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.