Chuck Brown created go-go, but Trouble Funk gets the credit for franchising the music. The D.C. go-go institution, established in 1978, figured out exactly what made the Godfather so great and expanded on it, turning one man’s signature sound into a new genre.
“We were always innovators, the first to do a lot of things in the go-go movement,” says frontman Big Tony. “Chuck created the go-go beat, but Trouble Funk was the first to create original music to go with the beat.”
The band eventually became go-go diplomats — recording national hits, playing the city’s legendary punk/go-go double bills and being sampled by dozens of hip-hop artists, from LL Cool J to Dr. Dre.
On Saturday, Trouble Funk celebrates its 35th anniversary with a show at the Howard Theatre. In advance of the performance, Big Tony talked about some highlights from the band’s rototom-filled, Jheri curl-soaked career that spans five decades.
Trouble Band and Show was founded in 1975 by music manager/producer Reo Edwards, who recruited 17-year-old Tony Fisher, a promising bass player, around 1976. The band would become Trouble Funk in 1978, thanks to a stage sign that read “Trouble will funk you,” with only the words “Trouble” and “Funk” big enough to be read by people in the crowd.
Trouble Funk began doing a regular early set at Club LeBaron in Palmer Park in Prince George’s County — Chuck Brown had the late shift.
“We had a tight unit, but we weren’t playing go-go at the time, we were doing really good Top 40. People would not dance — they just stood there and looked. It was torture. For about six months this went on. After we finished playing, the band would go in the dressing room, talk about why people didn’t respond, then leave and go home. I would stay there, watch Chuck, watch the drummer, study. One day we came to rehearsal, and I told Reo, ‘I think I know what it takes to make these people dance, but I need a microphone.’
“We had a song me and my cousin [Syke] Dyke [keyboard player Robert Reed] put together, that was actually created off of [German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk’s] ‘Trans-Europe Express,’ called ‘Roll With It.’ When we did that, everybody just started dancing. . . . We had to play that song all night, we didn’t have anything else. Anytime we went into anything else, the floor parted like the sea — they’d scatter.
“Time went on, we created more beats they were liking, I was talking more, and we were still playing Top 40, but the secret was to never stop. The thing I had to analyze that Chuck was doing was that we had to transition from that beat to other songs. . . . Chuck Brown told [the club owner] ‘I don’t want those boys playing with me no more. They’re trying to steal my music!’
“Chuck had just recorded ‘Bustin’ Loose,’ he was getting ready to go on tour; Trouble Funk was packing the joint by itself by then. . . . When Chuck came back, we had it on lockdown, it was the beginning of a new era.”
The early 1980s
This was a golden era for go-go and the young genre’s four big acts: Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, Rare Essence and EU. Trouble Funk released a string of singles, including “Get Down With Your Get Down,” “Latin Funk,” “Super Grit,” and, eventually, its two biggest hits: “Pump Me Up” and “Drop the Bomb.”
“It’s funny, the audience helped us create [‘Drop the Bomb’]. We were playing somewhere, I think it was in Fort Washington, at a rec center. I was running late for the show, the band had to start without me. When I finally got there, I heard the band playing and thought, I’m in trouble now.
“Dyke was on the keys, the synth, and he was playing this sound like ‘bzzzzzz.’ Then he’d hit this thing at the end that sounded like a bomb sound. The crowd was going “Drop the bomb! Drop the bomb!” I’m on stage, trying to hook my guitar up, I’m feeling this, so I’m trying to get on the mike. I go to microphone and I say, ‘You wanna drop the bomb?’ It just clicked.
“A few years went by, and we got picked up by Island Records. [Island Records honcho] Chris Blackwell had this crazy idea of taking go-go and making the biggest thing in the world. It was a good thought, but you know, if you don’t know go-go, it’s not that simple.”
Trouble Funk decided the best way to take go-go national — and international — was to do as many live performances as possible. It was playing with big-name national artists, often “shutting them down” (stealing the show).
“We shut Herbie Hancock down. We performed with him, opened for him. WAR . . . Frankie Beverly and Maze . . . Groups didn’t wanna close after us. We did a show with Cameo, and shut them down. We did it one time and [singer] Larry Blackmon said we only did that because we were home, so then we took ’em outta town and shut ’em down.”
The late ’80s/early ’90s
After the limited success of 1987’s “Trouble Over Here, Trouble Over There,” the band split into different factions. The group also began to realize, during this period, just how many other musicians were sampling their music, and tried to recoup some of that money.
“‘Pump Me Up,’ everybody sampled: Teddy Riley, KRS-One, Whodini, LL Cool J, Kid ’n Play, Salt-N-Pepa, Will Smith, we can go on and on. Even the Red Hot Chili Peppers. So many different classic songs that people sampled. Even if the records that we released didn’t officially go platinum, they were part of other records that went gold or platinum.
“We’re still in litigation; we’ve done better in the past 10 years than back in the day. Unfortunately, we didn’t get half of what is due to us, but because the music is timeless, it’s never too late.”
The 2000s and beyond
Over the past several years, the group has experienced great loss, from injury and illness — percussionist Timothy “Teebone” David retired in 2011; Reed died in 2008. But Tony says the current incarnation of the group is working on a new album, “Unfinished Business,” hoping for a go-go episode of the TV series “Unsung,” and looking to mentor the next generation of go-go musicians.
“We all gotta get old, but God ain’t through with me yet. I’ve got a lot of music, a lot of positive things to share. I’m 53 years old right now, and I’m just getting started.
“I wish that a lot of these up-and-coming musicians that play the bounce beat would really get to know the history. I don’t believe they know how important it is to know where you been to get to where you’re going.
“Go-go is, I don’t think they realize, becoming extinct. When Chuck died, he took a big piece of that with him, and right now, nobody is stepping up to try to fill that void.
“I think it’s up to us, the older guys. A lot of these musicians around here now don’t even know who Big Tony is, who Trouble Funk is, but they’re getting ready to find out.”
Trouble Funk performs at the Howard Theatre at 8 p.m. on Saturday.