As a recorded music, Washington's proud, percussive funk style called "go-go" has never quite come to grips with its own rawness. The issue arises now with the success of something called the "PA tape," which has boosted the local recording industry.
In 1985, the go-go community was electrified by the prospect of breaking out nationally. Island Records gets a lot of blame for botching its movie "Good to Go" -- the would-be showcase for the D.C. groove -- and for watering down the music of the one band it really pushed, Trouble Funk. But Island wasn't the only company to blow it. Around the same time, Mercury/PolyGram signed one of the city's most esteemed bands, Rare Essence, and came out with a tired 12-inch single ("Flip Side") whose machine-driven groove can in no way be called go-go.
The most irresistible feature of go-go -- its loping, primal, nonstop rhythm, dense with congas, cowbells and timbales -- is exactly what frightened the big-time record companies. How could they get this stuff played on the radio in the age of slick, high-tech R&B?
Today, the market for go-go is pretty much confined to the District, Maryland and Virginia, as it was when it developed more than a decade ago. The nationwide popularity of E.U.'s "Da Butt" in 1988, as it turns out, had as little impact on go-go's fortunes as Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers' 1984 hit "We Need Some Money." Once in a while, a go-go record can go national. Just don't count on it.
Even London has cooled. London was so crazy for go-go music during the mid-'80s that the BBC did a documentary on it. Nowadays, "the odd record comes over," says David Lubich, editor of Soul Underground, a British magazine devoted to black music. "But there's not really a strong scene. In clubs, it's house music that's getting played totally. And rap is beginning to make quite a strong comeback. People have been saying go-go is going to come back in London for years."
During the fertile days of the early '80s, the 12-inch single was the essential medium of recorded go-go. It provided enough wax to contain the extended jams of bands like Trouble and E.U. But vinyl is on its deathbed. And car stereos with titanic speakers are all the rage.
Enter the PA tape.
"Most of the kids ride around and play the tapes from their Jeeps," says Tom Goldfogle, co-owner of Liaison Records, a local distributor of go-go cassettes. He says a popular tape can sell up to 30,000 copies.
Reo Edwards, who produced some of go-go's classic recordings, including most of the hits by Trouble Funk and Chuck Brown, put out the first PA tapes a couple of years ago. He was motivated by the drug-related violence that led to the shutting down of some go-go venues. "Go-go music was beginning to disappear," he says.
He also noticed that Rare Essence, during its live shows, would make cassette recordings straight off the sound-mixing board, then sell copies to fans. "A hot Rare Essence tape would sell for $50," Edwards says.
With a couple of 16-track tape recorders in his Landover studio, Edwards would invite bands to "just come in and cut it like it was live," he says. "Bring your own crowds, put it out and call it a PA tape" -- as in public address. With up to 30 minutes of uninterrupted music on each side (no song titles, even), a PA tape can capture the energy of a live go-go show, without the danger of a fight breaking out in the parking lot.
Usually, though, for long stretches of time these tapes are nothing but rhythm. Pure, unadorned percussion, with maybe somebody running off at the mouth about nothing in particular. This might be hypnotic in a crowded nightclub, but it's tedious on your home stereo.
The early go-go 12-inches may not have been intricately constructed songs, but they always had something melodic or harmonic happening on top of the groove. It could be as simple as the spacey synthesizer line in "Trouble Funk Express" or the chunky rock guitar in "E.U. Freeze." It could be as beautifully arranged as the jazzy horns in Chuck Brown's "Go-Go Swing." The beat was muscular, yes, but you had something else to hook onto. And that something else is what made a record memorable.
Edwards is encouraging young bands to focus on musicianship, on song crafting, so they can expand go-go's audience. "The young can deal with non-structured go-go music, but the adults can't," he says. "The young can deal with lyrics that don't say anything, but the adults can't. I have to train and teach these kids that they're going to have to go back to song structure, but not lose the go-go thing.
"The first PA tapes that I did were for Hot, Cold Sweat and Ayre Rayde," he says, "and the structure wasn't as good as what I'm doing now."
How raw is too raw? That is a question musicians and fans will work out among themselves. And they'll do it without the meddling of outside record companies, Edwards says. "We won't let that happen again. Like the rappers did in New York, we're going to have to stick together, get our own little independent labels. And if the majors want to deal with us, they're going to have to take us as we are.
"If the world don't want this," he says, "fine. We'll just keep it in D.C."
C.J.'s Uptown Crew: 'Get Real' Go-go for adults. That's the best way to describe "Get Real" by C.J.'s Uptown Crew (Washington Hit Makers Records). Carl "C.J." Jones himself calls it "cabaret"-style. The focus is on melodies, horn arrangements and actual singing. "We're older guys, so we can't be talking 'Wh-wh-wh-where y'all from?' " like the young bands, says Jones, a saxophonist who began nine years ago with E.U.
Jones tried shopping this LP around to the major labels, but found no takers, despite the involvement of Earth, Wind and Fire's horn arranger Tom Tom 99 and a bunch of go-go all-stars (William "JuJu" House, Li'l Benny and Rick Wellman, for example). "Get Real" is performed and produced with savvy, but it contains only three superior jams -- "Doc and C.J.'s Groove," "Get Real" and "The Go-Go Way," the last being a heartfelt salute to the D.C. sound, mentioning Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, Redds and the Boys and E.U.
The album includes a pair of forgettable ballads and two mediocre R&B numbers. But the biggest disappointment is a remake of Smokey Robinson's "Going to a Go-Go," presumably a natural for funkified reinterpretation. C.J.'s version suffers from an overly slick production and an affected lead vocal by Lisa "Sylver" Logan. You can appreciate C.J.'s wanting to get radio play, but even adult go-go fans want to hear some grit.
Physical Wundors: 'Hype With the Go-Go' The latest PA tape recorded and mixed by Reo Edwards, "Hype With the Go-Go" (Future Records and Tapes), is typical of the stuff being put out by young bands these days. The members of Physical Wundors demonstrate that they can lay down a solid go-go beat and get a few sounds out of keyboards, but that's about all. This tape is for fans who demand nothing more.
Lyrical and melodic borrowing is also a distressingly common feature of today's go-go. Physical Wundors takes a riff from the Average White Band's "Schoolboy Crush" and recites lyrics from Rick James's "Mary Jane" and KRS-One's criminal-minded rap "9mm Goes Bang."
When Trouble Funk chanted "pump pump pump pump me up" eight years ago, it was by no means profound. It was, however, original.
Go-Go Lorenzo: 'Go-Go Lorenzo Live' "Go-Go Lorenzo Live" (Goff Records) isn't labeled a PA tape. And unlike the packaging of most PA tapes, some money and imagination went into the cover for this project; there's a nice color photo of Lorenzo at the Hains Point statue "The Awakening." (The Physical Wundors cover doesn't even list the musicians.)
There's also more to listen to here than percussion. Produced by veteran keyboard player Ivan Goff, "Go-Go Lorenzo Live" employs a tasty rhythm guitar and a pair of horns (mixed way down, but welcome nevertheless). To keep things interesting, Lorenzo slips into a lively reggae groove from time to time, borrowing from J.C. Lodge's "Telephone Love" and from rapper Slick Rick. In fact, the most amusing portion of this tape is when Lorenzo adopts a vague island accent to say repeatedly, "We be jammin' out to the max. We might act crazy but we don't smoke crack."
Pleasure: 'Party Tape -- Boom Box Edition' Pleasure, the all-girl go-go band, came out with a PA tape last year. It was unpolished, but provided a reason to get excited about this young sextet, whose members were recruited from area high schools. As often as they perform around town, their chops should be improving fast.
Unfortunately, we don't get a chance to find out on the new "Party Tape -- Boom Box Edition" (Sound by Charlie Music). This tape relies on drum machines, keyboard sequencers and digital samplers. It is a startling disappointment. As raw as go-go can be sometimes, the music does have the virtue of being generated by live human beings, not by microchips. Why weren't the girls allowed to play?
This tape also wastes Pleasure's strongest asset, lead singer-rapper Michelle Peterson, whose husky voice could be heard from start to finish on last year's tape. She isn't allowed to say much of anything this time out.
Pleasure is on the rise, however. The word is that it'll probably go out on the road this fall as the backing band for rappers Salt-N-Pepa, whose producer, Hurby Luv Bug, has long been infatuated with the go-go sound. Let's hope the young ladies are up to the task.