Every go-go fan remembers their first live go-go show. For rapper Doug E. Fresh, it was a mid-’80s “Go-Go Meets Rap” concert at the old Capital Centre in Landover, where he appeared with Run-D.M.C. and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. Run advised Fresh to check out Brown’s set, and Fresh was blown away by Brown’s outsize charisma, the exceptionally skilled band, an audience of thousands chanting, “Wind me up, Chuck,” and, of course, Brown’s go-go beat with its multilayered percussion and laid-back funky groove.
“Lord have mercy. I was like, this is unbelievable,” recalls Fresh. “When the beats was coming in and he just started rockin….it was him. It was something about him … and the band was so tight.”
Later that night, he sought out Brown in the dressing room. “I said, ‘Man, that was unreal. I never seen nuthin’ like this,’ and he started laughing,” Fresh says. “That was my first encounter with the Godfather, and it was like an automatic click. We started talking, and our relationship grew into this bond.” Their friendship lasted until Brown’s death in 2012.
Last month, Fresh released This One’s for Chuck Brown: Doug E. Fresh Salutes the Godfather of Go-Go, a valentine to Brown and the genre he created. The album reflects their personal and professional relationship: For years, Brown’s sets included Fresh and Slick Rick’s 1985 song “La Di Da Di,” and the two shared stages on multiple occasions, including Brown’s 75th birthday celebration on the Capitol Lawn with the National Symphony Orchestra. On stage, their connection was natural and authentic. “I would get on with him, and we would just freestyle,” says Fresh. “We would just go where the energy go.”
This One’s for Chuck Brown is a go-go album, and its nine tracks include new material as well as updated versions of Fresh’s classic hits “I’m Gettin’ Ready” and “The Show.” The second track, “Chuck Brown,” celebrates Brown’s immense cultural contribution: “Gold tooth and hat, guitar and strap / He can sing and rap, no generational gap / Put go-go on the map, he soul searched for that / ‘Bustin’ Loose’ is the track, and now the park is packed / And as the crowd react, you hear a loud impact / From the proud and Black, the drum sounds attract.”
For Fresh, the project was inevitable, a spiritual calling, and the right vehicle for his first solo record in more than 20 years. “My first album that I’m coming back with is go-go,” says Fresh. “What would make me do that? My genuine, sincere love, and appreciation for the creation of go-go.”
The album benefits from the powerful connections the hip-hop icon has shared with the genre ever since that Capital Centre show. Over the years, Fresh has recorded and performed with Brown, Rare Essence, and Team Familiar. While it is not uncommon for nationally recognized rappers visiting the area to join go-go bands’ shows, few have sustained the relationships in ways that specifically benefit local musicians. Unlike other rappers, who’ve either jacked go-go beats or collaborated on recordings with go-go artists, Fresh has maintained close relationships with DMV creators.
When Fresh initially approached Brown’s management and family about the project, the reception was overwhelmingly positive. “Doug has always remained a true supporter and fan,” says Brown’s longtime manager, Tom Goldfogle. “It’s a tribute to Doug that he wanted to do this record. I can’t think of anyone else of his stature that would go out on a limb and do a record like this.”
Brown’s son, Nekos, is thrilled. “Doug E. Fresh is a legend in his own right, so this is a legend honoring a legend,” says Brown. “My father definitely would have loved this and been very proud.”
By his own recollection, Fresh fell in love with go-go before he knew what it was. As a preteen, he hung out in a Harlem game room where he played pool, Pac-Man, and Brown’s 1979 hit, “Bustin’ Loose,” on the jukebox. Young Doug attributed his victories at the pool table to that record.
Once Fresh became a beatbox star and shared stages with go-go bands, he recognized a similarity between the genre’s sinuous grooves and his own free-flowing hip-hop style. “My music had a go-go swing to it,” he says.
But there are other, deeper connections that reach further into the past. “The beat, I just know it instinctively,” he says. “It’s something that connects us back all the way to the beginning of communication … I think that the go-go beat means something. We don’t really know what it is, but genetically, we respond to it.”
Fresh’s sounding board for the project was his longtime friend Donnell Floyd, formerly of Rare Essence and Team Familiar. Their friendship dates back to the mid-’80s. Fresh, who appeared alongside Stevie Wonder at Floyd’s 2019 farewell concert, frequently performed with Rare Essence and appeared on the band’s 1993 single “Must Be Like That.” (Rare Essence performs on Fresh’s 1988 “I’m Gettin’ Ready” and a new remix of the song.) “Doug has an incredible feel for go-go, and for what it is that we do,” says Floyd.
Historically, outside music labels have softened go-go for mass consumption, much to its detriment. Fresh was determined to record an album that was faithful to Brown’s distinctive beat. Some of This One’s for Chuck Brown was recorded live at a local, pre-COVID performance with Team Familiar, which helps maintain the integrity of its go-go sound. “I wanted it to be pure and authentic,” he says. “My job on this project was to present go-go in the right way, and it was important for me to do this with the banner of Chuck Brown and the respect for Chuck Brown.” A forthcoming video for “Chuck Brown” will be accompanied by a brief retrospective of Fresh’s history with go-go.
Last summer, the Recording Academy added go-go to its Best Regional Roots Music Album category. As an internationally recognized icon, Fresh has a strong chance to bring home that or other Grammy awards with this release. “I don’t see go-go as regional. I see it as international, and I think it will continue to grow. It has so much possibility,” says Fresh. “Hip-hop has evolved and changed forms. I feel that go-go has the same potential, as long as the creators continue to create in a fearless way.”