The main thing to know about urban music: Washington is both the cradle and the capital of go-go. It was born here, was bred here, and has continued to thrive here for more than 25 years.
Yet mention this to people who don't listen to go-go and you'll probably get a response like, "Go-go? Heard of it. Don't know a thing about it."
Even people who don't like country music can name a few twanging tunes and bands--maybe more than they'd like to admit. But go-go exists in a self-segregated world of black and white Washingtonians who know almost everything about it or nothing at all.
Maybe more than any other musical genre, go-go must be experienced live to be appreciated. That stands to reason: Go-go began as a form of live house music meant to keep an uninterrupted, down-home groove going on the dance floor. Add in the back-and-forth between band and crowd--reminiscent of the call-and-response in many African-American church sermons--and you get an immediate, communal feeling that binds everyone together in a funky, syncopated here and now.
"You get totally involved with the audience," says Chuck Brown, the charismatic founding father of go-go. "You get ideas from them all the time, like when they shout out little hook lines, and you put 'em into the groove." Or as Charles Stephenson, a former go-go band manager and coauthor of The Beat: Go-Go's Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop, puts it, "The audience is another instrument for go-go bands."
Brown realized that early on. By the early 1970s he was already a veteran of the DC club scene, playing three or four dozen Top 40 covers a night to crowds that were slow to get on their feet. "They'd come in all dressed nice and sit down at their tables and then not get up till they were drunk," he recalls. It didn't help that the songs lasted only two or three minutes each; any dance-floor momentum stopped dead while the band geared up for the next tune.
So Brown hit on the idea of using a running percussion beat to tie all the songs together, making a set sound like a medley of individual numbers starting and stopping over a pounding, nonstop rhythm. "We started breaking the tunes down and talking to people at the same time, and rhyming with them, and then neckties would come off and the floors would get packed right away."
Brown called it go-go for two reasons. It was the era of "go-go clubs and go-go girls, but there was no go-go music." The other reason: "Once the energy got going with this stuff, it just kept going."
After a few more years of doing covers, Brown started writing his own songs. His first hit was "Bustin' Loose," recorded and released in the late '70s.
Along with Brown and his group, three other early go-go bands--Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, and Experience Unlimited (EU for short)--defined and refined stylistic variations. "EU always had a screamin' lead guitar player in the lineup, and that enabled it to do more rock-sounding go-go," says Stephenson, EU's first manager. "Trouble was always a heavy funk band, and Rare Essence was more R&B."
Go-go is still big in DC, but its heyday was in the 1980s. EU had a ride in the national spotlight when Spike Lee used one of its tunes, "Da Butt," in his 1988 film School Daze. Trouble Funk played the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in 1986. Both bands regroup to perform periodically, sometimes with most of the original members, other times with new players.
Of all the first-generation go-go bands, Rare Essence has proven the most durable. "Rare Essence is very adept at knowing how to change their material based on their audience," says Stephenson. "As their audience has gotten younger or older, they make the necessary adjustments."
The group's many changes over the last 20 years have helped it achieve a rare versatility. Classic, old-school go-go is a mix of funk, jazz, blues, and soul built on that seductive, nonstop beat. Unlike its cousin, hip-hop, which developed in New York around the same time, go-go features a full band, typically including guitars, bass, and, most important, horns.
"Back in the old days," Brown says, "if you didn't have horns, you weren't a complete band." The presence of a horn section is probably the greatest difference between old-school go-go groups and newer ones, which are influenced by hip-hop's stripped-down rhythms and cadences.
"Rare Essence can do both new-style go-go or old-school," says Kevin "Kato" Hammond, who runs a Web site (www.tmottgogo.com) chronicling DC's go-go scene.