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In 2015, Malachai Johns, a former guitarist for the Northeast Groovers and the mastermind behind the band Mambo Sauce, moved to Los Angeles. But he wasn’t done with go-go.
Since then, Johns has made considerable efforts to help the District’s homegrown music find a wider audience. His Allive Agency handles bookings for a variety of go-go artists, his 7070 Sound label releases go-go singles, and his GoGoTix.Co website lists upcoming go-go shows and runs brief news stories about the genre.
Last week, Johns pulled off another achievement for the culture, this one at the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, by organizing SXSW A GO-GO, a concert billed as “A Celebration of the Official Music of Washington DC.” While this was not the first time a go-go act has played SXSW—both Rare Essence and Black Alley have previously performed at the festival—this show was remarkable for its presentation of multiple go-go stars from different bands, all backed by a single band of rotating musicians dubbed Crank Caviar.
While D.C.’s homegrown funk genre continues to flourish in and around the District despite decades of gentrification and discrimination, the music has struggled to maintain a consistent presence beyond the Beltway. Through the SXSW showcase, Johns sought to introduce the live go-go experience to music fans from all over the world. “My philosophy is to try turning people into evangelists of go-go,” Johns says. “South by Southwest has a hundred shows going on in the same street. People walk up and down the street, and if you hear something cool, you go in. So my thought process was that people who may be from Chicago or China or wherever would come in and be like, ‘This is amazing!’ and start telling their friends about go-go.”
In recent months, Johns has been releasing Crank Caviar videos in which ad hoc collections of go-go artists from various bands perform covers of well-known songs such as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” and Usher’s “U Remind Me.” Johns used that same approach while planning SXSW A GO-GO to showcase an array of go-go artists, 18 in all. Holding it all together was Larry “Stomp Dogg” Atwater, a revered go-go drummer who has long played with and managed the Northeast Groovers and has also been a member of multiple go-go bands including What?! Band, CCB, and UCB. Currently, Stomp Dogg’s ATEAM producers group backs many touring R&B and rap artists stopping through the DMV, and he also plays with R&B heartthrob Raheem DeVaughn’s go-go band, the Crank Crusaders.
With its lineup of musicians and vocalists from a variety of groups, the showcase didn’t focus on specific go-go bands; instead, it presented go-go as a genre. As he devised a playlist featuring some of go-go’s greatest classics, Stomp Dogg split the show into three sections and came up with a set list spotlighting some of go-go’s greatest hits.
“My plan was to create a show for people who might not know what go-go is, so my mindset was to go back and study all of the bands in the city and take the most popular classic hits from the majority of the bands,” Stomp Dogg says.
Frank “Scooby” Sirius led the first set, performing early go-go classics with some help from Still Familiar’s Steve Roy. Their set included “Bustin’ Loose” and “Run Joe,” go-go creator Chuck Brown’s 1970s and 1980s hits that Scooby regularly performs with the Chuck Brown Band. Their set also included four of Rare Essence’s greatest hits, one by Anthony “Little Benny” Harley, and Experience Unlimited’s “Da Butt,” which became go-go’s biggest success to date after director Spike Lee featured the band performing it in his 1988 film School Daze.
“The playlist was incredible. It touched on a lot of different sounds and eras of go-go,” Scooby says.
Christian “Rapper Dude” Black (aka “Rappa”), a go-go icon for his history with both Northeast Groovers and What?! Band, anchored the second set along with Roy, Mambo Sauce’s Alfred “Black Boo” Duncan, and the young vocalist J’TA. Their set featured Pure Elegance’s “One Leg Up,” Northeast Groovers classics “The Water” and “Booty Call,” and Mambo Sauce’s anthem “Welcome to D.C.” Rare Essence’s Samuel “Smoke” Dews closed out the set with a conga solo.
“Me and Smoke have a certain chemistry and a certain lock, and until somebody dethrones him, he’s the king of the congas,” says Stomp Dogg, referring to Smoke’s victory at the 2013 King of the Congas battle.
Holding down the final set was Backyard Band’s lead talker Anwan “Big G” Glover and vocalist Leroy “Weensey” Brandon along with TOB’s “Lil Chris” Proctor, the showcase’s only bouncebeat artist. “I knew the assignment. I knew how important it was for me to be there and represent bouncebeat,” Lil Chris says. “This all-star go-go band was all about unity in go-go. It’s a blueprint we all need to use in the future to bring go-go to other areas and other countries.”
Lil Chris’ presence was an imperative, Stomp Dogg says. “He is the mecca of the bouncebeat and the future of this go-go stuff,” he says. “He gets it and respects what came before him.”
Lil Chris had performed with Big G and Weensey on stage with Backyard Band several times in the past, but as he joined them for “Skillet” at the SXSW showcase, he realized it never loses its thrill. “To perform alongside two people I idolized when I was young, that’s kind of amazing,” he says.
Similarly, Weensey was honored to sing “Sardines” by Junkyard Band, whose members weren’t present. “We just played some of their hits so the people can get a chance to hear live and know that we’re fans of their music, too,” Weensey says. “We had a whole gumbo of talent coming together for this show, and that’s what go-go need right now.”
As the final set came to an end, the musicians were reluctant to leave the stage. In what Johns describes as an “iconic moment,” everyone gathered for an encore, a staple in other genres that is a rarity in go-go. They performed an impromptu rendition of Raphael Saadiq’s “Still Ray,” which has become a signature song for Weensey, so much so that when Saadiq performed at the 9:30 Club in 2020, he interrupted the song to bring Weensey and Big G on stage. “Let’s do this the right way,” Saadiq said.
During “Still Ray,” J’TA, a D.C. native and current Howard University student, who is one of go-go’s newer vocalists, stepped in to improvise Beyoncé’s “Cuff It,” much to Stomp Dogg’s delight. “She is making me fall in love with go-go all over again,” he says. “I haven’t seen nobody of her magnitude since Michelle Blackwell. She’s so rounded: She can sing, rap, lead talk, and run the band.” J’TA, for her part, says she was thrilled to be there. “It was definitely an honor to not only represent women, but also the young people who are … just trying to keep go-go alive,” she says.
Montu Mitchell, whose Mitchcraft clothing line of Love DC GoGo shirts and sweatshirts continue to increase in popularity, embarked on what he describes as “a 23-hour sprint marathon” to sell the culture’s merch in Austin. “When go-go leaves D.C., it usually becomes a little more watered down,” he says. “In this case, you had a very pure version of go-go, and people were really getting their go-go moment in. We sold a lot of shirts to people who didn’t know a lot about go-go.”
Mitchell livestreamed all three sets from his Facebook account for the fans back home, and now he’s selling three versions of shirts commemorating the showcase on his website. “The go-go that I enjoy five nights a week was able to translate to a stage that didn’t have a D.C., Maryland, or Virginia liquor license,” he says. “That was a huge accomplishment and shows promise.”
Johns is convinced that go-go can help drive tourism in the District, and he hopes that some of the agencies promoting the city as a tourist destination can support tours for go-go artists. The Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission in Louisiana uses a similar approach in sponsoring touring cajun and zydeco artists as a means to drive local tourism. Johns notes that it’s difficult to schedule go-go tours because the bands do so well at home. “They’re not willing to give up their Friday and Saturday nights, when they make their money, to get in a van and eat ramen noodles,” he says.
Johns and Stomp Dogg are already planning to revive SXSW A GO-GO next year, and Johns will release the next Crank Caviar video next month. For now, the artists featured in the showcase are back in the DMV, performing at their usual venues and reflecting on a job well done.
“South by Southwest shows that there is an interest for this music outside of the DMV. We can actually tour this,” says Black Boo of Mambo Sauce. “It shows that it can happen for us collectively.”
“We let people see what the fuss and the hype is all about [with] the D.C. go-go….The audience loved us,” Stomp Dogg adds. “They partied during each set. They partied.”