D.C.’s go-go has a new beat

D.C. is still dancing to its own beat.

More than 30 years after jazz guitarist Chuck Brown gave black Washington its own brand of funk music, dozens of go-go bands still pack venues from Northeast to NoVa. The music still pours from open car windows on U Street every night of the week. It still bleeds from earbuds during rush hour on the Blue Line.

The genre’s distinctive conga-laden rhythms and shout-along vocals never spread far outside the metro area. Instead, go-go has achieved a rare status in Washington. It’s an established art form indigenous to a city that doesn’t produce much indigenous anything. Now go-go is mutating, splintering off a more riotous sound known as “bounce beat” and creating a rift within the very community that nurtured it.

Go-go has a generation gap. On one side are the old-school musicians and their loyal fans, protective of the loping grooves and cool melodies that put a spell on Washington in the ’80s. On the other side are their kids, drawn to the percussive magic of live music but eager to turn go-go’s established rhythms inside out.

On Saturday night, that division will be on display when hundreds of young fans attend the second annual Bounce Beat Teen Awards at the Scene, a grungy nightclub nestled in a block of warehouses off Bladensburg Road NE. Twenty fan-voted awards will be handed out during a six-hour marathon concert celebrating the aggressive young sound that vexes go-go veterans.

“It’s definitely not go-go music to me,” says Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliott, frontman of go-go pioneers Experience Unlimited.

“Big Tony” Fisher of the legendary Trouble Funk agrees. “It’s a product of go-go. It’s like how Mountain Dew is a product of Pepsi,” he says. “But it ain’t Pepsi!”

Many musical genres have survived — and thrived — thanks to this kind of generational bickering. Jazz prevailed through decades of reluctant torch passings, from swing to bop and beyond. Rock-and-roll rediscovered its pluck through punk and heavy metal. Traditionalists still groan every time country music molts into something glossier. So the outgrowth of the bounce beat could be seen as a sign of go-go’s health.

But the old guard doesn’t see it that way.

Trouble Funk recently recorded a new song in the bounce beat style — but it’s titled “We Don’t Play That.” Fisher says the bounce beat generation needs to learn that incorporating melody and structure into their music will help it endure.

“It’s really hard to see musicians in their 40s and 50s doing this thing and doing it well,” Fisher says.

Fisher, Elliott and other go-go luminaries — most in their 40s and 50s — say they respect the younger bands for making go-go their own but think the bounce beat is too brash, too noisy, too childish to last.

When his 16-year-old son first started blasting bounce beat on the family computer, Fisher couldn’t take it. “Man, you gotta turn that down a little bit,” he remembers saying. “I can’t stand to listen to that noise for so long!” Now, Fisher’s son plays keyboards in a bounce beat band called AON — one in a fleet of young groups bored with classic go-go.

“The bounce beat is more hype,” says Reginald “Budah” Carter, vocalist for the bounce beat band DTB. “Instead of relaxed and laid-back, you’re gonna party. You’re gonna go home and be sweaty.”

But elders worry that it’s too rowdy to translate outside of the Beltway — which speaks to the heart of go-go’s perpetual struggle. Experience Unlimited crept up the Billboard charts in 1988 with “Da Butt,” Trouble Funk toured overseas and Rare Essence flirted with major labels. But go-go’s potency on local stages never translated to national airwaves. Radio needs a quick, catchy chorus. Go-go favored long, sweaty grooves.

By the early ’90s, go-go seemed destined to stay put in Washington. With adoring crowds gathering to see bands perform each week, playing locally was more lucrative than touring. Instead of releasing albums, bands issued live recordings on cassettes and CD-Rs. The culture became proudly insular.

That’s why the bounce beat feels like a tsunami in a small pond. Local band TCB coined the sound at a fire station gig in Riverdale in the summer of 2003, somewhat by chance. When the P.A. system went on the fritz, percussionist Eddie “Luv” McCoy and former drummer Neal Thomas kept the show going by introducing a thundering new beat they had been tinkering with.

“The crowd went nuts,” McCoy says. “We were like the baddest guy in the movie.”

If go-go had been Washington’s heartbeat for the past 30 years, TCB had just performed a heart transplant.

“We actually changed the sound of go-go,” McCoy says.

Last weekend at the Scene, the 10 members of TCB — who range from 20 to 35 years old — showed how the bounce beat works. After luring fans to the dance floor with a grooving backbeat, the tempo slurred into a half-time downbeat and exploded. Go-go’s signature congas (think popcorn, firecrackers) were abandoned for booming timbales and rototoms (think mortar fire, armageddon). Keyboards triggered juggernaut drum samples. Bass guitarist Jody Poe slid his fingers up and down the strings as if he were revving a giant engine. Melody was swallowed by rhythm.

On the dance floor, the laws of gravity went fuzzy. Fans jumped high off the ground or squatted down, convulsing their hips inches off the hardwood. Some raised their hands in an “L” shape to commemorate TCB founder and bounce beat hero Reggie “Polo” Burwell, who suffered a brain aneurysm on April 11, 2010, and has been in a coma since. (The “L” is for “ ’Lo,” an abbreviation of “Polo.”)

Dozens of groups have formed in hopes of imitating TCB’s sound. They’re known as “alphabet bands” for the loose, three-letter abbreviations they use in their names. XIB (Extreme Intentions Band), TOB (Take Over Band), ABM (All ’Bout Money) and others are scheduled to perform at Saturday’s Bounce Beat Teen Awards. (TCB stands for “Taking Care of Business.”)

Many of the groups are thankful for the gig. The two main venues for bounce beat go-go — the CFE Event Center in Forestville and Le Pearl Ballroom in Capitol Heights — were shuttered last year after a series of violent altercations during and after the concerts.

“For the average bounce beat band, you’re playing once a weekend, and that might be a private party or maybe at a school,” says Mikey Harrison, manager of XIB. “There’s only one or two spots to play at now.”

Promoter and community activist Ronald Moten — who’s also running for D.C. Council in Ward 7 — co-founded the Bounce Beat Teen Awards to provide this generation with some formal recognition and set a standard for safety.

“Young people should have somewhere to go where they can have positive energy and do the same things we did,” Moten says. “If we just give up and say our children can’t have what we had, what does that make us?”

When a skirmish broke out after last year’s awards at the D.C. Armory, Moten recruited the teens involved to help him with the promotion of this year’s event. Moten is bringing different musical voices to the mix, too. He’s booked Necessary Kaos, an all-girl group, and Critical Revelation, a bounce beat group with gospel vocals.

On Wednesday night, as TCB rehearsed for Saturday’s performance in a Hyattsville warehouse, band members said they see all of this — the awards, the tenacity of the alphabet bands, the skepticism of older fans and the begrudging respect of their go-go elders — as validation for the bounce beat.

“We got the whole city bouncing,” says TCB rapper Antonio “Big Redz” Lovett. “This is it . . . until somebody comes along with something new.”

richardsc@washpost.com

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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