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Things We Like: Go-Go Music

Was talking to my friend Suki, here in Louisville, the other day. I asked if she liked Go-Go Music. “Oh yeah,” she replied, but I could tell she was thinking white boots, mod chick dancers, with that whipped up blond hair. Hullabaloo. Shindig. Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

Not what I was referring to, though. My Go-Go music is Washington D.C.’s great native musical form. A subgenre of funk that originated in the Washington, D.C., area during the mid- to late-1970s. A handful of bands contributed to the early evolution of the genre, but singer-guitarist Chuck Brown is credited with having developed most of the hallmarks of the style.

The most important part of the go-go beat is the bass/snare pattern. In technical terms, “Go-Go’s essential beat is characterized by a syncopated, dotted rhythm that consists of a series of quarter and eighth notes (quarter, eighth, quarter, (space/held briefly), quarter, eighth, quarter) which is underscored most dramatically by the bass drum and snare drum, and the hi-hat, and is ornamented by the other percussion instruments, especially by the conga drums, timbale, and hand-held cowbells.”

Unique to Go-Go is an instrumentation with 2 standard Congas and 2 “Junior Congas”, 8″ and 9″ wide and about half as tall as the standard Congas, a size rare outside of Go-Go. They were introduced to Rare Essence by Tyrone Williams -aka- Jungle Boogie in the early days when they couldn’t afford enough full sized Congas, and are ubiquitous ever since.  A swing rhythm is often implied (if not explicitly stated).

Another important attribute in go-go is call-and-response vocals with the crowd in concert.

There is generally little familiarity with go-go music outside of the D.C. Metro area, which includes the District of Columbia and the city’s outlying Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs. Consequently, the relatively little commercial success (by industry standards) go-go bands have enjoyed has largely been a product of the genre’s following in this geographic region. Nevertheless, the style continues to evolve.

Most importantly, Go-Go is a musical movement that can largely be traced back to just one person, Chuck Brown.

Brown was a fixture on the Washington and Maryland music scene with his band the Soul Searchers as far back as 1966. By the mid-1970s he had developed a laid-back, rhythm-heavy style of funk, mixed with Afro Caribbean rhythms and instruments, performed with one song blending into the next (in order to keep people on the dance floor). The beat was based on one used in Grover Washington, Jr.’s song “Mr. Magic”, though Brown has said in interviews that both he and Washington had adapted the beat from a gospel music beat found in black churches.

Another popular local cover band in the early 1970s, Aggression, would use rhythm breaks to keep fans dancing while they prepared for the next song, fixed guitar strings, etc. As Aggression gained popularity, they started holding dance contests during the rhythm breaks, which subsequently grew in length. The audiences began to look forward to these contests and the band’s style evolved to where the beat would stop only occasionally during the course of a show.

In 1976, James Funk, a young DJ who spun at clubs in between Soul Searchers sets, was inspired (and encouraged by Brown himself) to start a band—called Rare Essence (originally the Young Dynamos)—that played the same kind of music.

Experience Unlimited (a.k.a. E.U.) was a band more influenced by rock, that started out in 1970. After witnessing Rare Essence in the late-1970s, they modified their style to incorporate the go-go beat.

Trouble Funk had its roots in a 1960s Top-40 cover band called Trouble Band. At some point the band changed its name, and, in the late 1970s, after seeing the light at a gig they played with Chuck Brown, they, too, adopted the go-go beat. The band was signed to the Sugar Hill Records label in 1982 and recorded with Kurtis Blow. They are most notably known for their class “Drop The Bomb”.

Go-go’s first national chart action came when Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers released their “Bustin’ Loose” single in late 1978; it reached the #1 spot on Billboard’s R&B chart and held it for a month during February and March 1979.

In the 1980s, some go-go bands achieved success, while others did not. Trouble Funk put out a few records on New Jersey-based label Jamtu before signing with one of the more powerful hip hop label, Sugar Hill, where it released a six-track EP called Drop the Bomb  in 1982, which included the hit “Pump Me Up” which had already been a regional hit years before. In 1984, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell heard Chuck Brown’s “We Need Some Money” on the radio in New York, which ultimately led to him signing some of the brightest stars of the go-go scene. Trouble Funk and E.U. were both signed to Island, while Chuck Brown, Mass Extinction, Yuggie, Redds and the Boys and Hot, Cold, Sweat were signed through a distribution deal between T.T.E.D. and Island subsidiary 4th & B’way.

Along with the recording contracts Blackwell was handing out, he also wanted to make a go-go movie; a D.C.-based version of The Harder They Come, perhaps. The resultant film, Good to Go (or Short Fuse, as it was called on video) was plagued with problems: co-director Don Letts was let go halfway through production, the film became less about the music and more about drugs and violence, and despite the fact that most of the post-production was completed in the fall of 1985, the film was held for release until late-summer 1986. When it did poorly on release, it seemed that go-go had missed its best chance to break into the mainstream.