When Chuck Brown gifted Washington with a style of dance music that didn’t allow his band to break for interruptions, applause or air, he named it go-go because the beat just “goes and goes.”
Nearly four decades later, the music comes and goes. Go-go once drew thousands of loyal fans to area nightspots seven nights a week, building a proud local culture around a durable communal rhythm. But after a decade of intense gentrification, the future of Washington’s native party music feels uncertain.
With fewer bands playing fewer shows for smaller audiences at a dwindling number of venues, go-go has migrated to unexpected places: strip clubs and churches, casinos and sweet-16 parties. And while the genre’s biggest names have recently made splashy returns to the District’s most prominent music venues, these intermittent gigs make it difficult to tell whether the music is enjoying a resurgence or hanging by a thread.
Go-go has never had a reliable scoreboard in terms of sales or airplay, so The Washington Post interviewed more than 100 musicians, managers, DJs and promoters in the go-go co mmunity to establish where the music currently stands. Their responses were as varied as they were passionate, making for a messy consensus.
A majority of those surveyed — 55 percent — agreed that today’s go-go scene is not healthy, with an overwhelming number of musicians citing a lack of hospitable venues as the music’s biggest obstacle. And that’s because go-go music is live music. Without public stages to perform on, younger groups are struggling to connect with their community as profoundly as their forebears did in the ’80s and ’90s.
Many also feel that the venue crisis has only widened go-go’s generation gap, creating two distinct scenes — young and old. Seventy-one percent of those surveyed said that local youth are not as interested in go-go music as they were during the scene’s boom years, while 76 percent said that it’s now more difficult for a young go-go group to get started and succeed than it was back in the day.
But despite these challenges, those surveyed were almost unanimous on one point. They believe that go-go music will survive. “Go-go is D.C.’s DNA,” Greg Boyer, trombonist of the Chuck Brown Band says, “and if you know anything about biology, that doesn’t change.”
What everyone is saying: We have faith.
What everyone is wondering: Is faith enough?
A grid of video screens flank the stage, sending a message out to the crowd — “HIT THE JACKPOT FOR $1 MILLION” — but Trouble Funk just wants everyone to dance.
Performing earlier this summer at Maryland Live Casino in Anne Arundel County, the band is pumping industrial-grade rhythms out onto the casino floor with such tenacity, the roulette players can’t help but tap their feet. A wiggly woman pats the glowing buttons of a digital poker machine as if she’s slapping a set of conga drums.
If the late Chuck Brown created go-go, Trouble Funk ran with it. The pioneering group took Washington’s percussion-heavy neighborhood sound worldwide, touring overseas and releasing major-label albums throughout the ’80s. But by the end of the decade, it became clear that go-go would remain a predominantly local phenomenon. The scene retrenched, with bands continuing to draw massive and loyal audiences, until rapid gentrification began to twist the cultural fabric of the District.
But recently, go-go’s veteran heavyweights have returned to the city’s brightest marquees. In addition to landing dates at the Howard Theatre and the Fillmore Silver Spring, Trouble Funk has become mainstays at D.C.’s storied 9:30 Club, where it’ll perform on New Year’s Eve. Earlier this summer, the band opened for Foo Fighters at RFK Stadium after appearing in frontman Dave Grohl’s recent HBO documentary series, “Sonic Highways.”
Trouble Funk hasn’t been this visible since 1987. But according to bandleader “Big Tony” Fisher, the band hasn’t been as busy. “We don’t like to perform every week, like when we were younger,” he says backstage at Maryland Live, where Trouble Funk plays a weekly “groove” night every few months.“Our audience just don’t come out like that. When we do something in D.C., we try to make it more like an event.”
The Howard Theatre has embraced this “event” mentality, too, hosting a variety of go-go reunion shows from UCB, Lissen and Northeast Groovers, as well as semi-regular appearances from Backyard Band. And while Backyard bandleader Anwan “Big G” Glover says he’s thankful for the opportunity, he wonders if this larger trend is merely a cosmetic comeback after years of being pushed back and forth across the city’s border.
“Maryland has pretty much shut us out,” Glover says in his sandpaper rasp, taking a break from his Sunday night slot as an on-air personality at WKYS (93.9 FM). “And D.C. has opened the door a little more, but the venues are very scarce right now. Very scarce.”
Go-go music has always required a stockpile of drums, an enthusiastic audience and, most importantly, physical space. Onstage, go-go bands fill the room with pummeling rhythm and electric call-and-response, sending shout-outs to friends, fans, neighborhoods. The social barriers between the band and the crowd are dissolved. The audience becomes a part of the music, dancing deep into the night, consecrating a community bond.
And while go-go music is by no means violent, neighborhood feuds have occasionally followed young fans into various area nightclubs over the years. In 2010, D.C. police aimed to curb go-go-related violence by circulating the “go-go report,” a biweekly bulletin alerting police to upcoming go-go concerts in the District. Tighter policing resulted in fewer concerts, which sent many go-go bands off searching for work in Prince George’s County. But after a surge in concert-related violence, the county passed an emergency bill giving officials the broad authority to shut down any dance hall seen as a threat to public safety. After being pushed out of the District, go-go all but vanished from Prince George’s, too.
In many ways, Glover’s life runs in tight parallel to go-go itself — he’s courted national fame (he starred on HBO’s “The Wire”) and had dalliances with local violence (he was stabbed at a downtown nightclub last year). And through it all, Backyard remains widely admired as the most active go-go band on the circuit, currently performing roughly three nights a week.
But Glover admits that in the ’90s, Backyard could play three shows on a single Saturday night. He’d like to see all of go-go get back to that place, and three years after Chuck Brown’s death, he feels a responsibility to help lead the way.
“Before Chuck passed, he told me, ‘Don’t let our music die,’ ” Glover says. “I know a lot of people look at me to hold that torch, but I think there are many leaders in go-go. I know I won’t stop.”
“Go-go music is our music!” Mayor Muriel Bowser shouts into the microphone on a golden Saturday evening. “I want to thank you for remembering Chuck, and celebrating Chuck!”
It’s the first annual Chuck Brown Day concert at Chuck Brown Memorial Park in Northeast, and today, the weather is as beautiful as the music. More than 3,000 fans — most of them middle-aged or older — have spread out across the park’s grassy slopes, waving to old friends and dancing to old favorites.
Originally billed by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation as “a full afternoon of entertainment and celebration” featuring music from the Chuck Brown Band, the concert was downsized to 90-minutes of music after protests from neighbors who feared high decibels and unruly crowds.Various local news outlets reported on the pre-show gripes. Too few made note of how lovely it all turned out.
Local government officials have long paid lip service to go-go, especially during campaign season, but members of the go-go community have felt that official Washington has done too little to support, showcase and protect the music. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed for this story believe that development and gentrification in Washington has played a significant role in the marginalization of go-go.
“When you go to New Orleans, it’s no secret that you’re in the home of jazz,” says Eric Curry, a member of UCB and a touring drummer for Washington rap star Wale. “When you get off that airplane, it’s in the [tourism] pamphlet. Why isn’t go-go embraced the same way in D.C.?”
It certainly could be. Earlier this year, the D.C. Economic Partnership, a nonprofit group working on behalf of the city, invited go-go legends Rare Essence to Texas to perform at the South by Southwest music festival. It was a concert designed to convince tech entrepreneurs to set up shop in Washington, but for the go-go community, it felt like a radical gesture. Many say it’s the first time they remember the D.C. government touting go-go as an asset outside of Washington.
“And that’s great,” Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson of Rare Essence says. “It just shows that if we were to work a lot more with them, we could probably get a lot more done. There are so many programs that the D.C. government is working on and [go-go] could definitely be a part of it.”
The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities collaborates with go-go musicians two to three times each year, hosting public concerts and organizing education programs. But by and large, the go-go community feels that this isn’t enough. Many wonder why the city hasn’t taken steps toward a go-go museum, a hall of fame, or a permanent venue where tourists could hear Washington’s home-grown music.
Veteran go-go musicians ultimately want this music to be remembered. The rookies are busy trying to keep it alive.
On a recent Saturday, Reaction Band is closing in on 3 a.m. with a beat so forceful, it’s inspiring a wide-awake crowd of 20-somethings to bounce their bodies in ways that defy gravity and decorum.
Outside, Willie Blakeney says it’s been a good night, not great. Blakeney owns this club, the Scene, but not for much longer. After nearly a decade in business off Queens Chapel Road NE, in a warehouse district where D.C. mega-clubs Bliss, Stadium and Echostage have since sprung up, Blakeney has decided to sell. Property values are heating up. Go-go is cooling down. “It’s time,” he says.
That will leave go-go’s youngest bands without a reliable venue in Washington or Prince George’s County. The CFE Event Center in Forestville, Le Pearl Ballroom in Capitol Heights, Fur and Ibiza in Northeast — all have been shuttered, forcing most young bands to scrape along by playing private parties or scoring residencies within a small network of lounges (and at least one strip club) in Waldorf.
These bands also specialize in the “bounce beat,” an aggressive, next-generation sound that’s more discordant and ferocious than the buoyant snap of old-school go-go. Many of the scene’s elders don’t get it and are quick to criticize these young groups — whose members are predominantly in their 20s — for covering radio hits instead of writing their own material.
TOB plays a mixture of covers and originals, but the band’s incredible chops haven’t made the search for club gigs any easier. So they’ve hit the private party circuit — sweet-16s, high school graduations, going-away-to-college parties. And while these shows are intimate, they ultimately sap go-go of its greater communal power. These bands promote themselves in private Facebook groups and locked Instagram feeds, but there’s nothing glamorous about the bounce beat’s underground exile. Young go-go fans “don’t have anywhere to go party and express themselves,” “Lil Chris” Proctor, bandleader of TOB, says. “These venues don’t wanna open their doors to the youth.”
And that’s destroyed other bands. In 2010, XIB was one of the most prominent bounce-beat acts on the circuit. By 2013, paying gigs became so scarce, the group had no choice but to disband. “We couldn’t afford to live out the dream,” Mikey Harrison, the group’s former manager says. “You need to at least be making enough money to pay a cellphone bill.”
Still, these odds have only made other bounce-beat musicians more resolute in their commitment to the music they love. In that sense, the clamoring bounce-beat sound becomes a declaration of existence, a shout against extinction, a demand to be heard.
“They say that if you’re in a bounce-beat band, all you do is shout,” says Binta Campbell, a vocalist for MTM. “ No honey, I sing. Yeah. we got loud drums going at different tempos, but it’s music — and music changes people’s lives.”
The sound of go-go is changing lives on a Sunday morning earlier this summer inside the Community of Hope AME Church in Temple Hills. The church band features members of Northeast Groovers, Da Mixx, Black Alley and others — and it packs a rhythmic wallop that feels unlikely for the setting, but entirely apt.
The Rev. Tony Lee founded this church in 1996, and today, he stands behind his pulpit in a baggy T-shirt and jeans with a rip in the knee, preaching: “We don’t care who you are, what you did last night in the club or who you did it with!” It quickly becomes clear that the go-go band set up behind him isn’t some gimmick or lure. All are truly welcome here.
“If you go to churches in the Caribbean, you’ll hear calypso and reggae in the hymns,” Lee says later. “So you’ll hear go-go here, because go-go is a culture. We’ve got go-go doctors and go-go dentists. We understand that go-go culture is a blessing and the music can be part of a sacred experience.”
Community of Hope is tucked beneath the Burlington Coat Factory on the lower level of Iverson Mall, a weathered shopping center that, in many ways, has become go-go’s de-facto nerve center. For 21 years, the mall was the home to P.A. Palace, the area’s most dependable retail spot for P.A. tapes — live concert recordings, taken directly from a venue’s soundboard, that go-go bands peddle on CDR in lieu of proper studio albums. But P.A. Palace closed its doors in March and moved its business online.
You can still hear go-go in the offices of Go-Go Radio Live, an online community radio station broadcasting from the mall’s back offices. Earlier this summer, the station celebrated its fifth anniversary, hosting optimistic state-of-the-music interviews with members of Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, the Chuck Brown Band and many others.
Nobody on the air that afternoon spoke with the same conviction as the station’s owner, Nico “The GoGo-ologist” Hobson. “If you’re making music for your homies in the street, that’s where it’s going to stay!” Hobson announced over the airwaves, echoing a common lament that go-go music too rarely tailors itself to being radio-friendly.
Hobson says the station’s mission is to allow the go-go community to have a conversation with itself. “Unlike any other genre, the audience is a part of this music,” he says later. “The lead-talker” — usually a go-go group’s bandleader and lead vocalist — “incorporates the daily lives of the community in the music. That’s what go-go is. It’s community music. It’s call-and-response. So we bring that into the studio.”
Hobson also sees Go-Go Radio Live doing the work that local terrestrial radio stations aren’t. Go-go’s presence on Washington airwaves has fluctuated wildly over the years, but for fans, it’s never enough. (WKYS currently broadcasts at least five hours of go-go each week; WPGC [95.5 FM] dedicates 30 minutes to go-go on Sunday nights; WHUR [96.3 FM] and MAJIC [102.3 FM] each have a few old-school go-go tunes in their respective rotations.)
Some of Go-Go Radio’s most loyal listeners are also its youngest — the station’s listenership spikes during programming blocks dedicated to the bounce beat. Whoever these kids are, Hobson hopes they’re listening closely.
Darrell “Chuck” Switzer is starting his senior year at Cardozo High School in Northwest, and as far as he knows, he’s the only one in his class who plays in a go-go band. “Everybody wanna rap now instead of keeping that go-go flow going,” Switzer says. “Go-go don’t run through a lot of people, but it runs through me.”
With the District’s rap scene currently enjoying national attention — thanks to Wale, Fat Trel and Shy Glizzy and others — many young Washingtonians have set their ears on a new set of musical heroes. But Switzer grew up around friends and neighbors who played go-go. He wanted to play the drums.
Now he plays in Major Band, and makes the trek to rehearsal every weekend from his home in Columbia Heights to a practice space in Glenmont via Metro, the bus and his own two feet. “Anything it takes to get there,” Switzer says.
He doesn’t own his own drum kit, but three days a week after school, he visits the basement of the Rita Bright Family and Youth Center, a buzzing recreation center on 14th St. NW. Head down the stairs and through the white double-doors, and amid racks of basketballs and piles of old bicycles there are some musical instruments — and plenty of children eager to learn how to play them.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Switzer is there, teaching a small group of kids from the neighborhood, ages 11 to 13, how to play the bounce beat. Counting off on a hi-hat cymbal that sounds like it was made from recycled cookware, they lurch into a cover of Fetty Wap’s “My Way,” and later an original song called “This Is the Life.” Switzer’s tween pupils knot their faces in concentration, breaking into smiles between takes.
Ask him if he thinks of himself as a mentor and Switzer smiles, too. “We just get together and rock out,” he says, shrugging. But at 17, he’s still old enough to know that he’s not only part of the go-go community; he’s part of the go-go continuum.
“I think the younger ones are gonna pick it back up,” Switzer says. “My little brother is 9 years old, and he’s already playing go-go.”