Though the go-go scene saw a downturn several years ago, Rare Essence (above) played the newly reopened Howard Theatre in June.
You’ve gone to Ben’s Chili Bowl for a half-smoke all the way, but you haven’t danced to the pocket beat until your clothes are heavy with sweat. You’ve hit the Kennedy Center for a free concert, but it hasn’t made you “back it on up.”
And until you’ve heard firsthand what Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) calls the sound of “Hometown D.C.,” you can never really know Washington, D.C., and feel the true city hidden beneath the machinery of government. To do that, you have to walk through the doors of a go-go.
Created by the late Chuck Brown in the 1970s, go-go’s stripped-down fusion of funk, soul and Latin rhythms has over the past four decades come to define the heart of the city.
Even if you don’t know it, you do. You’ve heard it coming from your neighbor’s backyard barbecues on sunny Saturday afternoons and thumping from car windows deep into the night on U Street. You’ve heard Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” sampled in dozens of hip-hop and R&B tracks, from MC Hammer’s “Bustin’ Loose” to Nelly’s “Hot In Herre.”
And at many a steamy summer game at Nationals Park — and RFK Stadium before it — “Bustin’ Loose” and Brown’s gravelly voice could be heard blasting from the PA system after a home team’s home run.
Still, hearing a go-go song — or even a whole record — isn’t the same as actually going to a go-go.
Aloysius Miles, 41, started going to go-gos as a teenager growing up in St. Mary’s County, Md.
“My brother used to drag me to a bunch of ’em when I was 15 or 16,” Miles said, explaining that part of the allure of the go-go is “the uniqueness. Because nobody has that sound anywhere in the United States except us. It’s the D.C. sound.
“The music tends not to stop. The song starts going, and then it rolls into another and another,” Miles explained, adding that while a number of bands play original songs, there are “a lot of redone songs, hip-hop and R&B, in a go-go fashion with a lot of congo.”
“Drums, horns, guitars, lots of people on stage — pure, honest. When you hit a go-go show you see musicians jamming, not scrawny kids who got cut from the soccer team playing their oversized computers,” said Dan Ronayne, a Prince George’s County native who would blast go-go from his office during his time with the Republican National Committee.
“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.
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