Taking a quick departure from my usual Adventures in Food & Family to reflect on the music of my youth: Go-Go. Yesterday’s news of the passing of Chuck Brown took me straight back to my hometown of Arlington, VA and the music created and wholly owned in nearby Washington, DC. Only those who grew up in the DC region (including parts of Virginia and Maryland) can appreciate go-go; I’ve met many outside of the area who scrunch up their faces and describe my favorite music as “banging on pots and pans”. Black, white, Hispanic and everyone else who grew up and lived in the DC region appreciate go-go to some degree and have a sense of pride that it’s something only DC can claim.
Probably the best way to describe go-go is that it’s born out of funk with a percussion-heavy groove, lots of horns and always a tambourine (Wikipedia has a good description). Live shows always include call and response and if you’re lucky you can hear your neighborhood or area code called out by the bandleader. That’s probably what made go-go so fun…the lead singer knew the area and could easily incorporate the names of neighborhoods into his lyrics. Small pockets of the crowd would go nuts once they heard “We got folks from the 301 (a Maryland area code) in here tonight” or “I see you Barry Farm (a SE DC neighborhood)”. It’s like the singer knew you were in the crowd.
The bands were also small businessmen. Go-go was so loved that bands would sell recordings of live shows out of mall kiosks or locally owned record shops. These were not flashy productions–the quality wasn’t always great and the music competed with the crowd. But those tapes sold anyway, and I was a prime customer. There was a kiosk in the mall across the street from my cousin’s house and every time I visited her we made a trip so I could pick up the latest tapes. The groups were also local celebrities; if you had a go-go band playing at your fundraiser or public event you were sure to get a huge crowd.
Chuck Brown had mainstream success with his blues albums, even getting nominated last year for a Grammy. However only 1 or 2 other go-go bands received radio or video attention outside of DC. Everyone still starts rockin’ when EU’s “Da Butt” plays at a party but probably not everyone knows that a band called Rare Essence had a video on Yo! MTV Raps (though not the best representation of go-go).
Since I no longer live in the DC area and all my tapes have disappeared with moves and no longer having a tape player I don’t hear go-go as much as I’d like. Imagine my shock when I entered “Chuck Brown” into Pandora and not only was his music played but so also were a couple of other well-known go-go bands. Of course I saved my new station and every time I listen I’m taken back to dancing at a live show, listening to it in my room, or hearing it blasting out of car windows as I drove around the region.
DC radio will probably be playing Chuck Brown all day, and if the weather’s nice cars will be blasting him out of the windows. All go-go roads lead back to Chuck and he will sorely be missed. If you’ve never heard Chuck’s music, check out his 2010 performance at the NPR office, still crankin’ (DC lingo) at 73 years old! Even if you’re not from DC I dare you to not nod your head just a little.