GO-GO Alive and Well; Still Cranking
Go-go rhythmically pumps from street corner to street corner throughout the city, providing a soundtrack for the bustling activity that defines the cultural and social identity of working class neighborhoods of Washington, DC. The communal harmony is only interrupted, however briefly, when cars coming and going offer their own distinctive and competing soundtracks.
From Wheeler Road SE to Benning Road NE to Florida Avenue NW, the city’s indigenous sound of choice is go-go. Similar to jazz and New Orleans or the Blues and the Mississippi Delta, go-go music is a sound that has singularly grown from within the city and continues to be cultivated and appreciated by the city, despite some who want to prematurely write its epitaph.
Current Mayor Fenty has used go-go music as a platform to extend his campaign message to would be supporters of his re-election efforts. Radio ads and marketing efforts, such as T-Shirts associating Fenty with go-go, provide evidence to any doubters that go-go still holds cultural currency.
Fenty’s nascent endorsement of go-go, and go-go’s endorsement of him, stands in contradiction to Metropolitan Police Department Chief Lanier’s well publicized “go-go report.” Morning briefings are used to identify potential locations where go-go shows might be happening so MPD knows where to divert extra police presence. An incident this year at Georgetown Day School in NW and a recent deadly shooting at Georgia Avenue & Peabody Street NW, near the MPD’s Fourth District Headquarters, serve as reminders that whether right or wrong, go-go has a stigmatizing connotation.
Go-go’s longstanding reputation as being associated with violence began in the early 1990’s with City Councilmember Frank Smith (Ward 1) advocating against go-go in the city, and local media coverage which depicted go-go as violent. Many annual events such as Georgia Avenue Day, which prominently featured live outdoor go-go, and venues such as the Capitol City Pavilion, aka “The Black Hole,” are now only memories. While popular performance venues still exist in the city, many shows have now shifted to Prince George’s County, which have always hosted go-gos going back to the early 1980’s when go-gos were held at the now shuttered Rosecroft Raceway.
One of the most internationally known go-go bands is Rare Essence; band leader and one if its original members Andre Johnson estimates RE has performed more than 200 times a year for the past two and half decades. Known as “RE”, Rare Essence was formed back in the 1970’s, first under the name Young Dynamos, and has achieved legendary status in the city, according to Charlette “Cocoa” Taylor, who introduced her daughter to RE.
With classics such as “Overnight Scenario”, “Body Snatchers”, “Work the Walls” in their musical cannon, RE is releasing PA Tape #12 with its latest hit “Clap if it’s Good.” The album is available in stores and online while the lead video can be seen on youtube.
On a recent Wednesday night, the Zanzibar on the SW waterfront was abuzz as RE prepared to take the stage. Many of the self-described “grown and sexy” crowd had received text messages letting them know where RE was performing that night. New technologies such as texting and iTunes have allowed RE to reach its fans in a new ways, says Johnson.
As city officials have changed their attitude towards go-go, “one thing hasn’t changed, people love this music,” affirms Johnson who maintains that RE, staying as “current as we can” has been successful in maintaining a rapport with its fans that transcends generations.
A recurring theme when talking to attendees of RE’s show was the intimacy the audience feels with RE. Many described their shows as a reunion of sorts; never knowing who you might see. One woman told a story where she saw her junior high boyfriend and best friend who she had lost track of and hadn’t see for more than a decade. That is the essence of a Rare Essence show, she said.
Johnson and band members are local celebrities in their own right which makes the connection with their fans that much more personal. “I might see them or they might see me during the day and you always want to let people know you appreciate their support as they appreciate what we do.”
With a catalogue of individual songs on iTunes and numerous albums, RE can trace its fans to Germany, Australia, and areas that are well beyond a metro ride. Performing at Harlem, New York’s Apollo Theater, up and down the eastern seaboard at HBCU’s, the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and the 2005 MTV Music Awards, Rare Essence “is adored by the city, because of what they mean to us,” says Ms. Parker, a loyal fan for more than two decades.
To some, their only experiential opinion of go-go is formed by makeshift street musicians who harness buckets together downtown along 7th Street NW. Johnson says this phenomenon, ongoing for years, is “flattering” and shows the self-determination of go-go to be heard and enjoyed wherever and whenever it can be as long as there is a demanding crowd.
Johnson, in the go-go game for more than 30 years, can remember when he was classmates with the recently deceased go-go legend Anthony Harley aka “Little Benny” at St. Thomas More Catholic School on 4th Street SE.
At this time Johnson was in a band that would rotate rehearsals from house to house and one day Harley, coming from his trumpet lesson, overheard the rehearsals and knocked on the door. He was given an audition on the spot. Johnson remembers Harley played Kool & The Gang’s Billboard hit “Hollywood Swinging”. This was 1976 and the rest is history.
For more information on Rare Essence www.rareessence.com.
The Smithsonian of go-go music, with archival CDs from the 1970’s until now, is American Shottas at 1346 Good Hope Road SE, according to its owner Manni. He is in the process of filming a documentary on go-go from its inception to where the distinctive music should go in the future.
Stocked with a “plethora” of go-go CDs and DVDs, American Shottas prides itself as the best place to find go-go not only in East Washington, but the entire city and, in fact metro area.
From newer groups such as Let It Flow, the Versatile Band, and Bela’Dona, an all female group, to classics from Chuck Brown and Rare Essence, the four year old store is stocked from the ceiling to the floor with go-go. “If it wasn’t relevant, it wouldn’t be in stock,” says Manni.
When it comes to overall sales, “RE smashes everybody,” according to Mannie who says that the younger crowd consistently buys records from Backyard Band, led by Big G who gained national acclaim while starring as Slim Charles on HBO’s The Wire, and TCB.
“Go-go is moving in a great direction. A lot of new bands are coming out,” says manager Damo who classifies go-go into three separate subgenres; hardcore which is strictly for the streets, grown-n-sexy which focuses more on R&B, and bounce beat which is usually consumed by younger gogo fans. However, there can be variations among and within bands as long as they “crank.”
American Shottas is open Monday through Saturday 10am – 9pm. For more information call (202) 525-3438 or www.americanshottas.com
George Washington University Professor and American music ethnographer Kip Lornell began studying and documenting go-go around 1997 in anticipation of writing, The Beat: Go-Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop, with Experience Unlimited’s first manager Charles Stephenson, which was published in 2001 as the first academic analysis of go-go.
“Although it is true that go-go is the only artistic expression that originated in our nation’s capital, it’s often overlooked because go-go reflects popular, contemporary, African American culture,” says Lornell.
“Folks outside of the DMV should know more about go-go: both the music and the culture surrounding it. It’s a truly unique musical form that deserves wider recognition,” says Lornell who predicts city leaders will eventually market go-go as a citywide treasure, much in the way that New Orleans has embraced jazz as its iconic music culture.