Washington, DC’s streets can be a parallel universe, where disco and soul didn’t evolve into rap, and then pop, where live music is still the thing—where kids save up for congas and guitars instead of turntables. Perhaps the least-discovered of America’s fiercely regional music scenes, three decades after its inception go-go music is still the soul of black Washington, and Chuck Brown its creator and eminence grise.
Though he’d prefer you call him “Godfather.”
“My fans gave that to me, but I can think of no better reward,” says Chuck of his adopted nickname. Speaking in his typical aw-shucks manner at a recording studio in suburban Maryland (where a long-rumored new studio album is nearing completion), Brown is clearly proud of the scene that has grown up around him. “Oh, the sound of Washington is go-go,” he says, “and it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Though it defies easy explanation, that go-go sound is second nature to anyone who’s spent serious time in the nation’s capital (the sprawling city that is, not the downtown stage set that’s the stuff of high school field trips and postcards).
An ever-changing stew of soul, funk, hip-hop, and even disco provides raw material, but what defines go-go is the beat, an unmistakable and unrelenting interplay of drums, congas, and percussion–and like any subgenre, it comes with a creation myth of its own.
Brown starts the story in 1972. “I was just looking for my own sound,” he says. Though he’d built a comfortable existence fronting a Top 40 cover band, as the decade wore on he was already seeing signs of change. “We were working seven nights a week, and two shows on weekend nights, but pretty soon we were competing with DJs. We could sound exactly like the songs on the radio, which everybody wanted to hear, but man, those DJs would just play back to back, 30 songs in a row, the music never stopped. Bands stopped getting work.”
“Disco was wearing us out, man!” he says. “Got to the point where I decided to break that beat down. Before you know it disco was gone–from D.C. at least—and those dance floors were straight up packed. I knew it had caught on.”
Borrowing a backbeat from a minor Grover Washington Jr. hit, “Mister Magic,” Brown turned his sets into one long pulsing party groove, ending a song but keeping the loping, hypnotic percussion going and throwing in call-and-response and shout-outs to D.C.’s myriad neighborhoods, avenues, and crews, before kicking off the next song.
“All I did was break the beat in half,” says Brown. “I got it from Grover, for sure, but really we both got that from the spirit, from gospel it’s an old church beat.”
Whatever its origins, fans began to worship at the altar. By 1979 Brown was a local sensation, and on his way to being a national one. In January of that year “Bustin’ Loose” was released as a single and shot to #1 on Billboard’s R&B charts, eventually selling over half a million copies.
By the mid ’80s, the scene was positively thriving in its home city, as E.U., Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, the Junkyard Band and more filled out clubs and barbecues. But despite repeated attempts—some more ill-conceived than others—to attract more national attention, go-go seemed fated to keep its “for us, by us” status as the soul of non-official Washington.
A shot in the arm did come courtesy of Spike Lee, who picked E.U.’s “Doin’ The Butt” for School Daze, providing one of the movie’s most memorable scenes and a surprise breakout radio hit. But as the nationwide crack and violent crime epidemic took hold, many of go-go’s most vibrant neighborhoods were hit hard.
All it took was a few over-publicized shootings at concerts and some hysterical local news coverage to draw the attention of D.C.’s tiny but powerful community of wealthy residents. Venues found themselves out of business, outdoor festivals unable to get p