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Rare Essence performs at Webster Hall in New York on January 8, 2017. Courtesy of Rare Essence.

How go-go, the music of the nation’s capital, is trying to go mainstream

It is January, and Rare Essence, one of the longest-running and most respected go-go bands, takes the stage at New York’s Webster Hall. It is a nightclub better known for its hipster audiences, and at first, the audience, most of whom, it seems, have never heard of go-go, doesn’t know what to do. After all, go-go — in all its raw, funky, percussive glory — is a regional music genre, born and bred in Washington D.C. But a few songs in, and the entire crowd is dancing, responding loudly to the band’s call and response chants. It’s as if they’ve heard the music all their life.

“R-A-R double-E S-S-E-N-CE!”

“R-A-R double-E S-S-E-N-CE!”

Afterward, the band posts a video to its Facebook page, where it receives hundreds of comments. “Go RE,” one person writes, “give NYC what we get on a regular!!”

Or mostly regular. In Washington D.C. these days, go-go music can be heard just a couple nights a week, rotating between seven or so different bars and clubs in the city. That’s far fewer than in go-go’s heydey in the 1970s and 80s, when dozens of venues were available to go-go, and shows could be heard almost every night of the week. Some gigs went all day and all night.

But as “Chocolate City” has become whiter and richer, once dependable go-go venues have been steadily replaced by coffee shops and condos, and go-go fans have been pushed out of the city. Even the bands themselves have declined in number.

The bands that still regularly perform are also mostly the originals — bands like Rare Essence (formed in 1976 in a basement in southeast Washington), Junk Yard Band (started in the 80s by kids in a D.C. housing project on improvised instruments), and Backyard Band (which began in the early 90s by mimicking Junk Yard). Over the years, they’ve often had to scramble to keep go-go going.

Now, as the funky beat seems in real danger, these bands, along with their promoters, fans, and a few who control event spaces in the city, say they have a plan to save the genre. A plan that, in many small ways, has already gone into motion. It is time, they say, to court beyond their established fan base in D.C. — it’s time to take go-go music national.

‘You’ve got to feel it in your body’

If you have never heard of go-go music, there are a few things you need to know. The first is that you have to be there to understand it. That it is an experience. That it is not, as longtime go-go fan Tarik Harrison told me, “just putting a CD in a computer and listening to it. It is a feel. It is a soundsystem and a PA. You’ve got to feel it in your body.”

In large part, this is because go-go is percussion-heavy. It is funk, but it is also soul, folk, salsa, old school rap, and rhythm & blues. Go-go is not one person, but many; the average band has 10 or so members, who play all kinds of instruments, many of them percussive, including drums, congo, keyboards, cowbells, timbales, maybe some horn.

Another thing you need to know is go-go’s origin story — that the godfather of the genre, Chuck Brown, devised the music as a way to compete with disc jockeys, by playing compulsively danceable music that never stopped. (Go-go, or the music that just “goes and goes.”) When Brown died, almost exactly five years ago, people danced for 24 hours along Chuck Brown Way in northwest Washington, and a Boost Mobile store there still plays go-go grooves around the clock.

Chuck Brown (1936-2012) performs live on stage at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, Netherlands on October 19, 1987. Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Chuck Brown performs live in October 1987. Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Since go-go originated — with Brown and other funk music lovers, mostly in the historically black neighborhood of Anacostia in northeast Washington — it has been passed down through families. “It’s something you heard at your grandmother’s house, family gatherings, your friend’s house, or with your brother or sister,” said Becky Marcus, who has been managing and promoting go-go for the last 20 years, and early on with Brown.

And so, for the last four decades, go-go has been a District staple. At times, it has filtered outside the city, starting with Brown’s 1978 hit “Bustin’ Loose,” which led R&B singles charts, and continuing with Experience Unlimited’s “Da Butt,” which appeared in the 1988 Spike Lee film “School Daze.” In 1999, Jay-Z sampled Rare Essence’s hit “Overnight Scenario” and a decade later, the rapper Wale featured Backyard Band’s Weensey in his 2009 song “Pretty Girls.”

And yet go-go has remained largely unknown outside the District. Now, though, thanks to more concerts like the one at Webster Hall, this may be changing. Kato Hammond, go-go’s de facto historian, says this is a good thing.

“Go-go has got to open its arms,” said Hammond, speaking from his home in Bowie, Maryland, from where he has run a magazine called Take Me Out to the Go-Go since 1998. “It has almost been an exclusive thing, like ‘this is ours.’ If the community is not all black anymore, that’s because people like it.” Here he paused, as if considering what that might mean for go-go — or what truly spreading the music would require. “But for go-go to be super big nationally,” he said, “it has got to go on the road. You have to take the whole go-go experience out there.”

Taking go-go on the road

The lineup poster for a D.C. music showcase at SXSW in March 2017, including Backyard Band and Rare Essence. Courtey: Washington D.C. Economic Partnership

At the South by Southwest music festival this year, among the most popular music events was a night billed as a D.C. music showcase. It sold out Austin City Limits, the largest venue at the festival, and featured major acts such as the Thievery Corporation, Wu Tang Clan and Erykah Badu. It also included performances from Rare Essence and Backyard Band.

Go-go music had been performed at SXSW before, but not like this. Not at a sold-out show in the festival’s biggest venue, beside some of the biggest names in music. And not with branding that emphasized go-go as the thing that was hip and cool, such as T-shirts sold at the show that read: “We go-go hard.”

Just as at Webster Hall, though, the audience initially seemed unsure how to respond to the music. But then, according to Emily Rasowsky, of the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership, a public-private group that co-sponsored the event, along with the D.C. Mayor’s office and others, “people started tapping their feet. Moving. There was a palpable shift in the energy in the show.”

The rapper Wale, perhaps D.C.’s best known music export right now, even chose to make a surprise appearance on stage with Rare Essence.

Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, the last original remaining member of Rare Essence, which today has 12 members, said that show was a turning point for him — because it showed him go-go music could exist outside D.C. “It let us know that this music is relatable to more than just the people who grew up on it around here,” he said.

Since the band’s success at SXSW and Webster Hall, Rare Essence has booked more performances around the country, including Summerstage in New York in June, and the LEAF music festival in Asheville, North Carolina in August. But it’s not just them. Backyard Band, who also played at SXSW, and whose percussive cover of Adele’s “Hello” went viral last year, played in New York’s Central Park with the rapper Goldlink last August, and Anwan “Big G” Glover,” the “lead talker” of the band, said afterward: “We ripped Central Park in half.”

“And when we played a rap party for [the neighborhood] Tremé in New Orleans, and they heard that pocket beat, they were like ‘Ohhhhhhhh,’” he said. “It’s like they took the air out of the building. Once the other side” — people outside D.C. — “hears us, it’s a wrap.”

As in, it’s over. If there’s one thing nearly everyone says about go-go, it’s that once you experience it the first time, you’re never the same.

Glover has noticed this especially in cities down south: Richmond, Atlanta, New Orleans, where, whenever go-go bands do one-off gigs, they almost always sell out. Which leads Glover to his grand plan for 2018: a down south tour that features all of today’s biggest go-go bands.

It is surprising, perhaps, that this kind of tour has never happened — especially back when go-go was bigger. But anyone who knows the scene well says this makes sense. They blame it in part on how informally the business has always been run, but more on longtime competition between artists (“it’s ego in the bands, like who’s going to perform first, or last,” Glover says).

Go-go bands today, though, aren’t competitive the way they used to be. In April, for the first time ever, two premier go-go bands, Rare Essence and Backyard Band, collaborated on a song called “You Can’t Run From The Crank” — crank being the beat that keeps people dancing. The song mixed old-school percussion bass with newer hip hop and R&B beats, a clear appeal to both older and younger listeners.

Go-go has also never done a big tour, according to Hammond, the go-go historian, because bands historically had a fear of leaving the District.

“If you left, you lost your position, your status,” said Hammond, who in addition to chronicling the genre for decades once played in the go-go band Little Benny & The Masters. As an example, he cited the band Trouble Funk. “Whatever void they left, another band had filled it, and they’re still trying to get back.”

Such fears have now subsided, said Glover of Backyard Band, who, in addition to music, has also made it as an actor (perhaps best known for playing “Slim Charles” on “The Wire”). Glover travels regularly for work, and “everywhere I go, I now promote the music. And a lot of people are interested.”

After Johnson of Rare Essence saw what it was like to perform in New York and Austin — with brand new audiences “partying like they had known the music for 10 years” — he also began promoting the music in different cities. And relatively newer go-go bands, such as Team Familiar, which formed in 2001, and TCB, which is credited with starting the harder go-go sound known as “bounce beat,” now do pop-up parties in places like Miami and Puerto Rico. In July, the first-ever go-go cruise will set sail to the Bahamas, featuring Rare Essence, Backyard Band and others.

Becky Marcus, the go-go manager and promoter, who now works primarily with Rare Essence, said that the national success of other regional music, such as New Orleans jazz, shows that go-go can move elsewhere. But she cautions this will take a lot of work — and outreach. “There is a generation or two of music lovers, people who do want to discover new music, that don’t even know the genre exists,” she said.

Go-go after Chuck Brown 

Indeed, even in Washington, D.C., go-go is often referred to as a music of the past, as if when Chuck Brown died, the genre died with it.

But on a recent Saturday night at Aqua, a club in Northeast D.C., the room is packed for a Rare Essence and Junk Yard Band show. The two bands play regularly together, but still people come dressed to the nines, in dresses and heels and pressed shirts; some rent out VIP sections. As Junk Yard Band starts up first, people sway and groove, and soon, even the security guards join in. When Junk Yard starts a call and response with their name, the entire room responds. Some smoke joints as they dance. And when Rare Essence comes on second — “they’re the ‘OG’” “the real deal” “the best,” fans in the audience say — the energy grows even higher. It’s almost 4 a.m. when the show lets out.

That same weekend, just seven or so miles south, a go-go mural is slowly going up. It’s got the backing of the city through Murals DC, a project of the Department of Public Works, and a small budget that Cory Stowers, a local graffiti artist and the brainchild of the project, has already blown past. “I thought it was super important this project gets done now in this place,” he said, meaning in Anacostia, where go-go originated, and so he’s launched a go fund me page, so he can put in thousands more.

Graffiti artists paint a go-go mural in Anacostia in northeast D.C. Video by Elizabeth Flock

The mural includes portraits of D.C.’s biggest go-go legends, all of them dead, including members from Rare Essence and Junkyard Band, and at the center, of course: Chuck Brown. It also includes depictions of giant, brightly-colored handbills, the kind that used to be passed out for shows back in the day. But Stowers argues the mural is not meant to show go-go as “a thing of the past” — the point is to keep it present.

When finished, Stowers says, it will look as if all the artists from the various bands are playing together, like a wish that never came true, or maybe a hope for the future. The mural will also connect to an app, so that when a person looks at it, they can listen to the music the artist created. “This is meant to be used by the younger demographic, to impact some of this knowledge of go-go on younger kids,” said Stowers.

Kids, he means, who may not have had the music passed down from their grandmothers or friends or brothers, the way it used to be.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, in downtown D.C., Erik Moses of the powerful cultural group Events DC says he wants to expand go-go into additional venues — beyond Aqua and Howard Theater and a few others — so that more people will adopt it as part of the city’s history. Though conversations with promoters are just starting, he is hopeful now is the time for funk to spread.

“In the mid 90s, nobody was interested in representing D.C. Now, I’m amazed at the bars [of the D.C. flag] I’m seeing on people’s shoes, shirts, hats,” he said. “That gives us an inflection point to say to people: ‘You wanna be proud of your city? Then claim this music as you claim your half smokes and whatever else. Claim this indigenous music.’”