Washington D.C Go-Go music has always fascinated me. It’s amazing to me that in the 1980s, while New York D.Js and producers were making records off records, Miami, L.A and Detroit musicians were making music with drum machines and synths, and Prince and his comrades in Minneapolis were paring their funk down to the essentials, there was a full live band funk sound flourishing in Washington D.C. This sound was also probably one of the most Afrocentric musical offshoots that ever existed in the northern hemisphere as well, featuring long extended dance jams, with percolating percussion and soulful party chants on top. And to top it off, the DMV area seemed strong enough for these live bands to make a living and sustain themselves with recording and live shows without really making too much noise in the rest of the country. That said something to me about the strength of the black community in D.C, Maryland and Virginia. The late Chuck Brown was the undisputed father of Go-Go music and the UnSung episode based on his life was a good introduction to his work. What took the episode a little bit further was it also attempted to provide an introduction to the whole D.C Go-Go scene as well.
One moment that was captured on camera that was important for musicologist purposes was to have Chuck Brown tell the story of how the Grover Washington Jr classic “Mr. Magic”, with a drum beat played by legendary studio drummer Harvey Mason, provided the original inspiration for the Go-Go beat. The episode had various D.C community and political figures such as Mayor Marion Berry talking about the social forces in Washington D.C that helped create the spawning ground for Go-Go music. The negative side of those conditions predominated on the Island Records film that was intended to take the music national. That film ended up being one that focused on crime more than the music, which made it hard for the music to thrive.
Spike Lee comes off good here as the loving chronicler of Black American culture that he has been through his career. The music and scene were shown in a negative light in the “Good to Go” film, but got some of it’s highest and most positive exposure ever came from the “Pajama Jam” scene in Lee’s “School Daze.” D.C band E.U collaborated with Spike on the title and dance, and super bassist and producer Marcus Miller for the classic, “Da Butt”, one of the biggest Hits in the music’s history, right alongside Chuck Brown’s “Bustin Loose.”
The episode ends with scenes from the current bands keeping Go-Go music alive today. One thing people forget, when they view Go-Go music as an isolated anomaly belonging solely in the DMV, is how vital it has been to the rest of Black music. Go-Go music was a live funk band sound thriving in the 1980s era of sampling and Hip Hop. From the beginning, it was a fresh, contemporary source of sounds for Hip Hop, with Trouble Funk’s classic record, “Drop the Bomb” being one of the most heavily sampled records of its day. There was something about the slow, percussion heavy Go-Go beats that were as ideal for rapping over as any music that’s ever been created. The list of Hip Hop songs made with Go-Go in mind goes on and on, from Big Daddy Kane’s “I get the Job Done”, to Kid N Play’s “Rollin with Kid n Play”, from Public Enemy’s “Rightstarter”, to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” to a bonafide Hip Hop classic like Doug E Fresh & Slick Rick’s “The Show.” “The Show” of course had musical contributions from Teddy Riley, who had that unique DMV flavor in his music from the beginning. Of course, New Jack Swing basically gets it’s rhythmic juice from Go-Go’s funky, shuffling, jazzy slow funk feel. That feel was taken by Riley to records as big as Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous.” The episode also touched on what Jill Scott did for the music when she recorded “It’s Love” with D.C Go-Go figures. I could go on and on but I’m really happy the music got some shine here because it’s really been one of the best things going for a long time. When Chuck Brown gets to chanting and rapping over a 15 minute groove he reaches a deep African place like Fela Kuti on his extended Afro beat suites. James Brown occasionally touched that on records like “Doin it to Death” and “Time is Running out Fast”, and George Clinton definitely used to reach it on stage, but that was Chuck Brown’s basic mode of musical expression! For bringing that level of culture and roots to a popular musical form, Chuck Brown and the Go-Go bands still going today are worthy of all the praise and support we can give them and then some!