All Systems Go-Go For Local Band's Big Gig at VMAs

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2009

A local band's latest break sounds as if it were divined in a bowl of alphabet soup: D.C.'s UCB plays the MTV VMAs!

Decoded, UCB, one of Washington's leading go-go troupes, will perform Sunday night as the house band at MTV's 2009 Video Music Awards -- huge exposure not only for the group but also for Washington's go-go sound.

Taking the stage at New York's Radio City Music Hall, UCB is scheduled to back a motley crew of ascending pop stars, including Kid Cudi, All-American Rejects, Jazmine Sullivan and of course, Wale, the Washington rapper with whom UCB has toured extensively.

Each collaborating artist will reshape his or her respective hits to match go-go's tumbling pulse as the band transitions between award presentations and commercial breaks. (The show also promises separate performances from Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Green Day and Taylor Swift.)

Go-go has served as Washington's unofficial party soundtrack for over three decades, but outside of the region, its indefatigable beat has remained largely subterranean. And while Sunday's VMA show will provide go-go the most airtime it has ever received on national television, the members of UCB are most nervous about performing for the cluster of pop stars assembled at Radio City.

"This will be the most star-studded audience that we've played for," says bassist Rashad Young. "To know that the majority of the people in the audience are producers, singers, artists, labels -- to know that they're there and watching is huge for us."

The network feels no such jitters. UCB "bring such a party vibe with them," says Amy Doyle, MTV's executive vice president for music and talent. "They fit the bill perfectly."

They'll certainly fill the stage. Like most go-go squads, UCB's sprawling cast has shifted during the group's lifetime, a 13-year run that started at local rec centers and block parties when the band members were still teenagers attending Coolidge, Largo and Archbishop Carroll high schools. The group went on to build a strong local following at now-shuttered clubs the Palace and the Black Hole, releasing a handful of albums along the way.

Today, UCB stands as a nine-piece, with members residing in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and the District: bassist Young, drummer Eric Curry, guitarist Stanley Thompson, percussionist Jerry "Slump" Venable, keyboardist Glenn Cobb, and vocalists Walker "Tre" Johnson, Mike Bailey, Anthony "Bo" Turner and Marcus Clark. (Due to the nature of the gig, Johnson will be the only UCB vocalist performing Sunday.)

The group first came to MTV's attention via Wale's co-manager Rich Kleiman, who also works for Jay-Z's Roc Nation label. Doyle recalls being "completely blown away" when MTV hosted a private performance by Wale and UCB at its headquarters this summer. That doesn't mean the network is gearing up to champion go-go, but Doyle still hopes UCB's performance can be "a real discovery moment for the rest of the country."

This will be the fourth time the VMAs have employed a house band in the show's 26-year history. In 2006, Jack White's Raconteurs performed; 2007 welcomed producer Mark Ronson; and 2008 paired Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker with the late DJ AM.

Surprisingly, UCB isn't even the first go-go band to appear. Rapper Ludacris enlisted go-go icons Rare Essence to help perform "Pimpin' All Over the World" at the 2005 VMAs.

But this is different. Instead of one song, UCB will crank out more than a dozen -- in some cases, covering artists who may or may not be in attendance. Says MTV's Doyle, "Expect to hear Britney Spears's 'Womanizer' all go-goed out."

Only if the band isn't burned out.

Since Tuesday, UCB has been slogging through 12-hour rehearsals at Manhattan's Smash Studios. Kid Cudi stopped in to practice with the band Wednesday. So did Beyoncé's sister, Solange Knowles, who hashed out a surprise cover with the band. Thursday's rehearsal was more of a cram session, with visits from 3oh!3, All-American Rejects and Pitbull. Friday, the band jammed with Brit crooner Daniel Merriweather.

The schedule has been grueling, but Young says the band's collaborators have had no trouble acclimating to go-go's unfamiliar cadence. Even better, there's been zero meddling from the MTV suits.

"They just want us to do us," says Young. "They want the D.C. sound."

The 2009 Video Music Awards (120 minutes) airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on MTV.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company