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The Godfather Saga

Go-Go Is Still Going Strong--and So Is Chuck Brown

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 10/3/2001

Washington's go-go scene doesn't make sense.

At a time when drum machines and samples have nearly driven live rhythm sections out of R&B, how can D.C. boast a thriving scene built around legendary drummers? At a time when CDs, videos, and MP3s have almost made live music obsolete, how can go-go bands play for packed houses seven nights a week? At a time when corporate globalization has made local-music careers untenable, how can it be that go-go musicians are reluctant to tour Europe and can make more money at home?

Go-go doesn't merely survive; it's thriving. For a quarter of a century now, the genre has withstood the tidal waves of disco, hip-hop, new-jack swing, techno, and gangsta rap to remain a stubbornly local phenomenon--barely known north of Bowie or south of Crystal City, but king of the roost inside the Capital Beltway. Go-go has borrowed from every trend to pass through black music but has never lost its own distinctive character or its iron grip on its local fans.

Now go-go is making one more bid for national attention. The genre's founder and dominant personality, Chuck Brown, has broken into the R&B charts with his latest album Your Game . . . Live at the 9:30 Club, Washington, DC, released via Laurel-based Liaison Records. Billboard Books has released The Beat: Go-Go's Fusion of Funk and Hip Hop, a serious book on the subject by George Washington University professor Kip Lornell and former Experience Unlimited manager Charles C. Stephenson Jr. The book is accompanied by a like-titled two-CD anthology from Liaison that provides a useful overview of the whole scene.

This resurgence fueled a birthday party for Brown, the "Godfather of Go-Go," at the 9:30 Club on Aug. 31. Actually, Brown turned 67 on Aug. 22, but he celebrated nine days later with a sold-out concert that featured full sets by his band, the Soul Searchers, plus 911, the Backyard Band, and Experience Unlimited. There were guest appearances by members of Trouble Funk, the Northeast Groovers, and Rare Essence. That's most of the go-go family, and the birthday wishes for Brown had a genuine warmth often missing from such celebrity tributes.

Brown is one of a select few musicians--Bill Monroe in bluegrass, Clifton Chenier in zydeco, Muddy Waters in Chicago blues--who al most single-handedly founded a genre and came to personify it. And as he held court in the upstairs dressing room at the 9:30 Club, he divulged his secret. It had nothing to do with his own genius, he insisted, and everything to do with listening to his fans.

"The people give us our ideas," he says."You can't sit down and think up all this stuff. When you're on the bandstand, you have to pay attention to how folks are reacting. These people in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia are the most honest people in the world when it comes to music; they'll let you know if they like what you're doing.

"Or, if they don't like what you're doing," he adds with chuckle.

"It all started back in the days of disco," Brown continues. "It was hard for a live band to compete with those DJs, because they never stopped; they went from one song to another. If you stopped everyone would go sit down, so we decided to keep the beat going from one song to the next. We'd break it down to just the percussion, and that gave me a chance to talk to the crowd.

"Disco was 120 beats a minute, but we broke it down almost in half to about 70 beats a minute. That enables you to hear the individual beats and to have call-and-response with the audience. We began to realize that people liked the breakdowns as much as the songs, so we started extending the breaks. Then we realized that people in D.C. like that slower groove better, so we started using it for everything. And that was go-go. We learned that you have to communicate with your audience, because they give you your best ideas."

A few hours later, about 40 minutes after midnight, Brown took the stage to demonstrate his philosophy. Before he could even start, the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd on the floor began pumping fists in the air and chanting, "Wind me up, Chuck! Wind me up, Chuck!" Between each chant, Brown would answer in a singsong lilt, "You're spoiling me, y'all." From the start, Brown made the crowd part of his band.

He wore a white felt fedora, a gray denim suit, silver-tipped black cowboy boots, and a pointy goatee. He picked slinky jazz licks from his hollow-body Gibson electric guitar, and he talked and sang in the same bluesy foghorn baritone. Whenever the band broke down into a percussion interlude, he read dedications from scraps of paper handed up to the stage as if he were the Garrison Keillor of funk.

As cameras whirred for a future DVD, the music never let up for two hours. An extended jazz jam by Brown's gifted horn players gave way to go-go versions of such R&B hits as Sly Stone's "Family Affair," Sunshine Anderson's "Heard It All Before," and Brown's own "Bustin' Loose." Guest singers such as Little Benny, Cherie Mitchell, and Trouble Funk's Big Tony got their own chances at the mic.

Through it all, that distinctive go-go beat never faltered. Milton Smith smacked the snare drum hard on the two and four while his high-hat added to and subtracted from the 4/4 beat in a quarter-eighth-quarter-eighth-eighth-eighth pattern. "Foxy" Rob Green played counterpoint triplets on the congas and timbales. The groove pushed and pulled at the hips and ears alike.

Where did that beat come from? "I used to play with a group called Los Latinos," Brown recalls. "They were a bunch of Latin musicians and karate experts who incorporated their martial-arts moves into their dancing. I fell in love with the sound of those congas, timbales, and cowbells, so when I formed my own band, the Soul Searchers, in 1966, I brought those instruments with me.

"Then one day I heard Grover Washington's song 'Mr. Magic' on the radio, and it reminded me of a beat we used to play in church. I slowed it down to that kind of George Clinton funk groove that people in Washington like so much and added the congas and timbales. Other bands started catching on, and they started calling it go-go, because it goes on and on. That was around 1976."

Another, similar Chuck Brown show from last January is captured on the new Your Game . . . . Featuring more than an hour of nonstop music, the disc captures go-go's greatest performer in his natural habitat: the stage.

Brown wrote little of the music on the disc, but he makes everything from Jill Scott's "It's Love" to Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing" sound as if they came straight from the streets of Anacostia, as if they were always intended to be dance numbers set to a go-go beat. It's as if Brown were sampling and remixing, using live musicians rather than machines.

Lanham-based radio station WPGC (95.5 FM) has launched a petition campaign to get Chuck Brown into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--and just because such an election is unlikely doesn't mean it's unmerited. Brown's new live album is getting the national push it deserves, with feature stories appearing in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Billboard Books' The Beat, though clumsily written in an awkward mix of stiff academic prose and breathless PR hype, provides a wealth of uncollected information and an invaluable guide to this neglected genre. The authors are especially good at describing how Brown's invention was aided by D.C.'s long tradition of marching-band drummers and summer-in-the-park concerts.

The book also explains what happened during the fiasco of Island Records' mid-'80s venture into go-go. Label founder Chris Blackwell, the man widely credited with making reggae an international phenomenon, thought he might strike gold again with the D.C. sound. The primary vehicle would be a fictional movie, designed to do for Washington and its indigenous music what The Harder They Come had for Jamaica and reggae. But 1986's Good to Go, starring Art Garfunkel and Anjelica Huston, exploited the sensationalism of black-on-black street violence and largely ignored the music. It was also boring, and it soon sank without a trace.

"I still get real pissed at that," Brown grumbles. "Those movie people didn't have a clue. Those people weren't even from here--how are they going to know anything about go-go? All that violence--cars running over people and people shooting each other--had nothing to do with the music. People here in D.C. knew better, but people outside of town got the wrong idea."

The excellent companion CD to The Beat does much better by go-go. The 15-act, 19-track compilation includes every important band in the scene and provides a broad overview of the variety of styles under the go-go umbrella. Brown dominates; after him the three most popular bands have long been Trouble Funk, E.U., and Rare Essence. Those three provide the most compelling tracks on The Beat, overshadowing such newer acts as 911 Entertainment, the Back Yard Band, and the Junk Yard Band. 911 turned in a strong live set at Brown's recent birthday party at the 9:30 Club, thanks to a spectacular drummer named Darryl "Blue Eye" Arrington. But the new 911 studio album, Blueprint, is underwhelming--no horns, little melody, too much mediocre hip-hop and not enough fresh go-go. A much better album is Rare Essence's new CD Doin' It Old School Style, recorded live at Club "U." This band achieves a more satisfying fusion of hip-hop and go-go. Jas. Funk proves a versatile vocalist, able not only to rap out hard-edged rhymes but also to sing the catchy hooks. The scene's best conga player, Milton "Go-Go Mickey" Freeman, fuels a three-man percussion section that surrounds the rock-solid groove with a dizzying swarm of secondary beats. It all fits together into an infectious whole.

Wherever go-go goes, though, it all goes back to the Godfather. "There are a lot of styles in go-go," insists Gregory "Sugar Bear" Elliot, E.U.'s founder/leader. "We have a progressive-rock style, Chuck has the jazz style, RE [Rare Essence] has more of a hip-hop style, and Trouble Funk has stuck with the funk. But it all started with Chuck."

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