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Going to a Go-Go

Hip-Hop Repays Its Debt to Chuck Brown

James Hilsdon
SUPERBAD: Chuck Brown is still go-going strong at 73.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 12/26/2007

Chucky Thompson was just a teenager from the streets of Washington when he became a drummer for Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers in the late '80s. These were the glory days of go-go, when songs could go on for 20 minutes at a time and shows for hours on end as the hypnotic syncopation and call-and-response chants held the local crowds in thrall. Thompson even lied about his age so he could travel to Europe with Brown, the "Godfather of Go-Go."

Because he mastered the art of playing those beats as a live drummer, Thompson was soon much in demand as a drum programmer and hip-hop producer. In the '90s he produced tracks for Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, and Usher, and later for Nas and Biz Markie as well. Thompson was just one of many hip-hop artists who owed a debt to go-go, but he was one of the few to acknowledge it. He often told Brown that he'd come back to Washington someday and cut an album for his first employer. This year Thompson made good on his promise.

We're About the Business (Raw Venture) is Brown's first studio go-go album in more than 10 years. In the meantime, he's released a jazz album, a Christmas album, a retrospective, and five live go-go discs, but it took Thompson to get Brown back in the studio with his band.

Go-go is first and foremost a live music, and it has never been easy to distill its sprawling, busy arrangements--full of horns, guitars, keys, voices, and Latin percussion--into four-minute studio cuts.

"Live go-go records outsell studio go-go two-to-one," Brown acknowledges by phone from his Prince George's County home. "When we play live, we might play two or two and a half hours straight without stopping, so how do you turn that into a four-minute song? But it can be done. I made the first go-go hit, `Bustin' Loose,' in the studio. I've heard people say you can't get go-go in the studio, but I've proven them wrong. When you do it live, more energy is there, but in the studio you have more technical quality. The trick is to get that same energy in the studio, so they can feel it on the radio like they do in the clubs."

Thompson captures that energy. "Block Party," a key track on the new album, begins with a stabbing, compelling beat--the Latin-meets-funk groove of go-go. Two of Brown's live drummers add some secondary beats, but the core tracks boast the lean minimalism of modern hip-hop. DJ Kool, who got his start with Rare Essence, another Washington go-go act, before scoring his own hits with "I Got Dat Feelin'" and "Let Me Clear My Throat" in the '90s, also jumps on board. It's a long overdue instance of hip-hop, which has taken so much from go-go, giving something back.

Unlike so much hip-hop, however, the producer can't overshadow the performer on a Chuck Brown track. The 73-year-old singer and guitarist--still looking cool in his wraparound shades, pointy goatee, and shiny fedora--is a master of flow. He delivers tongue-twisting lines like, "As long as the beat don't break and the wine keep popping, we're gonna keep rocking till the cops come knocking," in a seductively raspy baritone that's part singing, part chanting, and part chuckling--as if he were already deep into the party he's singing about.

With its half-talking, half-singing vocals and its implacable thump, "Block Party" has a lot in common with hip-hop. But there are crucial differences. This is not the music of an individual rapping about his own greatness; these are not beats constructed in an isolated studio. This is community music. It's not only created out of the spontaneous give-and-take between a performer, his band, and his audience, but it also explicitly celebrates that connection.

"Go-go is a lot different," Brown insists. "Go-go has a lot more percussion, more call-and-response. You've got just as much groove as funk, but go-go never stops. Plus you have that Latin flavor on top of it--the timbales, congas, and cowbell. I love rap music, but some of it is a little stiff. Go-go is all about feel. A prerecorded track can't respond to me as a singer, can't change dynamics when I do. You can't use it onstage--they'll run you off.

"And playing live is very important, because the vibe is there, and part of that is the natural, warm feeling you get from playing live instruments. You're right there with the people, and they're right there with you. You throw out a hook, and if the audience responds, you throw it out again. You put some hooks together and they come out as a song. In that sense, the fans help write the songs."

Brown's "hook" is a catch phrase such as "Let's have a block party," "I feel like busting loose," "We need some money," or "Wind me up, Chuck," a line that he can shout out to a dancing crowd and have them shout back without ever stopping the motion of their hips. It's a different kind of songwriting than the narrative style of Billy Strayhorn, Curtis Mayfield, or Melle Mel , but it has its advantages. By concentrating meaning in a simple, chant-along slogan, a hook allows room for the crowd to dance and the band to improvise without losing track of the essential message.

"A hook is something that catches on easy," Brown explains. "And that's useful when you're performing live. I can take one phrase and play with it for 10 minutes, and the audience will love it, because I can put a new spin on it each time and crowd will give it back with the same spin. I came up with one of my best hooks, `We need some money,' because I was inspired--I was broke as hell. It caught on with the fans because a lot of them were broke as hell, too."

"Bustin' Loose" was a No. 1 R&B single in 1979, "We Need Some Money" was a Top 30 R&B single in 1984, and "Block Party" crept onto the lower reaches of the charts this year. But that modest chart success barely hints at Brown's influence. He created a whole genre, a genre so popular in the Washington area that it provided steady work for half a dozen bands, whose musicians either graduated from Brown's bands or worked closely with him. Go-go was so influential in funk circles that an admiring George Clinton often sang "Bustin' Loose" when he played Washington. Go-go drummers went on to play with Miles Davis, and Eva Cassidy's first-ever recording was a 1992 duet album with Brown, "The Other Side."

Brown connected with Cassidy because they both loved jazz standards. Their duet disc handled those standards straightforwardly, but Brown has often adapted standards such as Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing," Louis Jordan's "Run Joe," and James Moody's "Moody's Mood for Love" into go-go arrangements. He does something similar on the new CD when he turns Memphis Slim's blues classic "Everyday I Have the Blues" into a go-go jam.

"I grew up with that stuff," he says. "These young people today don't know anything about those tunes, so it's like they're new songs. You turn them around and they sound new. When I did `Moody's Mood,' a lot of people thought I wrote that song. I said, `No that came out around 1950.' I was 3 years old when I first heard `Everyday I Have the Blues' back in North Carolina." Brown adds, "It's important to have that continuity. You don't ever want to get away from what got you out there and got you doing it."

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