kacey Williams agrees. While her band Black Alley is rooted in go-go, it dabbles in rock, funk, and soul. “D.C. needs to keep pushing to put the city on the map,” Williams says, “and when we get there, we have to remember that it’s because of Chuck Brown.”