It’s 11 p.m. on a Tuesday in a Capitol Heights, Md., industrial park. An open tire shop seems like the only sign of life among the warehouses. But go around back and there’s the muffled yet undeniable clatter of live drums, congas and horns. This is go-go the way Chuck Brown used to play it. Inside a carpeted rehearsal studio, the Chuck Brown Band is running through the set list for one of its most important gigs.
Two of Brown’s children — son Nekos and daughter Takesa “KK” Donelson — sit comfortably on a black leather couch as the troupe resurrects the spirit of the go-go icon.
“Po-lice-man is on the premises, what is he doing in here?” vocalist Frank Sirius sings on “Run Joe,” in his best Brown inflection.
At other times during the practice, the band tinkers with a few loose grooves that lead to Brown’s “Woody Woodpecker,” a go-go cover of Lorde’s “Royals,” and a playful simulation of the “Happy Days” theme song.
Some songs broke down. Others were more fluid. It’s about the party, after all.
More than two years after the “Godfather of Go-Go” died at age 75, the musician’s family, and the band that supported him, are looking to bring the Chuck Brown sound to more listeners, and to find broader appeal for the affable dignitary of this D.C. sound.
“There’s been a lot going on,” says Donelson, her eyes blurry from a full slate of media obligations to promote her father’s new — and final — album. “But it’s worth it.”
Friday, the Chuck Brown Band concludes a week of celebration with a headlining performance at the Howard Theatre in Northwest Washington. Also Friday, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) will cut the ribbon on Chuck Brown Memorial Park in Northeast’s Langdon Park, a $1 million space that features a memorial wall and art commissioned by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
This past Tuesday, Brown’s “Beautiful Life” was released with contributions from fellow D.C.-area natives — rapper Wale, singer Raheem DeVaughn and go-go veteran Sugar Bear — alongside R&B vocalist Faith Evans, hip-hop pioneer Doug E. Fresh and gospel artist Y’Anna Crawley. It recalls vintage Brown, with three original songs recorded by the band.
Brown was in the process of finishing the album when he fell ill. He died in May 2012 of complications from sepsis. On the night of his death, the city gathered at Howard Theatre and danced to Brown’s melodies.
“My father’s music changed the whole culture and gave a lot of people an identity they didn’t necessarily have,” says Nekos Brown, 26. “He changed the way people lived around here. It’s something I’d like to see on a major motion-picture screen one day.”
Brown made ripples outside of the District, but in Washington he was a legend. Known for his rocky voice and bright smile, Brown’s percussive blend of funk and soul gave the city a homegrown sound that resonated with black Washingtonians. In 1966, Brown formed a band called the Soul Searchers and eventually created go-go as a genre that “just goes and goes,” as Brown once said. In 1979, the Soul Searchers’ “Bustin’ Loose” spent four weeks on the R&B singles chart; in the ’80s, songs such as “Run Joe” and “Go-Go Swing” helped cement Brown’s reputation.
Some national artists — from Salt-N-Pepa to the Roots to St. Louis rapper Nelly — have dipped into go-go’s rhythmic arrangement over the years, but, for the most part, the sound is rooted — and known best — in the District.
Perhaps on purpose then, the first voice on Brown’s “Beautiful Life” isn’t local. “I did not know him like that,” Doug E. Fresh says in the intro. “When I got to the Capital Centre, Run-D.M.C. said, ‘If you’ve never seen Chuck Brown, he’s about to change your life.’ When he got on that night, he changed my life.”
The new album isn’t just about go-go. With the help of producers Chucky Thompson and James McKinney, Brown and the band use soul, hip-hop and gospel as a way to urge listeners to remain positive. “Life is rough, I know sometimes you wanna cry, y’all,” Brown commiserates on the title track. “Just keep the faith and don’t question, ain’t no need for stressin’, your life is still a blessing.”
Sirius says he became involved with the band once Brown got sick. Initially, Sirius was supposed to fill in for Brown until he got better. “Once we came to grips with the fact that he wasn’t coming back, we felt we owed it to him, the city and the genre of go-go to finish the album and give people one last gift,” Sirius says. “We felt it was the perfect ending to a wonderful, hall-of-fame career. I think we’re extremely blessed to have him speak to us from the grave.”
Chuck Brown’s place in D.C. music history is secure, but the park honoring him in the city was not without controversy.
On May 31, 2012, during the musician’s four-hour memorial at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, three local politicians seemingly tried to outdo one another with proposed tributes to Brown. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said she’d ask the House to proclaim Aug. 22 “Chuck Brown Day.” Then-D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) pitched the idea of a Go-Go Hall of Fame. Gray declared that he would name a park for Brown. “It will be a place where there’s action,” the mayor said at the time, “a place where we can back it on up, a place where Woody Woodpecker can find a home.”
In its initial park design, the city had plans to build a 900-seat amphitheater called the Chuck Brown Music Pavilion. Designers scaled the venue back to 200 seats after residents complained about the noise it would bring. By the summer of 2013, the amphitheater had been scrapped.
Yet as gentrification changes the face of the District, it’s unclear how go-go — the sound of “Chocolate City” — will survive. Howard Theatre and the Fillmore Silver Spring book go-go bands from time to time, but the occasional show is nothing compared with Brown’s heyday, when he and other groups drew hundreds of fans multiple nights each week. Some venues shun go-go bands out of fear of violent incidents.
In Prince George’s County, the Council has passed a law that restricts illegal dance hall operations. Some promoters and fans say the law unfairly targets clubs that host go-go bands.
Anwan “Big G” Glover, a founding member of the Backyard Band, says go-go is at a weak point. “We need to get out as a community and do a little more,” he says. “When [Brown] passed away, it seemed the politicians don’t respect the music as much. Once they get the votes, they don’t care about the music anymore.”
And while Glover applauds the opening of Chuck Brown Memorial Park, he stresses the need to honor local go-go legends while they’re alive: “Chuck Brown told me, ‘Don’t let our music die.’ I’ll lay out in the street before I let it do that.”
That diligence aligns with Donelson’s heartfelt dedication — to the music, to the go-go community, to her father.
“Until the day he died, if he was able to stand up, he was going to play,” she says. “We can’t stop. We’ve got to keep his legacy going.”
Moore is a freelance writer.