- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2001

The first thing one notices about a Chuck Brown performance is the energy of this "godfather of go-go." A musician's musician, Mr. Brown can keep the house rockin' and the party groovin' well into the small hours of the morning. The second thing an audience probably notices is his age. The longtime leader of the Soul Searchers turns 67 this month, a milestone that will be marked by a celebration at the 9:30 Club on Aug. 31. The show will feature some of the District's top go-go artists, including Experience Unlimited, Backyard, and Sugar Bear.
Go-go is enjoying something of a resurgence in the media as the popularity of its funky beat is noted in publications such as the New York Times and at events such as the Smithsonian's Folk Life Festival. But in Washington, go-go has always been a sort of an underlying ostinato, a duple meter played against a triple beat that together produce an irresistible need to move.
"The percussion just drives me," says Donnell Floyd, formerly of the go-go band Rare Essence. His new band, 911, has hit the ground running with "Blueprint."
"There's such an energy about it," he says. "I have never felt that way about any other kind of music. And Chuck Brown is the greatest of them all."
Today, Mr. Brown is the universally acknowledged leader of go-go, an elder statesman who draws people to him like a magnet.
"There are not many people like him with that kind of charisma," says Charles Stephenson, whose new book "The Beat: Go-Go's Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop" chronicles the life of go-go in the District. "He's a traditional bandleader, like Duke Ellington, or Count Basie."
Mr. Brown's road to the center of the stage, though, appears to have had more twists and turns than Mr. Ellington's or Mr. Basie's. After an early grounding in gospel, blues and jazz, he left home at age 13. By the time he was 24, he found himself in the Lorton prison.
"That's where it all started," he says. "Lorton was like a school to me."
He earned his high school diploma there and also learned to play the guitar. Once released, he began to play for house parties in exchange for sandwiches.
"At that time, my dream was to have a full-time job and play on the weekends," he says. "I didn't really think about getting paid money for my music."
Soon, though, he began to play in local clubs. His idea for a new music he called go-go came in the mid-1970s when he noticed too many people sitting down during his performances of Top-40 standards.
"I got sick and tired of watching people sitting around," he says. "Disco music was too fast — people didn't want to get sweaty, and they just sat down. So we cut the beat in half."
Disco tends to rock on at about 135 beats per minute; go-go has 80 to 94.
boombomp. But in church it's all about shouting and hollering. We slowed it down."
By the time Mr. Brown scored a hit with "Bustin' Loose" in 1979, which went to No. 1 on the soul charts, other groups, such as Trouble Funk, Experience Unlimited and, later, Rare Essence, were forming.
"Usually, you had guys from the neighborhood coming together to make a band," Mr. Stephenson says. "So from the very beginning go-go was very neighborhood oriented."
Trouble Funk combined the funk stylings of bands such as Parliament-Funkadelic with a go-go edge. Experience Unlimited, or EU, began with a group of friends from Hart Junior High School in Southeast banging away in somebody's apartment. They went on to produce the songs "Future Funk" and the classic "EU Freeze," a kind of musical "freeze tag" in which audience members "freeze" at the direction of musicians.
"EU Freeze" makes use of the extended percussive break, another feature of go-go performance. Later, Rare Essence added roto toms and timbales, percussion instruments that are now a fixture on any go-go stage.
After 20 years, these "old-school" bands can still be heard in venues around town.
"Bands like Trouble Funk and EU, those guys have staying power," Mr. Brown says.
Unlike rap, which depends on the use of electronic instruments and sampling, go-go is steeped in tradition. Go-go musicians pride themselves on their pitched percussion instruments, and the use of cowbells is common.
"Go-go is very rooted in older forms of African-American expressive culture," says Kip Lornell, a professor of Africana Studies at George Washington University and co-author of "The Beat" with Mr. Stephenson. "Actually, I think go-go is the most traditional form of African-American expressive culture in the United States today."
The beat can go on for quite a while in go-go, unlike contemporary songs that are over in two minutes. Go-go musicians routinely play one song for well over an hour without a break.
"Those guys just grabbed me up," says Lorenzo Heard, who is producing and directing an upcoming documentary about go-go. He was speaking of the first performance he saw by Chuck Brown in the early 1980s. "He could play one song for two hours. For two whole hours there was not a single person in that club sitting down."
Of course, some folks still associate go-go with white boots and dancing girls. But boots have nothing to do with D.C.'s brand of go-go. What matters is the beat. And the crowd. And the roots. Always, the roots, from the focus on live performance to the call-and-response that goes on with the audience.
"D.C. might be a major urban area, but go-go is down-home," Mr. Lornell says. He likens the energy he sees in go-go to the spirit he found when studying black fife-and-drum bands in Mississippi.
Thanks to Rare Essence, a staple of go-go performances is the roll call, in which performers call out the names of people in the audience. It's a moment those both onstage and off seem to relish.
"The audience is an instrument when it comes to go-go," Mr. Stephenson says. "You don't have that line between who is onstage and who is in the audience."
By 1983, go-go was a phenomenon. Clubs began to showcase go-go bands, and songs such as EU's "Da Butt" were receiving airplay thanks to the popularity of the Spike Lee film, "School Daze."
"Go-go was huge in England," Mr. Heard says. "Everybody thought it would be the next big thing."
But the same elements that make go-go unique ultimately caused corporate America to turn its back on the genre. "Go-go is best straight up," Mr. Lornell says. "It's hard to recapture the feel of a live performance on a tape."
Radio time also can be out of the question when one number can go on as long as go-go does. "Go-go really isn't made for radio," says Tom Goldfogle of Liaison Records, which distributes 98 percent of the D.C. area's go-go music.
By the late 1980s, go-go was increasingly associated with the wave of violence that was sweeping the city.
"People always blame the music," Mr. Heard says. "But there was actually never any violence inside the clubs."
Go-go had its troubles from outsiders as well. A movie, "Good to Go," which was expected to showcase the city's go-go talent, focused instead on the violence and became just another reason for shutting down the clubs.
"Expectations were built up, but that poorly written movie didn't help matters any," says Mr. Goldfogle. "It was hard to interest major producers after that."
Of course, go-go never really died.
And through it all, Mr. Brown plowed on.
"Chuck Brown took over in 1979 and hasn't relinquished his lead since," Mr. Stephenson says. "A bad night with Chuck Brown is equal to a very good night with any other band."
Today, the beat continues with a new generation of go-go artists, with a stripped-down sound that owes more to hip-hop than funk. Bands such as Junkyard, Backyard and Jigga have jettisoned the horn section and added a "lead talker," who works in a style related to rap.
"Backyard has a huge street following," Mr. Goldfogle says. "But they're not as commercial as Chuck Brown or Trouble Funk or Experience Unlimited."
Old-school musicians such as Mr. Brown miss some of the old funk sound. Judging by the crowds who come to hear him play, he's not the only one.
"There's been a real resurgence of old-school bands," Mr. Goldfogle says. "You are beginning to get more radio coverage, and that creates momentum."
In June, Mr. Brown released his newest CD, "Your Game Live at the 9:30 Club," with radio edits available. Mr. Goldfogle has compiled a companion CD to "The Beat," due to be released Sept. 4, which features both new-school and old-school go-go artists.
But whether old-school or new-school, go-go still has the same qualities, Mr. Floyd says. "And everybody knows what they owe
Chuck Brown."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide