Among the latest contributors to the D.C. government's efforts to stave off financial disaster is a unique group of Southeast Washington investors. They usually work in sweaters instead of three-piece suits and earn most of their money at night. When they speak, others listen -- and dance. Their goal as professionals is to be "the No. 1 progressive funk, jazz-oriented group in America."
Rare Essence, a 13-member band known for its hard and heavy rhythms, won a lively bidding battle at last week's D.C. government surplus land auction and, for $70,000, purchased the old No. 11 police precinct building, a two-story frame and stucco structure at 2301 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.
The band plans to use the site as a practice studio and a home base for Rare Essence Enterprises Inc., according to its feisty manager, Annie Mack. The abandoned building, located in the heart of the Anacostia community, will need extensive cleaning and some renovating before those plans can be realized, however.
"We've got a lot of work to do to get that place together," Mack said. The interior --including the old lockups and holding pens-- needs replastering and painting; many of the windows have been broken out and the inside is littered with the debris of pigeons that have made a home in the building since it closed several years ago.
But never mind the work that must be done, Mack said. "I'm glad we were able to get the building because now we can have a place of our own. The band doesn't have to practice in the basement of my house anymore."
The ascension of Rare Essence from a group of ninth graders "jamming" after school to a successful band known citywide and now potential landowners is a Washington success story.
Performing six times a week, with four performances on weekends and two during the week, Rare Essence is considered one of the top three "funk" groups in the city --competing head to head against the Trouble Funk and Experience Unlimited bands.
Mack says the group earns a minimum of $700 for each performance; others put the amount at closer to $1,500. The group plans to use some of the profits from such performances, along with bank loans it hopes to secure soon, to pay for the building.
Mack, who retired two years ago after 25 years as a secretary for the D.C. Department of Human Services, said the group hopes, through the purchase of the building and its revitalization, to be a positive role model in the often-neglected neighborhood.
"We're trying to help us so we can help the community," she said. "I'm hoping that we will be recognized as a top-flight band nationally and that we will be able to put back into the community to keep it going."
Mack's two sons, James (Funk) Thomas, vocalist and assistant manager for the group, and drummer Quentin (Foots) Davidson, were among the founding members of Rare Essence, which was formed in 1976 by a group of ninth graders at St. Thomas More School on Fourth Street SE in Congress Heights.
The neophyte musicians called themselves the Young Dynamos. The members were Davidson, now 20; lead guitar player Andre (White Boy) Johnson (affectionately nicknamed by his colleagues because of his preference for rock music instead of soul), 19; bass player Michael (Funky Ned) Neal, 19; timbales player David Green, 18; trombonist John (Big Horn) Jones, 19, and trumpet player Benny (Lil' Benny) Harley, 18.
"By the time we became Rare Essence, in 1977," Davidson said, "we had three more members." They were his older brother James; Mark (Godfather) Lawson, 20, on keyboards, and Rory (D.C.) Felton, 21, on alto and tenor saxophones.
Davidson said that four more members have been added since then: Tyrone (Jungle Boogie) Williams, 21, who plays congos; Norris (Marky) Owens, 22, on keyboards; Benjaman (Scotty) Haskel, 20, also on keyboards, and Lawrence West, vocalist. Four of the members are now students at the University of the District of Columbia, majoring in such fields as music, computer electronics and aeronautics. One member attends a fine arts school in Georgetown and all but one member of the band are employed at various jobs outside the music profession. Davidson, for example, works as a computer technician for AM International in Rosslyn.
In November, Rare Essence released its first album, "Body Moves," produced on the group's own label, Groove Records. The album was the crowning glory of thousands of hours of practice in the basement of Mack's home on Xenia Street SE.
That's where the band perfected its craft and created most of the songs it plays. Most of the original tunes are instrumentals, characterized by rhythmic "grooving" and part of what is alternately called "The D.C. Sound" or "P-Funk as in pure funk music."
When the band first began, its performances were either benefits or the group was paid just enough to cover its expenses. Now, with a its popularity firmly established, Rare Essence still plays some benefit performances.
Rare Essence is making considerable progress toward gaining national prominence, according to Bobby Ballard, a local entertainment promoter and record shop owner who has closely followed the group for the past few years.
"The group's only weakness is its stage presence," Ballard said, "but, a local choreographer is working with them on that."