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When George Washington University music professor Kip Lornell teamed up with former Experience Unlimited (EU) manager Charles C. Stephenson to introduce academia to D.C.’s primary musical export in 2001’s The Beat, go-go blasted through boomboxes held by guys selling mixtapes out of cars near the intersection of East Capitol St. and Benning Road NE more often than it was heard on WPGC.
Eight years later, white frat boys are lining up to watch Chuck Brown headline the 9:30 Club. We asked Lornell and Stephenson about what has changed.
City Paper: Why does go-go face such a struggle for mainstream acceptance?
Charles C. Stephenson: I don’t think it’s a struggle. You go back historically—there’s been an evolution…most of the musicians are basically satisfied. They don’t want it commercialized. As long as they can play the music in its purest form, they feel good. Some bands would like to go international, national. Periodically, there are breakout artists that reach higher heights. But the majority of musicians associated with go-go are just happy to play the music.
Kip Lornell: It’s no more of a struggle now than it was 10 or 20 years ago….Keep in mind that media has changed so much….It’s much easier to consume go-go if you’re in Amarillo, Texas, and its 2009 than if you’re in Amarillo if it’s 1999.
But if you take go-go out of a club east of the river or in P.G. County, is it still go-go?
Stephenson: You say “go–go,” but that doesn’t describe it all. That’s how it’s been since the beginning. Chuck Brown has a jazz/blues influence…EU had a a rock influence. Everybody has different influences, but what brings it together…the essence of it is the beat.
Lornell: Mambo Sauce got together to break go-go out of D.C.…it was all very carefully put together. That’s the difference between Mambo Sauce and Chuck [Brown], who’s put together a lot of great musicians…but his groups were never meant to bring go-go out of D.C.
Stephenson: I did a [radio] interview…a gentleman called in and said, “I hope go-go doesn’t get out of D.C., because I think it would change the music and it might kill it.” If you wanna hear zydeco, you gotta go to New Orleans. If you want to hear blues, you have to go Chicago…This guy didn’t think there was anything wrong with go-go being confined, contained…as long as it kept the essence of the music.
Lornell: When you decontextualize music and take it out of clubs in DC…it does change some of the performance practices, but the music remains largely the same….Gumbo stays gumbo.
Do you think D.C.’s gentrification will kill go-go?
Lornell: You’d have to gentrify PG County. [Laughs] I don’t see much gentrification out there.
Stephenson: The music ha[s] actually extended its reach. Clubs in Montgomery County I would never expect host go-go….I heard Mambo Sauce in Vienna, Va….There are a plethora of clubs in P.G. County that, eight or nine years ago, wouldn’t exist.
I saw [jazz artist] Marcus Johnson at a Holiday Inn. He’s there every Thursday on Capitol Hill. During the last set, he does “the beat.” And the audience is in their mid-30s and up….There are just different forms of go-go now that didn’t exist when we finished the last [edition].
Will there be a new edition of The Beat in 2019?
Lornell: My initial reaction is probably not. I think, in terms of documenting go-go, what’s really needed is a really good, thorough hour-long documentary that’s widely available. There are some documentaries, but none have enough depth.
Stephenson: I think the next edition will be written by someone else. There are some younger people working on it….The music isn’t exactly standing still.
Kip Lornell and Charles C. Stephenson appear with Chuck Brown at Busboys and Poets on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 6 p.m.