AHA Annual Meeting
Grooves for the People: Go-Go, the Musical Pride of DC
A form of African American popular music, go-go emerged in the District of Columbia and neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, in the mid-1970s. African Americans formed 71 percent of the city’s population according to the 1970 census, and the district, spurred by the Black Arts Movement and the devastating 1968 riots following the death of Martin Luther King Jr., had come to be known as “CC,” for Chocolate City. Today, go-go remains popular among black Americans in the immediate Washington, DC, region and is too rarely recognized as the most regionally focused form of vernacular music in the United States.
The genre takes its name from a slang word for a nightclub, as heard in the 1965 Motown single “Goin’ to a Go-Go,” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The song reverberated throughout Washington, DC, and within 10 years became directly associated with the musical performances of Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. Brown (1936–2012) is largely credited as the man who brought all of the musical and cultural elements together to create the distinctive sound of go-go.
When he pioneered the genre in the 1970s, Brown drew on his experience playing guitar with Los Latinos, a local Latin band. Augmenting the typical trap drum set, the group’s multiple percussionists emphasized the complex polyrhythms underpinning Latin music. A similar sound could be heard in the music performed by the large number of Caribbean and African students attending Howard University. The use of congas and timbales in go-go has been one of its constant forces, and the drums are still heard in the sound of most go-go bands, though less so in those playing the “bounce beat” that has developed over the past 15 years.
Brown’s use of horns in the Soul Searchers also underscored his roots in R&B and funk. Along with Trouble Funk and Rare Essence, many go-go bands active in the 1980s—giving a nod to local favorite (and nationally renowned) Parliament-Funkadelic—maintained a very heavy funk approach. Inspired by the success of disco and tired of being hired to play covers only of Top 40 songs, Brown busted loose with his take on funk meets jazz and R&B, organizing it into a nonstop dance event that would last for hours without a break. By 1980, go-go was the most listened- and danced-to form of black music in and around the District. Multi-band gigs took place in small, neighborhood settings and at large venues like the Capital Center (then home to the local professional basketball and hockey teams, located near the Beltway in Landover, Maryland). These performances often attracted capacity crowds, many of whom hardly sat down for the entire show.
The “Godfather of Go-Go,” Chuck Brown played nonstop dance events that would last for hours without a break.
Interest in go-go increased in the early to mid-1980s, with the release of Good to Go (Island Films) marking a high point. This 1986 film was meant to do for go-go what The Harder They Come (1972) accomplished for reggae. A weak and violent script, however, led to poor reviews, and the film quickly tanked. Good to Go, which hasn’t been released digitally, includes several vibrant performances by Chuck Brown and Trouble Funk, captured in front of a live and enthusiastic audience.
Go-go often reflects specific sections of the city and individual neighborhoods. Bands typically offer shout-outs to one of the four geographical sections of DC during their performances: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, or Southwest. This call-and-response ritual often gets down to specific neighborhoods, whose names—Simple City or Trinidad, for example—are not found on official city maps. Crew members (groups of neighborhood fans who follow a particular band) respond with great enthusiasm to “represent” for themselves and their friends.
The music had a few other fleeting brushes with the mass media. Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers had a number one R&B single in 1979 with “Bustin’ Loose,” and in 1988, Experience Unlimited (better known as EU) were featured in Spike Lee’s School Daze, with a song, “Da Butt,” that briefly shone the spotlight on the band and took them on the road. But their out-of-town gigs eventually dried up, and they returned to their home base of support after two years.
Bands like EU were used to playing locally, and many musicians held day jobs. National touring was expensive and held no greater promise of returns than staying and performing several gigs a week at home. Just as important for many of the musicians were the aesthetics of go-go. Performing for larger audiences held plenty of appeal, but also the possibility of compromise: Could they, for example, play the same nonstop, hard-driving music for folks who were increasingly accustomed to hip-hop?
As hip-hop gained ascendancy, in fact, some of its musical aesthetics affected go-go. In the 1990s, newer bands, most notably Backyard Band, began featuring a “lead talker” (a term unique to DC go-go) that has its parallel in the hip-hop MC. Backyard Band, Raw Image, and Uncalled 4 also eschewed horns, essentially replacing them with an electronic keyboard.
The move to the more drum-heavy “bounce beat” sound at the turn of the century was largely championed by Reginald “Polo” Burwell. Polo led the highly influential TCB band, which he helped found in the late 1990s. The success of TCB, which often performed with Wale, led to the formation of other groups like What? Band and XIB. These latter groups, following TCB’s lead, also emphasized an insistent, less-complex beat that typically added a rototom to the drum set, deemphasized the congas and timbales that had anchored earlier go-go bands, added a few vocalists, and used a synthesizer in place of the horns so often heard in the first-generation go-go groups. For about 10 years, Polo led the bounce beat movement until he died of a brain hemorrhage in December 2013.
Polo was an outspoken critic of the District’s “war” on his music. In the early 2000s, reacting to several acts of violence near clubs featuring go-go music, District officials moved to rein in go-go culture, which they thought brought too many younger black Americans into the increasingly white streets of Washington, DC. Club U, located in the Reeves Center on U Street—part of a historically black but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood—was shut down in 2005 by the Alcohol Beverage Control Board, which cited legal irregularities to revoke the club’s liquor license. Such hostility has meant that go-go—which is best appreciated by way of live performances—is now largely heard in small clubs located outside of the District, particularly in Prince George’s County.
Bands and audiences share a call-and-response ritual that gets down to neighborhoods not found on official city maps.
Nonetheless, go-go, in its many iterations, remains the most distinctive sound of the District. Although there is an increasingly important hip-hop scene here, go-go music remains woven into the city’s fabric. Local black American high school students remain well aware of it, though most listen to bounce beat. Because rap doesn’t speak quite so locally, younger black community members identify with go-go musicians in much the same way that down-home blues provided a voice for black communities in the 1940s. In DC, you are at least as likely to hear African American drivers blasting Trouble Funk, Junk Yard, Chuck Brown, TCB, or Wale from car speakers as you are Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar.
Additional source: Natalie Hopkinson, Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City (Duke Univ. Press, 2012).
Dr. Kip Lornell teaches in the music department at the George Washington University. Among his 14 books is The Beat! Go-Go Music from Washington, DC (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2009), coauthored with Charles Stephenson.
The 132nd Annual Meeting of the AHA will take place in Washington, DC, on January 4–7, 2018. In the run-up months to every meeting, Perspectives highlights aspects of local history and points of interest in our host city. Because we will convene in our hometown this year, we’re delighted to be able to present deeper takes on the Capital City’s history and culture. Welcome to DC (as locals insist on calling it)!
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