This weekend The District will be awash in its 1980s go-go and graffiti past. From the tale of its most infamous graffiti artist, to a throwback concert commemorating the city’s rich cultural past, the weekend is sure to remind many about how far the city has come.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art kicks off the festivities Friday with an opening press party for its latest exhibition, “Pump Me Up: D.C.
Subculture of the 1980s;” Saturday evening, that exhibit’s companion piece – the hotly anticipated documentary, “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” premieres at Silver Spring’s AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.
Also on Saturday are two similar themed events that are unrelated to the exhibit and film. Axel F’s monthly Jheri-curl funk party at Liv Night Club connects the dots between go-go and hip-hop with a special edition soiree called “Shake Your Thang,” beginning at 11 p.m. while earlier that evening at 8 p.m. the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities presents at the Lincoln Theatre the legendary go-go combo, Rare Essence and show the 1992 documentary, “Straight Up Go Go” produced by Progressive Productions.
Then Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., the 9:30 Club presents the extravagant D.C. Funk-Punk Throwback Jam, an all-star affair hosted by punk-rock guru, Henry Rollins, that include go-go legends – Trouble Funk and the Junkyard Band hanging tough with punk veterans – Scream and Youth Brigade, among other go-go and punk acts.
“I want to make this special as possible,” says Big Tony Fisher, bassist and leader singer of Trouble Funk, “I want to round up as many of the original members of the bands as possible, and take people to a place when everything about go-go music was fun, when people of all nationalities came together.”
Trouble Funk was one of the veteran go-go bands that occasionally shared the same concert billings with punk and hardcore acts like Minor Threat and Worlds Collide. “I was really surprised to see how two totally different styles worked for the same crowd,” Fisher recalls, “The punk shows were upbeat with fast tempos; go-go music was slower with in-the-pocket grooves. But with both go-go and punk, the sound was really raw.”
In the spirit of graffiti art and public space, the “Pump Me Up” exhibition will fill the Corcoran’s atrium and rotunda. Through numerous concert promotional posters and flyers, photographs, record covers, graffiti art, video footage and other ephemera, the gallery will transport visitors to the heyday of the original 9:30 Club, D.C. Space performance space, Kemp Mill records, and Up Against the Wall clothing boutiques.
Even though the Friday’s opening night has sold out, “Pump Me Up” runs to April 7 with seven lectures and panels discussions occurring weekly. “I really want people to come to the museum throughout the run of the show,” says Roger Gastman, curator of “Pump Me Up” as well as producer of “The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan.” “Being at the opening is great but you can’t really see stuff very well,” noting how the sold-out crowd will probably obscure concentrated viewing of some of the objects. The exhibition comes with a 320-page companion catalog, compiled by Gastman, Iley Brown, Caleb Neelon, and Joseph Pattisall, of the same name that expands upon D.C.’s rich graffiti, go-go and punk music scene in the 1980s.
Ever since Gastman and film director Pattisall’s titillating trailer for “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan’ surfaced earlier this month, the buzz surrounding the documentary has excited District’s cultural scene. Its opening at the AFI sold-out within 24 hours of advertising. “I honestly expected [tickets] to sell out in a day or two,” says Gastman, “but not in 24 hours. We added a second film and that sold out right away; we added a third film and that sold out right away too on March 1. We still have tickets for the 9:30 Club show. Everyone thinks that has sold out because everything else as sold out.”
Twelve years in the making, “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan” certainly delivers the goods as it positions graffiti artist, Dan Hogg, as its main protagonist, who became an enigmatic figure in the ’80s and early-’90s because of his ubiquitous Cool “Disco” Dan tagging on the city’s urban landscape. The film does a stellar job at filling in the biographical details of Hogg’s home upbringing and how his interests in visual arts sparked from his father’s LP collection into go-go graffiti and eventually punk and hardcore graffiti; it even gracefully touches upon some of the somber aspects of Hogg’s life, particularly his struggles with mental illness, which often lead to homelessness and frayed relations with his family.
Like Cool “Disco” Dan, Gastman was a graffiti artist. Raised in Bethesda, Gastman met Cool “Disco” Dan in 1992, when he had began investigating punk and hardcore graffiti. Eventually Cool “Disco” Dan started hanging out regularly with Gastman’s friends, even staying over night at their houses on the weekends. “We would go out and paint the [metro] Red Line with him; he would show us where the holes in the fences were or a secret, hidden ladder on the Red Line was,” Gastman recalls.
Although Gastman remembers Cool “Disco” Dan as being very “mysterious,” he says that he did tell him about stories about tagging downtown, living in Southeast, and about all the go-go graffiti artists. “We didn’t think [his stories] were real,” Gastman says, “As I got older, I started realizing that it was all true. We started venturing more of that part of town. It got more and more exciting.”
When Gastman turned 19, he launched a small graffiti magazine, “While You Were Sleeping.” As each issue got bigger and bigger to the point of national distribution, the magazine ran a feature on Cool “Disco” Dan. Then came a special issue, dedicated solely to D.C.’s graffiti art scene, which gave way to a book, “Free Agents: A History of Washington, D.C. Graffiti” and an exhibition at Georgetown’s art gallery, MOCA, in 2001. In each case, Cool “Disco” Dan’s story resonated greatly with Gastman’s audiences. Along with all the extensive interviews with other D.C. graffiti artists, Gastman reached out to Pattisall to film some of the interviews.
The movie, however, is much more about Cool “Disco” Dan. It charts the rising popularity of go-go music throughout the ’80s and early-’90s against a gritty backdrop, informed by the crack wars and record-breaking city homicides, which earned D.C. the infamous nicknames, “Murder Capital” and “Dodge City.”
In addition to tracking down graffiti artists, musicians and other talking heads, Gastman and Pattisall were challenged with capturing footage of graffiti art in a rapidly gentrifying D.C. “I would come back a lot for filming and we would be in an old projects where a lot of great go-go graffiti and I would just have a still-photo camera,” explains Gastman who moved to Los Angeles in 2004, “I would go back two weeks later to shoot with a video camera and [the go-go graffiti] would be gone.”
Another go-to event should be Saturday night’s edition of the popular Axel F monthly party called “Shake Your Thang,” named after a 1988 Salt-N-Pepa hit song that superbly incorporated go-go rhythms. Whereas, the D.C. Punk-Funk Throwback Jam focuses more on go-go’s interaction with punk music, Axel F’s “Shake Your Thang” will emphasize 1980s’ go-go’s relationship with hip-hop. “There was a specific era here when go-go and hip-hop culture cross pollinated. The lines weren’t drawn so starkly,” explains Rhome “DJ Stylus” Anderson, one of three DJs at Axel F; the other two are Jamil “Jahsonic” Hamilton and Adrian Loving.
“New York hip-hop artists would come down to D.C. and perform with go-go acts; hip-hop artists were sampling go-go bands; go-go bands were backing up hip-hop artists – for instance, Kurtis Blow was rocking with Trouble Funk,” Anderson continues, “So we’re also playing a lot of stuff that straddled the lines in the boogie-funk era, when go-go was more up-tempo, roller-skating rink style.”
Anderson and Hamilton grew up in the District, while Loving grew up in both the District and in Richmond, Va. All three will be channeling fond memories of their teen years with go-go and hip-hop playing a major part of their childhood soundtrack.
“I’m going to dedicate a lot of my energy into creating the feel of Washington, D.C. during my late childhood, early adolescence, which is the ’80s,” says Hamilton, “I want to tap into what that was really like – the Marion Barry administration, the unfortunate crack era, and the urban plight that somehow people managed to carve out this very vibrant scene. I want to show people that even in the midst of all of his poverty and crime – all the negative things that are associated with urban America in the early-’80s – people were still making amazing music, doing art, and being creative in a very ‘do it yourself’ grassroots way. To me, that has a lot more legitimacy than something that is funded by a corporate machine.”
This flurry of events surrounding go-go, graffiti and the city’s gritty 1980s decade against a backdrop of heated conversations about the pros and cons of the city’s gentrification and changing racial demographic isn’t lost on Gastman, Anderson and Hamilton.
“D.C. was a very different place up until five or 10 years ago,” Gastman says, “The D.C. gentrification is massive. A lot of people love it; a lot of people hate it. I feel very indifferent about it, because all cities change; there’s been a lot of good and bad with that.”
“I hope people come away from this exhibit, film and related parties with some humility about D.C.’s urban legacy, which is being displaced, left behind, and transformed,” Hamilton adds, “I want people to think, ‘Wow, when I was afraid to come to D.C., there were people here doing fun things and there was amazing art from Minor Threat and Bad Brains to Junkyard Band and Cool “Disco” Dan.”
John Murph is a District-based music and arts writer.