Go-go music, the hard-hitting street funk born and bred in Washington's inner city 15 years ago and the heart of a vibrant black subculture for the past decade, is bustin' loose.
"It's hittin' and stickin' like Popeye's chicken," says Maxx Kidd, the local record impresario who sees go-go as the new Motown and himself as the new Berry Gordy.
A confluence of '50s James Brown, '60s Memphis Stax and '70s P-Funk, go-go is the sound of what funk kingpin George Clinton has dubbed "Chocolate City." It is music, according to Trouble Funk, one of its leading practitioners, "to remove the pressure of the day, to carry you through." It has its own set of dances, its own elements of style, its own vocabulary.
And if you listen to the right people, it's about to become the next big thing.
"The biggest phenomenon to hit the record business since disco is about to happen out of Washington, D.C., and nobody realizes it's happening," says Kidd, whose TTED label has signed most of the big go-go names.
Nobody, that is, but the A & R men, producers, even record company presidents who have been flocking to Washington to try to grab those bands still available, and the BBC documentary crew and foreign journalists who are descending by the taxi-load, and the reporters from magazines as disparate as Rolling Stone and Playboy who are working up pieces about this home-brewed music.
Kidd's TTED label has signed a worldwide deal with Island Records, and Island Alive Films is now in town shooting "Good to Go," the first feature to focus prominently on the music and its subculture, for release in August. It is an alliance that should give go-go, after years of isolation within its own community, its first significant domestic and international exposure.
On a sunny afternoon, 2,500 go-go fans are jammed in and jammin' at Crystal Skate in Hillcrest Heights. A band called E.U. is pumping out "Crankin' at the Go-Go," and the crowd, mostly teen-agers, is pumping it right back, waving a collective hand in the air and echoing the lines called out from the stage, a sudden community united under a groove.
And the groove is relentless, the thunderous percussion and sinewy bass line booming out of huge speakers that are literally bouncing on the floor. When the attack finally ends with some wild brass slashes from the horn section, there is no applause, no cries for more. Band and audience are equally spent.
"The baddest band in town," says Mark Brown, who has come with his "crew" from Northeast. He's been dancing for close to an hour, and the sweat rolls down from under his stark Philly cut. "I am somebody here," he says. "Feeling good."
Black music styles have often been associated with particular locales: New Orleans rhythm and blues, Chicago blues, Kansas City swing, Memphis Stax, Detroit's Motown, Philly soul, New York hip hop. But while Washington has contributed individual talents from Duke Ellington to Marvin Gaye, there has never been a style indigenous to the city with the largest percentage black population in America.
The music is rough and raw, pure beat, incessant -- once it starts, it doesn't stop for 45 minutes to an hour. A booming bass kick drum is the lead instrument in a pumping polyrhythmic core fueled by timbals, tambourines, congas, cowbells and roto-toms. Coloration comes from pulsating bass and guitar lines, punctuation from brass and synthesizer bombs. The bands are big, usually with nine or 10 players stretching the groove. Vocals tend to be rasped and chanted, often in a call-and-response pattern that eliminates the distance between band and audience.
And go-go is aggressively live, drawing anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 people a night to go-gos scattered throughout the city. It is the live performance that defines go-go and denotes its champions. Funk stripped down to its essential African roots, it provides an elemental and celebratory tribal pulse for nonstop dancing. In this age of synthesized and computerized rhythms, it is real dance music played by real bands with real percussion, what one writer called "muscles against the microchip."
Party music taken to the nth degree, go-go thrives at clubs such as the Penthouse and Black Hole on Georgia Avenue, Chapter III on First Street and Cheriy's on Atlantic Avenue in Southwest, in hotel ballrooms and high school gyms, in armories, recreation centers and empty warehouses. If somebody rents the space, go-go will fill it up. Its main audience is kids 13 to 20, but the older crowd that has followed it over the past decade remains surprisingly loyal.
"A go-go band makes the crowd a part of their show," says James Avery of Trouble Funk. "Rather than you coming to a show and sitting down, you participate in the scene." In one of the attendant rituals, audience members write their names and communities on scraps of paper and hand them up to the bandstand. "Their names are called over the microphone so they can feel they're somebody, so that everyone in the house knows that this person is here tonight to have a good time."
Part of that good time is a whole new set of dances: Happy Feet, the Whop, Inspector Gadget, the Jerry Lewis. People's dances for people's music -- anyone can do them. Happy Feet is just a simple side-to-side, front-to-back shuffle. The Jerry Lewis is feigned clumsiness. Sometimes couples just rock back and forth to the beat. And everyone dances, often in snaking conga lines or impromptu "stacks" -- groups of dancers doing the same steps.
There's also the slang: "drop the bomb" (when a band drops its heaviest, funkiest sound), "crankin' " (go-go at its best) and "what's up like that?" (what's going on?), some of it originating in the peripheral drug culture that has at times plagued the go-go scene. And the style: shades, high-top tennis shoes, athletic suits, hooded sweat shirts, two-tone denims and, on boys, the Philly cut, hair cropped close on the sides with an ultrahigh flat top or crew cut on top.
It's a music, a place, a state of mind, and it's already the rage in England, where articles on Gogoland inundate the music weeklies. In London, a studio band calling itself the DC Allstarz cut a pale version of Chuck Brown's "Bustin' Loose." Little Benny's "We Come to Boogie," available in only a dozen record stores in Washington, went to the top of England's disco and R & B charts, selling 150,000 copies overseas.
That single has been leased by Elektra, which will release it stateside in the next few weeks. Benny plays in Rare Essence, one of the city's top go-go bands, which has just signed with Polydor. Last week TTED's genuine Go-Go Allstarz cut a record with Grace Jones, produced by the very hot Trevor Horn. And Island Records has just released "Go-Go Crankin': Paint the White House Black," a sampler album drawn mostly from TTED's back catalogue but including two current hits, Mass Extension's "Happy Feet" and Redds and the Boys' "Movin' and Groovin'."
"For the people that's involved in go-go, we know it's good," says Maxx Kidd, a raspy-voiced 20-year veteran of Washington's music wars. "We made money, we had fun, we partied, we expanded it, but not with the thought or the vision that this could come about to what it looks like it's going to be."
They came to go-go from many directions: E.U. starting out as Experience Unlimited, a blend of Hendrix and Grand Funk, Mass Extension as a family band. One hears go-go's elemental roots in the pure rhythmic cacophony of the Junkyard Band and the exuberance of the city's high school marching bands.
"In the midst of all this craziness, there is all this vibrant creativity that's never had any direction," says Malik Edwards, a local artist and activist involved in the go-go scene. "It was just kids trying to play their music, bands trying to outjam each other. E.U. came out of the Valley Green Courtesy Patrol summer project, which got them some instruments through the community center and a place to practice."
When go-go bands had trouble getting local air play, they found another route to exposure -- kids coming to the clubs with tape decks and recording the shows, a cottage bootlegging industry that took the music to the streets and still serves to popularize unsigned bands today. Club deejays would play the music as well, and shows would be advertised through gaudy fluorescent posters stuck up along well-traveled streets.
What's common among the bands is that they almost always developed in the inner city, and while it's wrong to typecast go-go -- its fans cut across class lines -- it's clear that such elements as a lack of political voice in a political city factor in.
"Many of these people have a long list of problems -- low or no employment, poverty, limited education and opportunities," says TTED's Vern Goff. "There's a serious amount of living stress in the inner city, and when the kids get to the go-go, it's 'I'm bustin' loose, I'm going to go for it, I'm going to party as hard as I can, I'm not going to deal with all these problems.' When Chuck Brown talks about money, it's very clear he's talking about a hardship that many Washingtonians know first hand."
Chuck Brown is the Godfather of Go-go.
"It all starts from Chuck," says Reo Edwards, manager of several bands and owner of the monster sound systems that propagate the go-go sound. He is even thought to have originated the name -- when he asked an audience, "What time is it?" and the kids shouted back, "Time to go-go!"
Until the late '60s, when Brown evolved the nonstop rhythmic structure that is the essence of go-go, most Washington bands, black and white, played top-40 material. "Back then it was who could play the most tunes and play 'em as close to the record as possible," he recalls. "If there was a mistake in the record, we would play that . . .
"Most of the groups then had gotten into a thing of playing a song and then stopping and thinking of another song. I decided to keep the percussion going in between the songs, keep the beat going -- luckily, most drummers have a lot of stamina and endurance -- and the people liked that. And in between songs I got a chance to do a little talkin', and people started talkin' back to me and the next thing you know, we had the audience participation thing going."
In fact, audiences fed the Soul Searchers with the key phrases that often pass for lyrics in go-go, including "I feel like bustin' loose," which first started cropping up in 1976. "They were giving us new ideas," Brown says. "We cut 'Bustin' Loose' in '78 and, bang, there you go."
Brown had played piano in his neighborhood church, but it wasn't until he went to Lorton on a felony charge that he got his first guitar -- in exchange for five packs of cigarettes. "There were 700 players down there," Brown, now 49, recalls. "Now that was competitive. I'm thankful to God that I ended up being the best of those 700."
A taut, muscular man who still carries himself like the boxer he was 30 years ago, Brown got out of Lorton in 1962 and played guitar with Jerry Butler and Lloyd Price. He also put together the Soul Searchers, but because of his parole status he was forbidden for eight years to play anywhere liquor was sold. Instead, he started playing at recreation and youth centers, and at churches.
"The kids were the first ones to catch on -- they're very sharp," he says. "Then the older folks see the kids responding . . . their wind is not as long as the kids', but it motivated a lot of older people to come to the cabaret and to dance. The music had energy."
It also had imitators.
"Chuck Brown turned the kids on and gave them the idea that they could be a band," says Reo Edwards, "and that they could be successful with that funky backbeat he had. And Trouble liked it and brought it up to the front and made that their main beat." Major R & B acts passing through Washington would hire Edwards' sound system, and Trouble Funk would often end up on the bill, which is how the band initially built up its huge following.
Although Chuck Brown has had the only two national go-go hits with "We Need Some Money" and the million-selling "Bustin' Loose," Trouble Funk is the most recorded go-go band, with such local hits as "Let's Get Small," "Pump Me Up" and "Drop the Bomb," one of go-go's more enduring chants.
To the uninitiated, much go-go sounds alike, but there are distinctions. "They all have their own specific sound. E.U. plays rock funk, Trouble Funk plays space-age funk," says Edwards. "Chuck plays blues-jazz-fusion funk, Rare Essence and Mass Extension play jazz funk. They all play on the same beat, the same percussion basically -- it's the chords they put on top of the groove that identify them."
The record deals give them all a chance to be heard, and that chance is all most of the bands want. "Somebody knocks, I'm ready to run," says E.U.'s Sugar Bear Elliot, pointing out that Hall and Oates have shown an interest in recording with his band. "If there's a hole in the gap, I'm running through it."
That go-go's been around for a decade without catching the ear of any major record company may be attributable to its emphasis on live performance or its rough, aggressive edges, but it's more indicative of the conservative nature of the industry.
"The recording industry just doesn't react, or is very slow," says TTED attorney and producer Johnny Mercer."When something like go-go gets this hot in Washington, it's foolish to think it couldn't be just as hot in Houston or New York or Cleveland.
"The kids are raised on the same TV shows, the same clothes, the same stimuli. Why are they reacting to it here? It's not an underground scene -- these bands sell 30,000 to 60,000 records here with very little promotion or air play, yet the majors totally ignored them."
"The majors blew the first great black street phenomenon of the '80s," says Nelson George, the esteemed black music writer for Billboard magazine, "and they don't want to blow it again." He traces the current obsession with go-go to the industry's missing the boat on the South Bronx hiphop movement that produced rap, scratch and breakdancing.
"That was an underground black thing that had been happening for a while, and the major record people basically ignored it," George says. "And suddenly the thing exploded commercially and in terms of audience acceptance, and it left a lot of egg on their face. And now Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun is in Washington looking for bands. That's when you know the big money is coming in."
The first major to show interest turned out to be Island, which has had experience with both cult music (reggae and Afro-pop) and mainstream success (U2). Chris Blackwell, Island's founder and president, had heard Chuck Brown's "We Need Some Money" on New York radio and had one of his employes track it down, a move that led him to Maxx Kidd, to a movement and, soon after, to the distribution deal.
"It was '50s music yet it sounded fresh at the same time," says Blackwell. "Most dance music, and even a lot of black music today, is very synthetic, whereas black music used to be the absolute opposite of that."
Ironically, a friend of Blackwell's who lives in Washington had told him about the go-go scene several years ago, but Blackwell had never followed up. And George recalls that when the Black Music Association held its convention in Washington last year, he tried to drum up support for the go-go scene among those in attendance. "But no one wanted to leave their damn hotel rooms."
In 1985, Washington's go-go scene is like the early days of rock 'n' roll, when small record companies and feisty entrepreneurs overrode the industry's lack of interest and formed an infrastructure of independent labels and distributorships.
It's a cottage industry that has its own set of problems, ranging from mismanagement to cash flow, and while it has thrived unnattended for close to a decade, it's also built up layers of suspicions and defenses. Kidd's deal with Island, and the subsequent invasion by other major labels, has further charged the atmosphere, as if those closest to the go-go scene are afraid of losing control, particularly to outsiders.
Jem-Rose, which has Little Benny, I Cee Hott and several other bands, is a co-venture by the owners of the Douglas and Wiz record stores. Full House, which is working with younger bands such as Petworth, Pump Blenders and Shady Groove, is owned by several lawyers.
TTED Records is located in back of -- and has been carried at times by -- Maxx Kidd's successful computer business. Although go-go was already in gear by the time he came to it, Kidd is acknowledged as the key figure in its current elevation from cult to trend. He has most of the major go-go bands tied to him: Trouble Funk, E.U., Mass Extension, Redds and the Boys, Go-go Allstarz, Sluggo.
These days Kidd is driven by visions of go-go as the new disco, a populist music that will sweep the nation and the world, evolving a whole marketing infrastructure of fashions, hair styles and music. Go-go has become his crusade.
"I'm the only one that can take this movement up," Kidd says, betraying the immodesty that has irritated some in the go-go community. "I'm not the only one that's responsible for it, but I'm the packager."
Even as outsiders are trying to tap into the go-go scene, there are some who feel Kidd is trying to maintain control of it himself. He says he's only worried that bad music coming out of Washington will get labeled go-go and discredit its real purveyors.
"When everybody smelt this, they started dippin' in here to see if there was anything else to get. Now everybody's trying to cut go-go, and a lot of that is crap."
It's also true that none of the non-TTED groups in town had a shot at appearing in "Good to Go."
"If it ain't TTED, it ain't go-go," Kidd says adamantly, "and if you ain't TTED, you ain't in this one."
As for the new groups that are beginning to make a name for themselves, he says, "Let me put it this way. They are babies in this go-go movement. Until the right producers grab them, no, they're not representative, they will not represent the real thriving go-go. We like the little Pump Blenders, the little Ayre Rayde, but when people get ready to get down, they want Trouble Funk. That's where go-go is now."
Kidd, who's been a singer, songwriter, producer and longtime independent promotion man, sees himself as the new Berry Gordy. "That's what everybody's taggin' me, that's the model," he says. "I know the music, I know the streets. It's the same thing as Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff Philly Soul , the same thing as Al Bell Memphis Stax , the same thing as Dick Griffey and Lonnie Simmons Los Angeles' Solar Records ."
In the TTED offices, chalkboards are jammed with call letters of stations playing various releases, with interview schedules, with photo opportunities. Signs are scattered throughout: "Soul Music Is Back."
Maxx Kidd's reach may ultimately exceed his grasp, but right now he's on the inside track. "I went to school for that," he says. "The school of life.