It’s hard to believe Chuck Brown is 74 years old. Of course, his long musical career stretches across five decades of developing, celebrating, and perpetuating his own idiosyncratic musical style known as go-go. But he has all the energy and enthusiasm of a much younger man, one always looking forward to the next gig, the next call-and-response with his audience, the next groove. He’s barely slowed down in decades. In fact, Brown continues to record and play sold-out live shows that bristle with rhythm and electricity.
His latest release documents his charisma both in the studio and on the stage. “We Got This” includes a short EP featuring five new songs as well as a CD and a DVD documenting a recent show at the 9:30 Club. Each is kinetic and infectious — but the live show is Brown in his true element, surrounded by an ace backing band (including daughter KK and longtime hypeman, the late Little Benny) and playing to an adoring crowd.
The studio material may get the most press, primarily because of the cameos. R&B artist Ledisi sings on “Funky Stuff,” and singer/actress/poet Jill Scott reprises her hit “It’s Love” (here re-titled “LOVE”) as a duet with Brown. “When I had the pleasure of hearing Jill Scott sing that song with a go-go groove,” said Brown, “I thought, ‘Who is this young lady? I would like to do a tune with her.'”
The song is crisp and infectious, the grooves solid, but without the endless funk and audience shouts, these songs pale next to the live set on “We Got This.” Brown’s shows start and don’t stop until they’re over. According to him, that’s an essential part of go-go: “We used to play two or three or four hours without stopping. We’d come out of one groove and go right into the next groove. That’s why I called it go-go. It just goes and goes and goes.”
Of course, he’s been playing go-go music since before the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Brown developed the sound as a young musician playing D.C. clubs in the very early 1960s. To get an audience, gigmen had to walk a fine line: Play familiar top 40 tunes, but develop your own personal approach, something that set you apart from the rest playing the same material. A veteran of local acts Los Latinos and the Earls of Rhythm, Brown took the congas and percussion from the former, the tightly coiled grooves from the latter, and combined them into a solid, frenetic style. “When people hear that percussion, they’re ready to hit the floor,” he said. “Back in the day when we were doing top 40, people sat around with their suits and neckties, ladies with their mink coats on. They didn’t get up until they got a little woozy. But when I started go-go, they’d walk in the door dancing. No more mink coats, no more suits and ties. All the tables and chairs had to be moved out. It was dancing-room only.”
Soon, other D.C. acts were copying Brown’s signature style, but he didn’t mind: “I was looking for a sound for myself, but it turned out to be a sound for the town. These other bands jumped on it, and that was it. I knew we had something going.” The innovations Brown introduced reflect the bustle and diversity of D.C., and nearly half a century later, that sound has informed generations of artists. Artists like Nelly, Amerie and Gym Class Heroes have sampled go-go grooves for their hits, and both Ludacris and Justin Timberlake have reinvented signature songs in the go-go style.
On “We Got This,” Brown and his band cover a recent hit with a strong go-go beat — Beyonce’s smash “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” It’s an intriguing give-and-take musically, as Brown further go-go-fies a song that draws so heavily on his sound. But this is the way Brown stays young: He remains open to new ideas and go-go remains fluid, incorporating new elements from each new generation. “I listen to young people, not only my sons and daughter,” he said. “I listen to my children, to my family, to young people and old people. That’s another reason I’ve been out here all these years. People listen to me, so we listen to each other. That’s a good feeling in itself.”
Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner
Photo by James Hilsdon