A few months later, D.C. native Regina Hall brought hometown spirit to the BET Awards, dancing onstage as Rare Essence’s James “Funk” Thomas and E.U.’s Sugar Bear performed. And then in October, the D.C. Council passed legislation naming go-go “the official music of the District of Columbia” — which Mayor Muriel E. Bowser signed in February. More recently, go-go bands have been crankin’ on the newly created Black Lives Matter Plaza.
All of which makes this the perfect time for a go-go history lesson, whether you grew up dancing to Junkyard Band at free concerts in D.C. parks or first heard the Backyard Band at Moechella, one of the protest concerts that took over the intersection of 14th and U streets.
But “The Beat Don’t Stop,” a feature-length documentary airing Sunday on TV One, is more than just talking heads discussing discographies and debating which band had the greatest conga players. “It’s about how the story of go-go music and culture and Don’t Mute D.C., is for me, an extension of Black Lives Matter,” explains Deirdre Leake-Butcher, one of the executive producers. “So it’s a story about how the erasure of black culture happens in cities across the country. It’s a story that as African Americans, we can all relate to.”
Work on the project was already underway before Don’t Mute D.C. dragged go-go back to the limelight, says Tracey Uy, another of the project’s executive producers, though the protests and go-go’s new status provided a neat conclusion of the narrative arc. “When we started out, we just had a love for the music and wanted to tell the story,” she says. “But Don’t Mute D.C. gave go-go worldwide attention again. We were really, really lucky in the timing.”
“The Beat Don’t Stop” traces the origins of go-go from Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers at a club called the Maverick Room in Edgewood, when Brown had percussionists keep the beat going between songs to keep the dancers moving, and the creation of the “pocket” — the rhythmic interaction between the drummer, the percussionists and conga players that gives go-go its signature groove. And then, like the music, it keeps going and going.
Viewers learn why go-go lead talkers began shouting out the names of people in the crowds, and their neighborhoods, and dive into the importance of Ballou High School’s marching band as a training ground for go-go artists. We see the times go-go came tantalizingly close to making it big on major labels, via “Sardines” and “Da Butt,” and the historic Go-Go Live concert at the Capital Centre.
Thankfully, the culture gets as many nods as the congas: There are asides about Mr. G, the photographer who took group shots in front of painted backdrops at concerts, and the sartorial differences between young people from Southeast and Uptown. Dance historians can compare Junkyard’s HeeHaw and the more modern moves of the Beat Ya Feet Kings.
Producers set the scene by incorporating documentaries shot by the BBC and German television in the ’80s, as well as vintage videos — don’t miss the clip of a young Junkyard Band performing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1986 — and concert footage taped by audience members.
Beyond the firsthand testimony from band members, such as Big Tony Fisher of Trouble Funk and Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson of Rare Essence, some of the most memorable commentary comes from the engaging experts: Howard University professor (and former Washington Post reporter) Natalie Hopkinson, author of “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City”; journalist Alona Wartofsky, who started writing about go-go for The Post in the 1980s and now writes for the Washington City Paper; musician and historian Kato Hammond, who performed with Little Benny and the Masters before launching the Take Me Out to the Go-Go website; and activist Ron Moten, who’s been a driving force behind Don’t Mute D.C.
“We set out to find out where the passion for this music came from and what it was rooted in,” Leake-Butcher says. “The scope started out fairly small, but once we started interviewing people — and we interviewed over 40 — we discovered some really impactful stories, and stories that hadn’t been told before.”
If there’s a fault, it’s almost that there’s too much information to share. Within a few minutes in the second half of the documentary, subjects hopscotch from the shootings inside and outside concert halls the late ’80s and early ’90s that led the city to crack down on go-go clubs; to the growth of the R&B-influenced “grown and sexy” sound in the ’90s and 2000s; to moving interviews about Chuck Brown’s death in 2012.
Locals might wonder why members of a favorite band (say, Northeast Groovers) get almost no screen time, or be thankful that the widely panned 1986 go-go-exploitation film “Good to Go,” which starred Art Garfunkel, doesn’t even warrant a mention.
“There were just so many stories to tell,” Leake-Butcher says. “For a national audience who really doesn’t know what go-go is, we really wanted to paint a picture so that they understood the origin of this music and the culture.”
And that’s the key. Some might debate why go-go never became a national success — “I had the hottest record in the world, but in my opinion, it was nothing compared to what Chuck Brown was able to create,” hip-hop trailblazer Doug E. Fresh admits in one scene — or focus on the tragic death of Rare Essence drummer Quentin “Footz” Davidson, but go-go’s survival instinct is never far from the surface. Even without hit records, the musicians were local celebrities, supported by an ecosystem that included club owners, fans paying for shows, and folks selling clothing and live PA tapes. It is, Hopkinson points out in the documentary, “a multimillion-dollar industry, almost entirely black-owned.”
Throughout “The Beat Don’t Stop,” musicians and fans alike stress that go-go is a visceral, participatory experience, from the call-and-response between band and crowd to the slap of the hands on congas. But what does that mean for go-go now, when we’re reduced to streaming gigs or playing old PA tapes for who knows how long? Leake-Butcher isn’t worried.
“One of the things that we learned [making the documentary] is just how tenacious the community is” she says. “They’ve been through a lot in terms of the music being stigmatized, the music being blamed for things that happened in the ’80s and ’90s. And yes, the culture died down. But, you know, it’s still found a way to survive.”
Where to watch
“The Beat Don’t Stop” (83 minutes) screens June 21 at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET on TV One.