In 1986, Island Records released a film titled "Good to Go." The label hoped the movie would elevate go-go, the percussive party music native to Washington, to a national platform much like "The Harder They Come" did for reggae. But the film was a failure, panned by critics and the go-go community alike for its inaccurate depiction of the genre and its surrounding culture.
"Good to Go" depicted a music scene plagued by drug use and gratuitous violence. It looked nothing like the positive, joyous environment that had taken root in Washington. Community organizers Carol Kirkendall and Darryll Brooks, who had become key promoters of go-go concerts at Anacostia Park and throughout the city, were determined to present go-go in a better light. And that's how the Oct. 9, 1987, "Tribute to Go-Go" concert was born.
Now popularly known as "Go Go Live," the show took place at the Capital Centre, the Landover, Md., arena that was then home to the Washington Bullets and Capitals. The venue had hosted concerts by everyone from Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones to Parliament-Funkadelic, but the atmosphere was different for this all-hometown show. The lineup was a who's who of go-go: Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Rare Essence, Experience Unlimited, Little Benny and the Masters, Junkyard Band, D.C. Scorpio, Go Go Lorenzo and Hot, Cold Sweat. Some had played there before, but not like this.
At a time when the genre was coming under scrutiny from public officials who had ideas on regulating and restricting concerts, it was a major deal to have the biggest venue in the area present its first all go-go concert. And it took a grass-roots effort to pull it off. Bands were involved in the planning from the start; local radio stations WOL and WOOK were instrumental in promotion; fans spread the word throughout their communities.
There were plenty of cameras on hand, and the event was memorialized on video. Released two months later, that VHS tape — "Go Go Live at the Capital Centre" — took on a life of its own that would carry the homegrown product around the world. This is the story of how the show took shape, what it was like in the arena that night and the concert's lasting legacy.
I. The setup
Darryll Brooks (promoter/producer): I went to one of the tapings of ["Good to Go"]. I was excited, but when I got there, I ran into Chuck Brown, and he was not happy. He was saying, "Hey man, I'm not comfortable with this." I ran into Sugar Bear, and he was saying, "This ain't right." As I moved around and chit-chatted with some other people, they basically said the film sucked. They were representing their city, their neighborhood — the things that make them most proud — and this particular movie talked about drugs and crime. So Carol and I ended up having a conversation, and we said the following: Let's do our own video. Let's shoot our own movie. Let's present ourselves the way we want to present ourselves.
Carol Kirkendall (promoter/producer): We grew up with [go-go] just like the acts grew up with it. They came out of our programs in Anacostia Park, and we'd have 20-30,000 people come from all over the city. Young, old, you name it. We never, not once had a problem — not once had to call the police. But this [show] was not so easy to pull off. There had never been an all go-go show at the Capital Centre. If there were major acts, they might let one go-go group open or something like that, but they were afraid to have an all go-go show.
Maurice "Moe" Shorter (manager, Junkyard Band): At that time, go-go was the biggest thing in the city. It was what we all dreamed of — going on that big stage. And we're all doing it together, and they're videotaping us.
Gregory "Sugar Bear" Elliott (bass, lead vocals, E.U.): When the promoters told us about the idea, we thought it would be great because go-go was at its peak back then. E.U. was one of the hot groups, and we definitely had to be a part of it. It was the talk of the whole metropolitan area. "Are you going to the go-go live?" That's what everyone was talking about. The buzz was in the air for months. It was a great feeling.
Milton Smith (drummer, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers): We felt that it was probably the best thing that had ever happened to go-go, and we were all very excited. Not only the band but the city. Everyone was excited. Everyone was talking. No matter where you went, people were planning. They were in the malls, in the shops, planning to get their outfits. It was the biggest buzz all over the city.
Brooks: Some of the minutiae that I think was very exciting was all these groups knew it was going to be their day in the sun. They came dressed; they came uniformed; they came clean. . . . You were going to see a show.
Andre "Whiteboy" Johnson (lead guitar, Rare Essence): We were rehearsing for two months for it — for a regular club show, we don't need that kind of rehearsal. During those times, a lot of the shows when you had multiple bands like that, everyone always wanted to know who was going to outdo who. It was always a case of what are these people going to do? What songs are they going to play? What outfits are they going to wear? We were getting a lot of questions. We had to have rehearsals at a secret location so people wouldn't know.
Smith: Chuck had a list that he wanted to do. He had an order, and that's very rare because Chuck Brown always did everything on the fly. But this particular time, the week prior to the show, we had a rehearsal, and we went through the songs that he wanted to do because of time constraints. You can't just play as long as you want at the Capital Centre. I think that was the first and I think the last time I ever saw Chuck Brown plan and rehearse a set.
III. The show
Shorter: We're the Junkyard Band, and we're performing on buckets and cans and all those nontraditional instruments. We got there for soundcheck and set up our equipment, and the sound company was looking like, what the hell is this? We finished, we were like, "Okay, you can go ahead and mic it," and one guy was like, "How are we supposed to mic this?"
Johnson: It was great because every song we played, every move we made, the crowd was right with us. They were screaming and cheering and dancing. You would've thought that we were Michael Jackson up there the way the audience reacted.
Brandi Dunnegan (concert attendee, future Rare Essence publicist): I was probably 13 or so. I had an older sister and we had friends, and they'd heard about it. We got our mom to buy us tickets. I don't even know if we understood the significance of it. And our friends from school were going, people in the neighborhood — I mean, the whole city was going.
Brooks: Madness Connection — which was a gear shop on Georgia Avenue — they started making outfits that were very popular at the time. Some of the guys were wearing the gear up on stage like D.C. Scorpio. Jogging suits were popular at the time, so Rare Essence came out all dressed the same with their jogging suits. Little Benny, who was a great bandleader, came out, and they had more of a conservative suit-and-vest look — white pants, yellow vest. Chuck Brown, he came out of his era — my chest, my muscles, I'm flashin' — they had their contemporary kind of a look.
Smith: I cannot put into words the adrenaline that was going, listening to the other bands and how well everyone was performing. That night, I think every band did the best they could possibly do, and the same with us.
I normally would wear shorts and a T-shirt because I sweat a lot, but the bass player doubted that I would go out there with no shirt on. So I had on these white shorts — and you know the shorts weren't like the shorts now. I had on some short shorts, and everyone thought I had on underwear. We laughed the whole night.
Brooks: I don't want to be corny, but it was like watching your kids' recital in front of a real audience for first time. It was that kind of feeling because you had guys who had never been on the Capital Centre stage with that kind of production. They'd done other shows, but to be in that kind of presentation, on that platform, that day was very special. You had parents in the audience or backstage helping them prepare. You had relatives, friends, neighborhoods rooting their team or their local band on. People wanted to see what so-and-so was going to do because that was going to be the chatter on Monday morning. Number one, I was there. Number two, did you see what such-and-such did?
IV. The aftermath
Johnson: We thought it would do well, but did we think we'd still be talking about this 30 years later? No, we didn't, and I don't think anyone did. As soon as the video came out, the stores lit up.
Elliott: It made me want to go higher. To go around the country with this. To take this movement and this sound around the nation, that was my dream. I finally had that dream come true in 1988 when we put out "Da Butt." I started headlining arenas around the country. It's amazing the love we got.
Shorter: I think "Go Go Live" kind of saved us to some degree. Go-go was the strongest thing going, but hip-hop was making some inroads. When we were able to put this entire show together, that said to our city that, yes, we have our music and we're holding onto it, and we're going forward with it. That cemented just how strong go-go was in the city.
Smith: There have been so many times I've been in people's homes and they'll be watching the video. People see me and recognize me from "Go Go Live" more so than they do anything else, but I'm not surprised because it was that kind of a night. There was so much energy, love and respect for go-go music and for the community in that Capital Centre.
The last time [Chuck Brown, who died in 2012] spoke about it, he said the exact same thing — that he would never forget it, and it was the most memorable night of his life, as far as a musician and as far as it related to go-go.
V. The video
Kirkendall: We were fortunate that it turned into a tremendous success. We were also a little unfortunate, because we had no idea how big it could've become, so we weren't prepared to sell 100,000 or 300,000 units. The whole economics of go-go were impacted by the video.
Smith: Because there was a video, we were able to spread that video nationally as opposed to just locally. And we grew as a genre and spread a lot more because of that video. The work started coming, not only for Chuck, but other bands who performed that night. Right after that, someone in Japan and Europe saw the "Go Go Live" video and had just about everyone come over.
Brooks: Our initial order was only to the strength of our pockets, so we didn't have that many. They blew out so fast we had to go get more — to the point we were driving trucks to Detroit, picking up truckloads and taking them back.
Johnson: It definitely took it to the next level. There was a visual now, so you can see and hear what this is. It helped us get a lot of gigs in other cities in major venues, and that wouldn't have happened without something like "Go Go Live" to show the people you can put these bands and this music in a major venue and it can actually do something.
Some of the younger bands now have said, "I saw you on 'Go Go Live.' " I had a guy in a bounce beat band a couple of years ago come to me and say, "My mom used to play that 'Go Go Live' VHS every day," and that's how he got his love for go-go music.
Elliott: It was funny because people who already knew me wanted autographs all the time. I said, "Y'all need to stop." They said, "Nah, y'all really represented." It was just a great feeling. You can't describe it. To this day, I still sign DVDs for people because they finally got their copy of "Go Go Live." Generations just kept getting interested and watching it.
It erased "Good to Go" out of people's minds. "Go Go Live" revitalized us. It was a fresh beginning — the way it should've been represented.
Dunnegan: D.C. people are prideful people, and so we felt like we owned those bands. They were everything to us. They were here with us. They stuck here with us. They kept their music with us. We were a part of them. At the time, I didn't know it, but we were making history.