I grew up around Washington, D.C. and I lived there for 35 years. And I love and will always love go-go music. Growing up in the D.C. area, you heard it a lot, in the streets and on the radio. On weekend nights the two main “urban” radio stations—WPGC and WKYS—would play plenty of go-go in the DJ mixes, and that's where I learned about it. I also would buy live tapes, hour-long edits of shows that were a grey-market local-music economy.
The accepted legend is that the recently-deceased and utterly-beloved D.C. musician Chuck Brown invented the form in the mid-70s as a response to the threat of the disco DJ, who could play records one after the other without a pause. This national hit is pretty much considered the first go-go record. As Chuck Brown doesn't sound much like the rock music that came after him, go-go evolved into something that didn't really sound like this track. But it's a great track nonetheless, just like “Johnny B. Goode.”
Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers, “Bustin' Loose”
The Mount Rushmore of go-go is Chuck, Trouble Funk, E.U., and Rare Essence.
Trouble Funk were very early pioneers of the go-go sound. They were frequently sampled by early rappers; hell, whole go-go ALBUMS are basically one big breakbeat, so I see why that happened. As far as I can tell, they really laid the template for the modern go-go sound developing; secondary and latin percussion became more important with them, and they started to slow down the beat. It wasn't the John Bonham stomp it eventually became, but it broke from disco velocity.
Trouble Funk, “Drop The Bomb”
Love this track because it kind of makes explicit the kinship between New Orleans and D.C. It's not really a song, just kind of . . . playing, going for it. I believe this music ended up as a release on Henry Rollins' reissue label Infinite Zero in the 90s. The groove is unreal.
Trouble Funk, “Straight Up Funk Go-Go Style”
And then there is Experience Unlimited. Blessed with Sugar Bear, the greatest voice in go-go history, and merciless rock and roll muscle. They did this song, which was go-go's pop moment, thanks to a Spike Lee movie . . . and you probably know it . . .
Experience Unlimited, “Da Butt”
But I can't lie, I'm tired of that song. It's real go-go, not fake, but I'm so tired of it.
THIS E.U. next thing is amazing, and makes me sad that I never saw go-go live back then. It was “black” music, and racial tensions in D.C. in the late 80s and early 90s were such that I didn't feel comfortable going to shows, which looking back is a real sadness. It was a sadness then, too. Maybe I should have tried. Maybe I would have gotten my ass kicked, maybe I simply would have been turned away (honestly seems like the likeliest happenstance), and maybe it would have been all right. In some ways it seems no different than the calculus of doing anything. But in Washington, D.C., at that time, there was a terrible amount of gunplay going down, at go-go shows and elsewhere, and black and white were very far from being on the same page. So the bottom line is that I shied away from go-go gigs. Anyways, every time I watch the following clip, I wonder what my life would have been like had I caught this gig. I mean it's not like Judas Priest gigs at the Capital Centre were full of really nice people either.
Experience Unlimited, “Shake It Like A White Girl”
Go-go seems to be an occasional thing that pop artists reach for now—an exotic local flavor that African-American recording artists will use from time to time. It periodically does show up as an obvious influence, and there were also collaborations with go-go artists. The following Salt-n-Pepa track is a real gem. They are playing with E.U. on this. I love Salt-n-Pepa!
Salt-N-Pepa, “Shake Your Thang”
And here's a more recent pop hit from a DC-raised R&B artist that has a clear go-go flavor.
Amerie, “1 Thing”
Aaaaand then there's this. This isn't really go-go on any musical-mathematical level. But it is in its heart. Anyone from D.C. can tell you that. What an amazing song.
DJ Kool, “Let Me Clear My Throat”
Back to that Rushmore.
Junkyard were around forever, just really solid hitmakers. The following song “Sardines” is pretty famous with DJs I think. The synth bass drop is hi-larious on the radio: the radio compression means that it obliterates all other signals in the song. “Loose Booty” is just a great anthem to a topic that I think we've all thought about.
Junkyard Band, “Sardines”
Junkyard Band, “Loose Booty”
Now it's time to talk Greatest of All Time, and Rare Essence, I think, are it. They were the best modernizers within the tradition and they had the most memorable songs. And “Lock It,” coming up, is the best go-go song ever. I'm not sure I heard another song in the summer of 1991. Radio stations must have played it on the half-hour in D.C. I do believe Jay-Z stole a lyric hook from “Overnight Scenario” if I'm not wrong. Maybe it was the other way around. And their “Pieces Of Me” cover really is special.
Rare Essence, “Lock It”
Rare Essence, “Overnight Scenario”
Rare Essence, “Bodysnatchers”
Rare Essence, “Pieces of Me”
There were tons of other groups, some of whom contributed to the canon. The next two songs are by solid D.C. institutions.
Pure Elegance, “One Leg Up”
Northeast Groovers, “The Water”
Then there was this mystifying thing. It's a DJ Flexx . . . song? remix? But I'm not sure of what. I don't think it's actually the Northeast Groovers. Alls I know is it is a D.C. ANTHEM. I've probably heard this song 1000 times
DJ Flexx, “The Water Dance”
I want to end with Chuck Brown's last hit. They don't call him the Godfather of Go-Go for no reason. Dude was playing music for decades, did all kinds of cool things. Jazz gigs, played with local folk-singers . . . A real hero. This song was really big in D.C. when it came out. So warm, so funny, so physical, like go-go itself.
Chuck Brown, “Chuck Baby”
The Dismemberment Plan's new record, Uncanny Valley, is out Tuesday on Partisan Records.