Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Go-Go. It's a local phenomenon that is over 20 years old, and shows not signs of dying. In that time, it has evolved into a way of life unique and rooted to Washington, D.C., Southern Maryland, and Northern Virginia. Chuck Brown is credited as being the man who started it all. For this he is referred to as "The Godfather."
During the early 70’s Chocolate City had a very competitive live music scene. Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers were respected as one of the top bands and recorded a few moderately successful records. One of their singles, Ashley's Roach Clip, contains a distinct beat that has been sampled and duplicated countless times most notably by Eric B. and Rakim (Paid in Full), and Soul to Soul (Keep on Moving). In fact, it may be one of the sampled and duplicated loops of the early hip-hop era. In 1978 Brown hit it big with a single that would become a 70’s funk classic – "Bustin’ Loose."
Brown explains that he came up with a new playing style – later tagged Go-Go – purely out of necessity. "Disco DJ’s started taking our shows," he points out. "They were cheaper and because of mixing they could keep the dance floor packed. People no longer liked the pause in between songs." In response, "the Godfather" started experimenting with a style that enabled his band to continue into the next song without ever stopping. He let the percussion section – drums and congas – take over, while he talked to the crowd. The call and response lyrics, and percussion work that developed became the benchmark of Go-Go.
Keep in mind that the extended groove was already the cornerstone of 70’s funk and soul. Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, War, and George Clinton, among others, started taking their grooves out to 10 and sometimes 15 minutes. Chuck Brown took it even further. He joined different grooves into one continuous set that lasted as long as two hours. The crowd response was overwhelming. Almost over night young bands throughout the city studied the new style. They imitated it, added their own spin, and a new music began to take form. They called it Go-Go, a term that, at the time, simply meant a party. Remember Smokey Robinson’s hit "Going to a Go-Go?"
The scene began to flourish in the late 70’s and early 80’s led by Trouble Funk, EU and Rare Essence (out of respect the Godfather is always in a class by himself). The competition among these three bands was fierce. A common argument throughout the city concerned which band "cranks" the best. This led to shows promoted as Battle of the Bands, which drew thousands to venues such as The Washington Coliseum and the D.C. Armory. But the most anticipated shows were at the Capital Center Arena. Two annual shows – The Back to School Boogie, and the New Years Ever Party with the Stars – brought Go-Go’s best together with hip-hop’s best.
It wasn't long until members of both scenes began working on projects together. Kurtis Blow collaborated with EU in his 1982 single Party Time. In 1984 Grand Master Flash & the Furious Five did their own version of Trouble Funk's Pump Me Up. Herbie Luv Bug used Go-Go samples on hit singles by Salt-n-Pepa’s My Mike Sounds Nice, and Kid-n-Play’s Rolling with Kid-n-Play. Hitman Howie Tee did the same with the Real Roxanne’s Bang Zoom - Let's Go-Go. LL Cool J used a Trouble Funk loop in the bridge of Rock the Bells, as did Heavy D used a Go-Go breakdown in Mr. Big Stuff, and Doug E. Fresh used a Chuck Brown backbeat in All the Way to Heaven, as well as using Rare Essence in the remake of I'm Getting Ready. Even Grace Jones was digging the Go-Go beat and used EU on her Slave to the Rhythm single.
In 1983, Island Records founder and CEO, Chris Blackwell, got wind of this peculiar funk style and immediately took interest. As the man who brought reggae and Bob Marley to the world, he was convinced that he could do the same with Go-Go. To this end, he invested millions in a campaign which included signing all the major bands to recording contracts and bombarding music trade publication with publicity about the coming of Go-Go. The most ambitious venture, however, involved a movie entitled Good to Go (Now titled Short Fuse). It was Blackwell’s intention that this movie would serve as the music's launching ground. Perhaps doing for Go-Go what The Harder They Come did for Reggae. Things were off to a surprisingly good start. Island's first single – Movin’ and Groovin’ by Redds & the Boys – was a smash hit in England. It immediately climbed to #1 on the UK charts and peaked much interest in the music.
Despite the high hopes and initial success, things slowly fell apart. Petty jealousies within the Go-Go community made it impossible for Island to sign all of the major acts. This was no small matter since this was a major part of Blackwell’s larger plans. Making matters worse, Good To Go, starring Art Garfunkle (of Simon and Garfunkle) was dead even before arrival. The movie was so bad that even die hard Go-Go fans hated it. It really wasn't that bad, but it definitely didn't live up to expectations. Blackwell took his losses and left the music where he found it, although Trouble Funk remained under contract to Island and continued to be a hot commodity in Europe and Japan.
In 1986, Def Jam's Rick Rubin signed a group of young teens who played on instruments that they constructed out of junk. With Junkyard Band, Rubin produced a 12 inch single, Sardines, that is still today one of the best produced Go-Go recordings ever made. Unfortunately, Def Jam never followed up in developing the band.
Another big break came in 1988 when EU, climbed to the top of the pop and R&B charts with Da Butt, featured on Spike Lee's Skool Daze soundtrack. This was a tremendous breakthrough that no one, not even the most loyal fan, ever imagined. Not since Bustin’ Loose had something coming from D.C. hit so hard. For the first time, a Go-Go video was on BET and MTV.
EU inked a deal with Virgin and immediately became one of the hottest tickets at colleges and nightclubs. Many were thinking that Go-Go’s time had truly arrived. Unfortunately, EU’s commercial success did not spell larger success for Go-Go as a scene. In the end they were dismissed as one-hit-wonders as their follow up album – did not live up to expectations. Their second Virgin release simply bombed. When they returned home, EU discovered that they lost their hometown following as well. Few loved them anymore. Go-Go heads accused them of selling out.
Trouble Funk returned home after heir Bootsy Collins produced album Trouble Over Here bombed. They too found an unforgiving scene very different from the one they had left.
In the early 90’s a new generation of bands began to take over the scene led by Backyard, Northeast Groovers, and Junkyard. Even Rare Essence re-worked their style and lineup to remain current.
Unlike their predecessors who were raised on 70’s funk these bands were members of hip-hop’s first generation. They were also a generation who came of age during D.C.’s most violent period when it earned the distinction as the nation's murder capitol. The new Go-Go sound reflected the changing values and realities of a new street culture. The music is also more stripped down. Newer bands don't even have horn sections, which have always been one of the more appealing aspects of the sound. Instead they work the percussion harder with a more in your face style. Their lyrics are also edgier, with explicit lyrics not only common, but expected. Bands that don't curse are dismissed as not keeping it real. Things have definitely changed from the old days when bands used to make up call and response lyrics and were responsible for inspiring new dances (contrary to what you may hear all the good party dances from the 80’s came out of D.C. – Wop, Cabbage Patch, Electric Slide etc.)
Surprisingly, Go-Go’s most commercially successful album of the 90’s has come from one of its DJ’s. Using phat loops, old school hooks, and call & response lyrics that inspire crowd participation, DJ Kool tapped into growing audience that wanted a return to the pure party vibe. His independent release Let Me Clear My Throat was so successful that it was picked up by Rick Rubin’s American Records and re-released nationally. The video featured Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie. Despite DJ Kool’s success, the music's real power continues to be in the bands. To better understand the phenomenal hold that they have on Washington area culture, you simply have to experience it live.
The sight of ten people on stage, tirelessly working their instruments – riffling off one another, giving birth to new grooves on the spur of the moment – is something that has not been seen, anywhere else, at the street level in over 20 years.
In the end, Go-Go remains appealing because it never attempts to be slick, pretty, polished, or accepted on a
larger level. For over 20 years it has flourished on a regional level. No one familiar with it doubts for a second
that it will survive another 20.
Many people in the music industry have asked the question, "Whatever happened to the live R&B band?" I
don't know, but there are about 100 in D.C. holding down the funk. Go take your pick.
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