Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, 53, is the lead guitarist and a founding member of Rare Essence, a D.C. go-go-band that got its start in 1976. Rare Essence’s latest album, “Turn It Up,” will be released in May.
So you started Rare Essence with friends. How old were you then?
I was in the seventh grade, so 12? Three of us were in the same class, and the drummer, Footz, he was a grade ahead of us. As much as I hate to admit it, that was 40 years ago.
That’s amazing! Do you remember your first gig?
I do. The very first gig we did was at the rec center at the complex I lived in, in Southeast. We knew two songs — if you want to even call them songs, they just had one part to them and no words — and we played them back and forth the whole time. [Laughs.]
Didn’t the audience catch on after a while?
Well, they were all kids. I’m sure the adults were like, “Oh, please, play something else.” Later, we played the stuff we heard on the radio: James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Cameo. Earth, Wind and Fire was a bit advanced, but we tried.
So how did your sound eventually grow into the go-go sound?
We were all big Soul Searcher fans back then; they were the band on the scene at that time. So we picked up on what Chuck Brown was doing — this little percussion thing in between the songs. Because he said, “It’s hard to get the people on the dance floor, so when you get ’em up there, just keep ’em going as long as you can!” Well, [band member] James Funk got permission from Chuck. He said: “We like that beat that you do in between the songs. Do you mind if we copy that?” Chuck was like, “Nah, go ahead.” And that is how the sound really started to evolve. And the interlude grew from a minute to five minutes to 20 minutes.
And other bands started doing it, too?
Yeah, because they saw that it was working, so why not?
How did you get the nickname “Whiteboy”?
I used to listen to all of the pop music, trying to learn the guitar riffs: Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Kansas. Basically all the stuff that’s on Guitar Hero right now. The band was like, “You like all the white music.” I fought it for six or seven months, but it stuck. So, whatever.
Has the audience changed much over the years?
Depending on the club we play and the set we play, we get different ages. Our demographic is anywhere from 25 to 55. But most of the younger ones, they’ve already been listening to the music from their parents. So every week somebody comes to me and says, “Hey, my mom told me to tell you hello.” That relationship with the audience is probably the reason that we’re able to just continue on and on and on.
So do your kids get a kick out of it? “Daddy, you’re famous!”
You know, we did a remix with Wale, maybe three, four, five years ago, and I was driving and listening to it, and my oldest son said, “Dad, is that Wale? You know Wale?” I said, “You should be asking if Wale knows me.” [Laughs.]
Have the shows changed much over the years?
Things have slowed down. Before we would do two shows, two sets. A high school 8 to 12 o’clock, and then until 5 or 6 in the morning we were somewhere else. Now it’s just two one-hour sets. But we still play until 3 in the morning.
Well, that explains why you didn’t want to meet me in the morning. ...
Yeah, I haven’t been a morning person for about 35 years.
Do you think go-go reflects anything unique about D.C.?
Well, I think it reflects the resilience of the city. Somebody once said to me that Marion Barry was like go-go, you know? Just when you think he’s down, he comes back. [Laughs.] And Rare Essence, too, from the original band to the ’90s up to today, through all of those changes we just keep going at it, and the music continues to evolve.
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