In the days following the death of music producer Chucky Thompson on Aug. 9, his prodigious musical contributions, particularly in the realms of hip-hop and R&B, were roundly celebrated. Thompson had worked with some of the biggest names in those genres, including The Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige, Nas, Faith Evans, and TLC. And while some publications mentioned that Thompson got his start in music playing congas for Chuck Brown, few of them focused on Thompson’s close relationship with the DMV’s musical culture: specifically, the go-go that he grew up on and loved.
Thompson, who died at the age of 53, first saw Rare Essence at the Howard Theatre just before entering seventh grade. He played with several local groups before his brief stint as Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers’ conga player. He then mentored the young members of Backyard Band. More recently, he worked with artists including Rare Essence, Backyard, and Sirius Company, and was filming an ambitious documentary that he hoped would finally establish the music as a widely recognized genre. Even after his massively successful collaborations with some of hip-hop’s greatest stars, Thompson always came back to go-go.
So while the world mourned the loss of Thompson, whose death has been attributed to COVID-19, his passing hit the DMV particularly hard.
“We lost a king,” says Thompson’s longtime collaborator and friend, songwriter Kevin “Uno” Blackmon. “Chuck Brown was the godfather. Chucky was the king.”
As the news of Thompson’s death circulated on social media, a common refrain was that this brilliant artist still had so much to do. “We lost a musical giant,” says Michelle Blackwell, both a longtime family friend and musical collaborator. “As much legacy and brilliance as he has already contributed to the industry, he had a lifetime more to give.”
Full Circle Entertainment’s Tom Goldfogle, Brown’s longtime manager, got to know Thompson in 2005 during the recording of Brown’s We’re About the Business album. “The loss of Chucky is heartbreaking in so many ways. It felt like he was just about to write the next chapter of his career. He was a producer, a songwriter, a multi-instrumentalist, and a visionary … with a million ideas, and the wheels would start turning immediately when he heard something he felt,” Goldfogle wrote in an email. “He was one of a handful of artists/creatives from D.C. who wore the city on his sleeve, always putting D.C. and its music first.”
Born and raised in LeDroit Park, Thompson got his start in music sitting on his family’s kitchen floor and banging on pots and pans. His mother bought him a drum set for Christmas when he was 5, and he watched Soul Train religiously. By his own account, he listened to music carefully, one instrument at a time, and he taught himself how to play eight instruments by ear: electric guitar, acoustic guitar, upright bass, electric bass, organ, piano, trombone, drums, and congas. Rare Essence was his top band, and friends say that RE’s Quentin “Footz” Davidson remained Thompson’s favorite drummer. “I didn’t even listen to the radio. I just listened to Rare Essence,” he told me in a 2020 interview in New York’s Quad Recording Studios. “I still have a lot of their PA tapes.”
Early in his teens, Thompson played with several go-go bands, starting with Kaos before moving on to Petworth, and then Ayre Rayde. He wrote a song, “Babies Making Babies,” that Brown recorded, and at 17, Thompson joined the Soul Searchers, playing with the band long enough to record its 1986 “Day-O” hit. Look carefully at Brown’s set in the 1987 “Go-Go Live” Capital Centre concert, and there is Thompson, baby-faced, smacking the congas.
Not long after Go-Go Live, Brown fired Thompson. It was disappointing at the time, but proved to be a blessing. “Him cutting me loose had me figure out the rest of my musical life because right after that, I started focusing on production out of my basement, which is around the corner from Howard University,” Thompson said in 2020. Students and other aspiring rappers from the area were his clients. “I was charging $10 a beat. It was affordable, it was around the corner, so I was doing a lot of tracks to learn how to produce better, and I wound up getting a group signed to a major label, Born Jamericans.”
While still negotiating the terms of his own contract with Sean “Puffy” Combs, Thompson was in his basement studio working with Born Jamericans, two young D.C. artists seeking to merge hip-hop with reggae dancehall. Their first single, the 1993 “Boom Shak A-Tack,” was a global hit.
“He gave us a signature sound that defined the group, and we were his first record that took off and went international,” says Born Jamericans’ Edley Shine. “They rarely mention us in his discography because he’s done so much, but people in the music business know. He was one of the greatest producers ever. I would put him on the level of Quincy Jones and every other acclaimed producer.”
Even when working as part of Bad Boy Entertainment’s production team The Hitmen, Thompson sought to incorporate go-go in tracks by artists including The Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige, and Shyne. “We were just all young, and we had opportunity. I just chose a lot of my opportunities to slide go-go in as much as possible just to see if it would go over,” he said in 2020. “I was doing subtle go-go stuff because go-go is not just congos. It’s a groove to me that makes go-go—it’s a pocket.”
Thompson’s greatest influence on go-go culture was his early involvement with Backyard, at the time a group of teenage friends who had coalesced into a go-go band. “I went to see them, and the lead guy had something about him,” Thompson later recalled, referring to bandleader Anwan “Big G” Glover. Thompson played with them—“just to get them more familiar with how to perform and really turn what they were doing into an actual show,” he said—but also mentored them in other ways, pulling members away from the temptations offered by street corner hustling. Thompson took Big G to meet with go-go’s godfather, Chuck Brown, a sit-down that Big G has often described as profoundly impactful.Thompson also brought the supremely gifted congas and timbales player Keith “Sauce” Robinson into the band.
“The band members viewed him as the epitome of someone coming from the same neighborhood and bettering himself instead of going in the wrong direction,” says Backyard manager Raasan Fuller. “Chucky was a go-go guy who branched out and did what he wanted to do, but go-go was always in his heart. He had his own particular sound that the band and everyone around us loved. You can hear Chucky’s music in our breakdowns to this day.”
In recent years, Thompson worked on Backyard and Rare Essence’s collaborations with Snoop Dogg. “Chucky was literally playing paint buckets on ‘Chuck Baby,’” says Uno. “He was all about the authenticity of go-go culture, and he could play every instrument in the studio.”
Thompson had also produced several tracks for Darryll Brooks’ I Hear Ya! Entertainment label, including new songs by Sirius Company, Familiar Faces, and We are One X-Perience Band. “Everybody loved Chucky. He was a bright star,” says Brooks. “Chucky was a taskmaster in a positive sense as far as precision, delivery and presentation. That’s what made him so popular with these artists.”
Frank “Scooby” Sirius, vocalist for the Chuck Brown Band and his own Sirius Company, was thrilled to work with Thompson. “There’s some guys who came from the go-go scene that went on to acclaim and world-famous status, but there was no one more famous or more accomplished than Chucky,” says Scooby. “I don’t think there’s anybody else in the world who has accomplished Grammy-nominated music in all three genres, R&B, hip-hop, and go-go.”
R&B star Raheem DeVaughn, whose 2008 Grammy-nominated track “Women” was produced by Thompson, describes Thompson’s influence as global and personal. “Chucky was a genius of a different kind. His production sonically changed hip-hop and R&B in the ‘90s forever,” says DeVaughn. “Personally, he was the first person that showed me you don’t have to move away to become legendary.”
One of many unfinished projects Thompson left behind is his documentary, Chucky Thompson Presents Go-Go, which he hoped would educate viewers on go-go culture. “We have one of the only places where you can actually go see an art form that was created in its truest form. You can go to the go-go and see Rare Essence right now in their element. But we can’t keep holding it just for ourselves,” he said in that 2020 interview. “I want go-go to be considered with any genre. You can do any record in a reggae tone, you can do any record in salsa. Guess what? You can also do any record in go-go. I need to break it down enough for people to understand what it’s about,” he said.
“Go-go is a heavy part of D.C.,” he added before returning to the studio. “I’ve used this music to basically help create who I am in this industry. Now I just want to make sure that we’re getting all the kudos we deserve.”
A previous version of this post misspelled Raasan Fuller and Darryll Brooks’ names.