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“Composers have created songs about cities — New York, New York; Chicago; I Left My Heart in San Francisco. But the Godfather of Go-Go gave our city a great big musical genre and a unique sound distinctly our own. This is a town with dancing in its DNA, so Chuck gave us a hometown sound that won’t let you stay in your seat and won’t let you sit down once you get up,” Norton wrote in a recent blog post commemorating the passing of Brown, who died May 16.
Although go-go is predominantly a fixture of black culture in Washington, a small but loyal faction of white Washingtonians have been enjoying it for years. As a teenager, going to see Pleasure or Rare Essence — two of the biggest acts in the 1980s — was amazing, in part because, well, white folks just don’t know how to party like that.
Indeed go-go became an integral part of being a Washingtonian for the generations of natives growing up in the area in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Growing up around here back then, we were spoiled. The Redskins were actually winning Super Bowls, Chuck was kicking it, he created our own music and it was the best. We had Joe Gibbs and Chuck Brown, New York had a chunky Bill Parcells and a tired [Frank] Sinatra. We were proud to be from D.C.,” Ronayne said.
But even as it was becoming ingrained in the city’s psyche, go-go took an ugly turn.
Miles and other veterans of the go-go scene lament the dark period of the 1980s and 1990s, when the crack wars that ravaged the area also infected the music. While early go-gos put on by golden age acts like Brown, Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, Pleasure and Experience Unlimited were all about the party, later bands like Northeast Groovers, Backyard Band and others saw their shows marred by violence.
In the dark days, go-gos “tend[ed] to bring out the seedy part of the African-American people, which is a sad thing,” Miles lamented.
“It shouldn’t be that way. But it’s hard to go to one without being scared. Being scared that if I step on someone’s two-week-old Nike, he’s going to beat me in the head … you’re gonna mess up your life over a shoe?”
The violence that accompanied go-gos quickly soured city leaders on the scene. Clubs were shut down and by the late 1990s, it was almost impossible to find a go-go band playing live inside the limits of Chocolate City.
But during the past several years, go-go has slowly begun returning to the city.
In June, Rare Essence played the newly reopened Howard Theatre with the Soul Rebels and Slick Rick, tearing through an energetic, upbeat set of classic Rare Essence tracks as well as a tribute to the genre’s late godfather, Brown.
The show might prove to be a significant moment in the history of go-go. It was the first of two go-gos hosted at the historic theater last month — Maisha and the Hip Huggers played the following Friday — and marked the return of the genre to one of its earliest homes.