WASHINGTON — When Chuck Brown gifted Washington with a style of dance music that didn’t allow his band to break for interruptions, applause or air, he named it go-go because the beat just “goes and goes.”
Nearly four decades later, the music comes and goes. Go-go once drew thousands of loyal fans to area nightspots seven nights a week, building a proud local culture around a durable communal rhythm. But after a decade of intense gentrification, the future of Washington’s native party music feels uncertain.
With fewer bands playing fewer shows for smaller audiences at a dwindling number of venues, go-go has migrated to unexpected places: strip clubs and churches, casinos and sweet-16 parties. And while the genre’s biggest names have recently made splashy returns to the District’s most prominent music venues, these intermittent gigs make it difficult to tell whether the music is enjoying a resurgence or hanging by a thread.
Go-go has never had a reliable scoreboard in terms of sales or airplay, so The Washington Post interviewed more than 100 musicians, managers, DJs and promoters in the go-go community to establish where the music currently stands. Their responses were as varied as they were passionate, making for a messy consensus.
A majority of those surveyed — 55 percent — agreed that today’s go-go scene is not healthy, with an overwhelming number of musicians citing a lack of hospitable venues as the music’s biggest obstacle. And that’s because go-go music is live music. Without public stages to perform on, younger groups are struggling to connect with their community as profoundly as their forebears did in the ’80s and ’90s.
Many also feel that the venue crisis has only widened go-go’s generation gap, creating two distinct scenes — young and old. Seventy-one percent of those surveyed said that local youth are not as interested in go-go music as they were during the scene’s boom years, while 76 percent said that it’s now more difficult for a young go-go group to get started and succeed than it was back in the day.
But despite these challenges, those surveyed were almost unanimous on one point. They believe that go-go music will survive. “Go-go is D.C.’s DNA,” Greg Boyer, trombonist of the Chuck Brown Band, says, “and if you know anything about biology, that doesn’t change.”
What everyone is saying: We have faith.
What everyone is wondering: Is faith enough?
Sending a message
A grid of video screens flank the stage, sending a message out to the crowd — “HIT THE JACKPOT FOR $1 MILLION” — but Trouble Funk just wants everyone to dance.
Performing earlier this summer at Maryland Live Casino in Anne Arundel County, the band is pumping industrial-grade rhythms out onto the casino floor with such tenacity, the roulette players can’t help but tap their feet. A wiggly woman pats the glowing buttons of a digital poker machine as if she’s slapping a set of conga drums.
If the late Chuck Brown created go-go, Trouble Funk ran with it. The pioneering group took Washington’s percussion-heavy neighborhood sound worldwide, touring overseas and releasing major-label albums throughout the ’80s. But by the end of the decade, it became clear that go-go would remain a predominantly local phenomenon. The scene retrenched, with bands continuing to draw massive and loyal audiences, until rapid gentrification began to twist the cultural fabric of the District.
But recently, go-go’s veteran heavyweights have returned to the city’s brightest marquees. In addition to landing dates at the Howard Theatre and the Fillmore Silver Spring, Trouble Funk has become mainstays at D.C.’s storied 9:30 Club, where it’ll perform on New Year’s Eve. Earlier this summer, the band opened for Foo Fighters at RFK Stadium after appearing in frontman Dave Grohl’s recent HBO documentary series, “Sonic Highways.”
Trouble Funk hasn’t been this visible since 1987. But according to bandleader “Big Tony” Fisher, the band hasn’t been as busy. “We don’t like to perform every week, like when we were younger,” he says backstage at Maryland Live, where Trouble Funk plays a weekly “groove” night every few months. “Our audience just don’t come out like that. When we do something in D.C., we try to make it more like an event.”
The Howard Theatre has embraced this “event” mentality, too, hosting a variety of go-go reunion shows from UCB, Lissen and Northeast Groovers, as well as semi-regular appearances from Backyard Band. And while Backyard bandleader Anwan “Big G” Glover says he’s thankful for the opportunity, he wonders if this larger trend is merely a cosmetic comeback after years of being pushed back and forth across the city’s border.
“Maryland has pretty much shut us out,” Glover says in his sandpaper rasp, taking a break from his Sunday night slot as an on-air personality at WKYS-FM. “And D.C. has opened the door a little more, but the venues are very scarce right now. Very scarce.”
Go-go music has always required a stockpile of drums, an enthusiastic audience and, most importantly, physical space. Onstage, go-go bands fill the room with pummeling rhythm and electric call-and-response, sending shout-outs to friends, fans, neighborhoods. The social barriers between the band and the crowd are dissolved. The audience becomes a part of the music, dancing deep into the night, consecrating a community bond.
And while go-go music is by no means violent, neighborhood feuds have occasionally followed young fans into various area nightclubs over the years. In 2010, D.C. police aimed to curb go-go-related violence by circulating the “go-go report,” a biweekly bulletin alerting police to upcoming go-go concerts in the District. Tighter policing resulted in fewer concerts, which sent many go-go bands off searching for work in Prince George’s County, Md. But after a surge in concert-related violence, the county passed an emergency bill giving officials the broad authority to shut down any dance hall seen as a threat to public safety. After being pushed out of the District, go-go all but vanished from Prince George’s, too.
In many ways, Glover’s life runs in tight parallel to go-go itself — he’s courted national fame (he starred on HBO’s “The Wire”) and had dalliances with local violence (he was stabbed at a downtown nightclub last year). And through it all, Backyard remains widely admired as the most active go-go band on the circuit, currently performing roughly three nights a week.
But Glover admits that in the ’90s, Backyard could play three shows on a single Saturday night. He’d like to see all of go-go get back to that place, and three years after Chuck Brown’s death, he feels a responsibility to help lead the way.
“Before Chuck passed, he told me, ‘Don’t let our music die,’ ” Glover says. “I know a lot of people look at me to hold that torch, but I think there are many leaders in go-go. I know I won’t stop.”
“Go-go music is our music!” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser shouts into the microphone on a golden Saturday evening. “I want to thank you for remembering Chuck, and celebrating Chuck!”
It’s the first Chuck Brown Day concert at Chuck Brown Memorial Park, and today, the weather is as beautiful as the music. More than 3,000 fans — most of them middle-aged or older — have spread out across the park’s grassy slopes, waving to old friends and dancing to old favorites.
Local government officials have long paid lip service to go-go, especially during campaign season, but members of the go-go community have felt that official Washington has done too little to support, showcase and protect the music. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed for this story believe that development and gentrification in Washington has played a significant role in the marginalization of go-go.