Meet Me at the Go-Go
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.
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.
The Howard Theatre’s willingness to host go-gos also could signal a renewed willingness on the part of promoters and high-end club owners to put the genre’s difficult past behind it.
Go-go has also returned elsewhere in the city.
TCB Band has played the Rock N Roll Hotel, while NoMa hot spots Fur Nightclub and Ibiza have hosted regular go-gos by Rare Essence, Junk Yard Band and Backyard Band, which is fronted by Anwan “Big G” Glover, who played the gangster-philosopher Slim Charles on HBO’s “The Wire.”
Big public events have also begun to re-embrace the city’s music. During the annual Safeway Barbecue Battle Festival in June, organizers — who for years included Brown on their bill — opened up its stages to a variety of go-go acts, including Trouble Funk as well as newer “grown and sexy go-go” acts such as Be’La Donna, Mambo Sauce and Suttle Thoughts. And the Chuck Brown Tribute Band will be one of the headliners in August’s Summer Spirit Festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion, sharing the stage with the likes of Common, Erykah Badu and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.
And as the city’s demographics go through tectonic shifts, its not only important for natives to hold on to what makes Hometown D.C. what it is, but also for our newest neighbors to find out.
And don’t mind any frowns natives may give you — they’re just jealous that you’re getting to experience the thrill of your first go-go.
“It’s like meeting someone who says they love movies but then admit to not having seen Casablanca … you’re a bit envious because they may still get to enjoy it for the first time,” Ronayne said.