While the rest of Washington's go-go bands sweated through another sultry summer, Trouble Funk was dropping the bomb on Europe. As the only go-go band to break out of the local clubs and into the world, Trouble has become the most viable, visible ambassador of the D.C. beat. Up in New York, in fact, the band's name has become synonymous with the entire Washington scene -- in a recent interview, rapper LL Cool J pointed out that in his neck of Queens, any D.C import is referred to simply as "trouble funk."
In July, the band wound up its second major European tour -- three weeks of stadium meltdowns in Scandinavia, England and Italy -- and it recently got back from Japan. It's a long way from Palmer Park, where in the late '70s the band was trying to get a break by opening for Chuck Brown at the Club La Baron.
Robert Reed, a classically trained guitarist who also plays just about every instrument you can think of, describes a show at London's Town and Country Club:
"We played for four hours and a half, nonstop, which is the longest we've ever played overseas. People were amazed. Prince came to see us in Paris, and he actually watched us perform for 45 minutes. I bet he has a taste of go-go on his next album. Prince doesn't really know how to work that crowd like we do, 'cause we get that call and response going."
Southeast crew now whatcha gonna do?
Drop the bomb! Drop the bomb!
Its one of go-go's trademarks, and something that mixed audiences at the 9:30 club (where Trouble Funk plays Friday and Saturday) or Wembley Stadium (where it opened for U2) don't see in its unadulterated form. Pure call and response has more to do with Sunday morning church than Friday night downtown, and much of Trouble Funk's true grit has been reserved for black crowds. While the band has had plenty of success opening for rock acts, go-go is never going to be better or more cathartic than at D.C.'s Black Hole at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night in August, when even the mammoth bouncers are down front and crankin'.
Ironically, this is the one corner of the globe where the band has had some trouble getting noticed.
Remember the big go-go breakout that was supposed to happen a couple of years ago, wherein bands like Trouble Funk and Experience Unlimited would sweep the nation in a joyous (and marketable) wave of Chocolate City funk? Radio stations and record companies would swoon and promoter Maxx Kidd would become two household words. Remember "Good to Go," the cinematic centerpiece of the whole shebang? Problem was, the movie was lousy and came out a year after the media gurus had decided that go-go was the next big thing. Go-go went-went out of the spotlight, and the breakout has since been on hold.
So what does Trouble Funk want?
If you go by the new record, "Trouble Over Here, Trouble Over There," the answer would seem to be cold cash. What with the Nike pitch on the back cover and the radio-ready, slicked-up funk in the grooves, one is tempted to say that the band is going for the big time. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it's not go-go.
So says bass player Big Tony Fisher (the founder of Trouble Funk back in 1978), who along with his cousins Taylor and Robert Reed and James Avery (going for his PhD in organic chemistry at Howard) makes up the creative core of the band. He's working on a solo LP at the moment because, he says, "the record company wanted to try something new with the group that I didn't quite feel too good about. I wanted to continue that original, traditional Trouble Funk go-go sound. There's nothing wrong with what they're doing, but there's a time and place for everything, and I don't think this was the time. I wouldn't care if the record went platinum, I would still feel the same way."
Live, Trouble Funk is a phenomenon, an aural purge, a syncopated slice of backbeat salvation that goes on for hours and feels like days. In the early '80s, Trouble was regularly called in to open (and draw crowds) for funk stars like Rick James at Capital Centre. The result was usually the same: Crowd goes crazy over the go-go, then back into the seats for the headliner.
The closest Trouble Funk ever got to platinum was when its Sugarhill LP "Drop the Bomb" went gold. If anything, this proved that the go-go beat could be sold to a nationwide, even worldwide audience. Surprisingly, it's the international set that's clamoring for the backbone beat, not the kids in Kansas City or Seattle. The British rock press, for instance, has an insatiable craving for all things Afro and American, and black American dance music has been the rage in London clubs since it was the Miracles who were going to the go-go.
The last Washington appearance by Trouble Funk was at an RFK Stadium funkout in July. Actually, the band was Big Tony and the T.F. Crew -- that stands for Tony Fisher, not Trouble Funk -- a sidelight he started to keep his hand in the raw go-go sound. The man is a loyalist, and then some.
"I think we can get all our success out of the go-go," he says. "Because with the go-go, once it breaks, you not only make money -- you make history."