Washington, D.C.’s Homegrown Funk: Go-Go Music
In honor of Black Music Month, we spotlight the musical culture that has been a cherished folkway in and around the nation’s capital for decades.
By ALONA WARTOFSKY
Most tourists visiting Washington, D.C. spend their time as might be expected: exploring the city’s grand monuments and museums. What most of them miss along the way is the city’s vibrant, local musical culture. Decades ago, the capital city created a homegrown funk genre known as go-go, and the music has been a cherished folkway for the Black communities in and around the city ever since.
If you’re spending any time in the nation’s capital this summer, consider adding a go-go concert to your itinerary. As long as Covid restrictions are not in effect, you’ll find go-go bands performing in city parks, night clubs, and concert halls.
Go-go was first developed, in the mid-1970s, by Chuck Brown, a charismatic former boxer and preacher who traded five cases of cigarettes for a prison-made guitar while serving time for a manslaughter conviction in Virginia’s Lorton Reformatory. Brown’s childhood in the rural South was marred by poverty and racism, and his family relocated to the Washington area during the early ‘40s. As a young adult, he was incarcerated several times on robbery charges. But his time at Lorton proved transformative: He earned a high school diploma and learned to play guitar from a fellow inmate who was a veteran of Count Basie’s band.
Several years after Brown’s release, he was playing with a couple of local bands, Los Latinos and The Soul Searchers, performing covers of popular R&B songs at clubs in the D.C. area; by 1978, records were being released under the name Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers.
Brown thought his shows would be livelier if his audiences didn’t sit down between numbers, so he and drummer Ricky Wellman, who later played with Miles Davis, devised percussion breakdowns—interludes performed on drums, congas, cowbell, and often tambourine—that could link songs together. These breakdowns, adapted from Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic” evolved into the distinctive go-go beat. The audience response was so enthusiastic that The Soul Searchers started playing those breakdowns during songs as well. At the time, it was impossible for Brown to understand how profoundly his beat would alter the city’s musical culture.
Brown dubbed his new style “go-go” simply because it kept on going. The first go-go hit, his 1979 “Bustin’ Loose,” established the genre’s early sound: classic ‘70s funk with percolating percussion, call-and-response chants, and an engaging bandleader. “That’s how the sound you hear now got started,” Brown said in 1990. “You take those percussion breakdowns, mix a little music, and the other bands had something they could adapt to.”
As other District-area bands embraced Brown’s new beat, each group developed its own go-go style. Trouble Funk amped up the percussion while adding space-age synthesizer sound effects. Experience Unlimited favored hard-rock guitar stylings. Rare Essence perfected a hypnotic groove that became wildly popular. By the early ‘80s, go-go had become the musical heartbeat of Washington—not the federal city where powerful politicians held sway, but in the District’s predominantly Black neighborhoods, where go-go could be heard blasting from car radios, boomboxes, and backyards. In what might be described as a divinely delivered redemption, Brown had given the Black residents of his adopted city the tremendous gift of its own musical sound.
“We created a soundtrack for our lives—the music we heard at school dances and rec centers, on the school bus and the Metrobus,” says go-go historian Kato Hammond, whose description of the music is included in the National Museum of African American History and Culture as part of its permanent exhibit on go-go. “If you’re driving a car, and you pull up at a light, you’re blasting go-go, and the guy next to you is blasting go-go. So you turn yours down to hear what he’s listening to.”
During its first decade, the music flourished as an underground culture. Top bands played six nights a week, and on weekend nights they could sell out three separate sets in different quadrants of the city. Commercials for big multi-band concerts aired on urban radio; the rest were advertised by dayglo Globe posters, affixed to abandoned storefronts, utility poles, and the trunks of ancient elms that line the city’s major thoroughfares. “There were the big-name bands and second-tier bands that also drew big crowds, but also every neighborhood had a band, every single rec center,” says Hammond. “And every church had a band because that go-go spilled into the gospel music that they played.” Holiday shows featuring multi-band lineups regularly drew some 8,000 fans to the Washington Coliseum, where the Beatles made their 1964 U.S. debut.
Go-go is generally a celebratory party music, but some local hits reflected the hardships experienced by the city’s disenfranchised Black community. During the summer of ‘84, for example, Chuck Brown’s hit “We Need Some Money” took a lighthearted view of being broke: “MasterCard, Visa, American Express/ I ain’t got nothin’ against no credit card, but the cash is the best.” The teenage members of Junkyard Band, who performed on discarded plastic buckets, hubcaps, and empty cans, sought to link hardships of life in a Southeast Washington housing project with Reaganomics. As their 1986 hit, “The Word,” put it, “Reagan gave the Pentagon the food stamp money….”
By the mid-’80s, out-of-town music labels signed various bands, and Island Records head Chris Blackwell announced that he would take go-go international, just as he had done for Jamaican reggae. But instead of presenting go-go as the gritty street music it is, the labels opted for slick, commercialized renderings that drew little interest. In 1988, director Spike Lee gave go-go its biggest hit when he featured Experience Unlimited performing “Da Butt” in his film, School Daze. Although that track topped Billboard’s R&B singles chart, go-go has remained largely a regional genre. More than three decades later, the go-go beat plays on throughout the DMV (the District, plus adjacent states Maryland and Virginia).
As the music evolved over time, go-go has incorporated elements of rap, which also emerged in the late ‘70s, while retaining its distinct, heavily percussive sound. Cultural anthropologist Melvin Deal, who calls the genre “a New World African music,” says go-go percussion can be linked to centuries-old West African drumming. Go-go shows often include a call-and-response segment, which echoes traditions of both African griots and the Black American church—a custom that has long fostered a powerful sense of community. In a ritual known as the roll call, a go-go band’s lead talker greets members of the audience by name, neighborhood, or zodiac sign. “Highlighting people in the audience gets the crowd involved in the live performance,” says Rare Essence rapper Calvin “Killa Cal” Henry. “That takes the party up another level.”
By the ‘90s, go-go took on a harder, rap-influenced sound played by a new wave of bands like the Northeast Groovers, the Huck-A-Bucks, and the mighty Backyard Band, long the city’s top group. Various go-go subgenres proliferated, including “grown ‘n’ sexy” for the adult crowd; and “3G,” the gospel go-go that fills D.C. area churches on Sunday mornings. By the early 2000s, the throbbing bouncebeat style developed by the popular band TCB became the sound of go-go’s younger demographic, inspiring dozens of new bands.
In 2012, Chuck Brown, known throughout the go-go community as “Pops” or “the Godfather,” suffered a brief illness and, at the age of 75, died of sepsis. As the news broke, thousands gathered in front of The Howard Theatre where he had regularly performed. His funeral was held at the Washington Convention Center, and the line of fans waiting to pay their respects stretched along several city blocks.
In the years since Brown’s death, his signature beat has continued to thrive while reaching new audiences. Team Familiar traveled to Nigeria to play a concert for a Yoruba king, and the Backyard Band visited Ghana. There, in a performance suffused with symbolism, Backyard performed at the historic Cape Coast Castle, the fortress where millions of enslaved Africans were imprisoned before being shipped out to endure the miseries of the Middle Passage and a life of slavery in The New World. In 2018, Rare Essence and Backyard Band recorded tracks with rap icon Snoop Dogg. The following year, Stevie Wonder made an appearance at a farewell show for retiring go-go star Donnell Floyd. At the most recent Oscars ceremony, actress Glenn Close danced to Experience Unlimited’s “Da Butt” and gave a shout-out to EU, Backyard Band, and go-go culture in general. Earlier this year, SiriusXM Satellite Radio Channel 141, part of the Howard University Radio Network, debuted a “Crank Radio” go-go show, which airs every Saturday and Sunday night.
“Go-go is a precious art form birthed from its African roots, and now we have a platform for go-go to be heard across the world,” says Crank Radio co-host Shorty Corleone. “Go-go culture is what makes D.C. stand out from any other city in the world. For the people of the Washington area, go-go is everything. It means entrepreneurship and sustainability, their history and their tomorrow.” [For more on go-go’s distinctive sound, growing up in the scene, and why a live show is not to be missed, don’t miss Craftsmanship Quarterly‘s latest podcast, an Artisan Interview with Shorty Corleone and Roy Battle.]
As the years go by, and as gentrification keeps chipping away at the number of Black families living in the District, community leaders have worried about the future of go-go culture. But after a highly publicized clash between gentrifiers and go-go fans, the go-go community has become increasingly energized and politicized. The conflict began, in the spring of 2019, when a resident of a new luxury high rise in the city’s downtown Shaw neighborhood successfully shut down the go-go that had played for decades on speakers outside a nearby Black-owned shop, Central Communications, better known as the MetroPCS store.
In response, a Howard University student created a social media hashtag—#DontMuteDC—that went viral. Nightly musical protests drew hundreds, then thousands of go-go supporters. As the pressure mounted, T-Mobile, which had ordered the licensed MetroPCS vendor to turn off the music, relented. Central Communications owner Donald Campbell returned his speakers to the sidewalk outside his shop, and a resurgence of cultural pride eventually led to legislation, signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in February of 2020, establishing go-go as the official music of Washington D.C.
In 2020, during a summer characterized by political activism, go-go became the soundtrack for many of the city’s protests against racism in policing. Near the White House, at the newly painted Black Lives Matter Plaza, popular bands like TOB and Backyard performed on flatbed trucks surrounded by thousands of protesters. “The musicians are realizing their power,” says go-go activist Charles Stephenson. “They’re right here in the nation’s capital, and they have a voice that can echo across this nation.”