As we continue our celebration of Black Music Month
In the early 1970s, Chuck Brown laid the foundation for a new sound in Washington, D.C. That sound was called go-go music. The music was driven by teenage musicians and audience member. Obviously the music was heavily inspired by funk, blues, soul, and salsa. It’s polyrhythms and the use of multiple percussion instruments make it an exlplosive mix of sound that brings people to thier feet. Initially, “go-go” was the term used to identify the place where young people were partying, however in time, the funky, homespun music became known as go-go music.
Calling it go-go music in the early years made perfect sense because, between songs, the percussion section would continue to play while the band leader would engage the audience through melodic call and response sessions. This call and response method of engaging audiences became popular. The musician would holler out things that would engage the audience with such things as birthdays and graduations, which would always get a rise out of the crowd. They would also take time to acknowledge the neighborhoods in attendance, this would sometimes cause conflict but only rarely. All of this would happen openly over the music, the music would never stop. Due to the beat never stopping, Chuck Brown concerts were essentially marathon performances that kept his fans on the dance floor for hours. Brown described coming up with the idea of eliminating song breaks as a way to compete with disco DJs who enjoyed celebrity status among local partygoers.
The popularity of the new sound spread quickly and resulted in a fierce competition between local D.C. bands. In fact, there were dozens of go-go bands that popped up in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s. A typical go-go band had keyboard players, horn sections, string sections, multiple percussionists, and many were teenagers. Where did the formal music training come from, you ask? In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were strong music programs in D.C. high schools across the city, with heated rivalries between the school marching bands. Many of these marching band members used the skills learned in the school classrooms to become professional performers on the local go-go circuit.
During Marion Barry’s first term as mayor, there was an animation of D.C.’s cultural atmosphere, a surge in black pride, and a focus on providing jobs and resources for city residents. Mayor Barry’s Summer Youth Employment program made it possible for young people to gain work experience and income—and many brought musical instruments. During the summer which is notoriously humid in DC, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation used its Showmobiles (essentially portable stages), to provide free go-go concerts for the city’s young people. The bands were re-creating and covering many Top 40 hits of the day, adding the D.C. go-go rhythms.
With go-go music’s local reach expanding, several venues around town that formerly catered to disco, funk, and blues, decided to open their doors to these new bands. Several of the most popular venues included the Panorama Room (in Anacostia, in the southeastern area of the city), the Masonic Temple (on U Street NW), the Coliseum (in Northeast), the Howard Theatre, RSVP, and several more across the city. While many of these venues are no longer around, they are common elements in the history of the music.
While the invention of go-go music is well-storied in the Washington, D.C., community, it has been largely overlooked by cultural historians outside of our nation’s capital. Unfortunately, commercial success hasn’t found its way into the historical narrative, other than Chuck Brown’s 1978 signature hit “Bustin’ Loose” and the use of a song by Experience Unlimited in the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s movie School Daze. It is interesting to note that even without tremendous commercial success, go-go music has thrived as a local industry. During the 1980s and 1990s, cassette tape recordings of live shows were sold by vendors and bands all over the city, functioning as a vibrant, secondary market for the music. The most notable bands were undoubtedly Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, Junkyard Band, and Experience Unlimited. Through strategic and savvy management practices, these bands enjoyed decades of success and helped the music to remain relevant over the years.
Much like the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx during the same period, this new music was developed within a community that was experiencing significant economic hardships. During the 1980s, Washington, D.C., was described as a city with two population groups—the visible and the invisible. The visible group consisted of tourists, the Washington elite, the federal government, and professionals who flowed in and out of the city. The invisible group was the largely African American, blue collar group that made up a fairly high percentage of the city’s population. The music flourished because, much like blues and soul, it encapsulated the full range of experiences in these communities and brought joy as an inexpensive, fun, social expression.
From the time of its inception, go-go music has existed as a raw, cultural asset that is owned equally by all of its D.C. fans. If you listen carefully, within the raw percussion and the funky grooves, you’ll hear the heartbeat and humanity of a very proud D.C. community.
HERE IS A BRIEF DOCUMENTARY ON THE HISTORY OF GO GO MUSIC: