Washington Goes for Go-Go

Benjamin Lion, a Howard University student from Texas, appreciates the pace and mood of most go-go music admired by native Washingtonians.

“It’s musical and technical and really entertaining,” he said. “There’s something about the consistent beat of a drum that affects the tempo of one’s heart and simply makes him want to get up and start moving.”

Like Lion, more and more non-Washington youth are taking to go-go music. Go-go music is the heart of D.C., beating to a continuous groove driven by a variety of percussion instruments such as congos, cowbells, horns, timbales and drums.

This unique style of music, which was originated by “the Godfather of Go-Go,” Chuck Brown, continues to be a significant part of the D.C. culture.

“We perform for four hours straight, just like George Clinton,” Brown said. “You never get tired until you come off the stage. The audience gets a lot of exercise, because the music has a groove that allows you to do anything you want.”

In 1978, Brown experienced a major breakthrough with the No. 1 hit “Bustin Loose,” which gained national exposure. Other bands such as Experience Unlimited, Trouble Funk, Junkyard Band, Rare Essence and many more jumped aboard the go-go train, keeping this original style of music picking up passengers through the streets of D.C. “James Brown had a sound of his own, and he had inspired me to get a sound of my own,” Brown said. “I was happy when bands caught on to the sound.” Tony Randolph, assistant professor of music at Howard University, who once played with a band that included original go-go selections in their sets, recalls his first time hearing go-go. “I first heard go-go when I came to D.C. back in 1977 as a freshman music major at Howard,” Randolph said. “It was a very interesting style, because it was a sound that we were not used to in New York. It was different yet very ‘danceful,’ so young people responded to it quite readily including myself.”

In 1988, Spike Lee featured Experience Unlimited’s double platinum song “Doin’ Da Butt” in his movie “School Daze.” This song gave people the urge to jump out of their seats and “bust loose.”

“You are free to move anyway you like with go-go music,” Brown said. “You do not have to be a professional instrumentalist nor dancer.”

The sound of a live go-go band causes people from all walks of life to flock to Chinatown where soulful go-go jammers showcase their skills. Washington native Eugene Avis has been playing outside the Verizon Center for about two years. He first began playing on the streets at 13 in front of the Washington Monument and has been performing on the streets ever since.

“The money is my motivation, but I do love go-go,” Avis said.

D.C. native, Tony Brown, 42, says go-go gives the youth the opportunity to express themselves through dance.

“I do not play go-go, but I like to get the people involved, especially the kids, to come out and dance to the go-go style music,” Brown said. “Now, it’s more about the way we move,” said Howard University student and D.C. native Ashley Stoney. “There is a certain flow and movement to how we dance. It’s a unique movement.”

Go-go continues to have an influence on the younger generation through the musical artists of today. Producers from D.C., such as Rich Harrison, feature elements of go-go in their songs. For instance, Harrison incorporated go-go into singer Amerie’s “1 Thing” and singer Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love.”

It may not have spread to other cities outside DC, but go-go music has influenced other hip-hop artists. For example, hip-hop artist and D.C. native Wale continues to represent a product of the go-go genre, integrating the unique style into his music and keeping it relevant to the younger generation. “Back to the Go-Go” is an example of this influence.

Chuck Brown’s manager, Tom Goldfogle, notes that although go-go has made it nationally a number of times with Chuck Brown and bands such as Experience Unlimited and Trouble Funk, it simply remains a live experience. Very few bands create songs that are played on the radio.

“Most bands cater only to their regional, but intense following, so very few outside the region have the opportunity to experience the music,” Goldfogle said. “It will take more well-produced, well-written and well-promoted songs from a larger number of bands to create a movement.”

The soul of D.C. is perpetuated with the legendary go-go music, which continues to affect the tempo of D.C.

“I love the atmosphere of being in the actual go-go — the live band, the picture booth and the way we dress slightly excessive,” Stoney said. “A lot of people won’t understand the impact of go-go until they actually go to one. It’s something that we take pride in. Anyone who lives in D.C. should experience it at least once.”