Go-go is a popular music subgenre associated with funk that originated in the Washington, D.C., area during the mid-60s to late-70s. It remains primarily popular in the Washington metropolitan area as a uniquely regional music style. A great number of bands contributed to the early evolution of the genre, but the Young Senators, Black Heat, and singer-guitarist Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers are credited with having developed most of the hallmarks of the style.
Inspired by artists such as the groups mentioned above, go-go is a blend of funk, rhythm and blues, and old school hip-hop, with a focus on lo-fi percussion instruments and funk-style jamming in place of dance tracks, although some sampling is used. As such, it is primarily a dance hall music with an emphasis on live audience call and response. Go-go rhythms are also incorporated into street percussion.
In technical terms, "Go-go's essential beat is characterized by a syncopated, dotted rhythm that consists of a series of quarter- and eighth notes (quarter, eighth, quarter, (space/held briefly), quarter, eighth, quarter) which is underscored prominently by the bass drum and snare drum, and the hi-hat... [and] is ornamented by the other percussion instruments, especially by the conga drums, rototoms, and hand-held cowbells."
Unique to go-go is an instrumentation with 3 standard Congas and 2 "Junior Congas", 8" and 9" wide and about half as tall as the standard Congas, a size rare outside go-go. They were introduced to Rare Essence by Tyrone "Jungle Boogie" Williams in the early days when they couldn't afford full sized Congas, and are ubiquitous ever since. A swing rhythm is often implied (if not explicitly stated).
The most important part of the go-go beat is the bass/snare pattern.
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Although Chuck Brown is known as "The Godfather of Go-Go" and his tremendous influence in this music is unmatched, Go-go is a musical movement that cannot be traced back to one single person, as there were so many bands that flourished during the beginning of this era that they collectively created the sound that is recognized as Go-Go of today. Groups such as The Young Senators, Black Heat, Aggression, Brute and The Echos, Tommy Vann & the Professionals, The Mixed Breed, Scacy & the Sound Service, 95th Congress, 100 Years Time, BlackStone, Experience Unlimited (E.U.), Sound Extended, Spectrum, 2000 A.D., Lead Head, Symba, Distance, Ashante, Kalidescope, The NoWhere Men, Free Form Experience, The Jaguars, The Corvettes, The Epsilons, The New Breed, Lawrence & the Arabians, Sir Joe & the Free Souls, The Mighty Ascots, Ray Johnson's Esquires, Sons of Nature, and The Fathers Children, are just a few of the bands that played great music during the infancy of Go-go.
In the mid-1960s, "go-go" was the word for a music club in the local African American community, as in the common phrase at the time going to a go-go popularized by a million-selling hit of the same name by The Miracles. Dancers could expect to hear the latest top 40 hits, as many as twenty at a time, performed by local funk and soul bands, including Chuck Brown. In 1965 The Young Senators (later known as "The Emperors of Go-Go"), were formed and there began a fierce competition with Chuck Brown and Black Heat on the local club circuit, they later became known for their hit "Jungle".
Chuck Brown was a fixture on the Washington and Maryland music scene with his band the "Los Lotinos" as far back as 1966. By the mid-1970s he had changed the group's name to "The Soul Searchers", and developed a laid-back, rhythm-heavy style of funk performed with one song blending into the next (in order to keep people on the dance floor). The beat was based on Grover Washington Jr.'s song "Mr. Magic", though Brown has said in interviews that both he and Washington had adapted the beat from a gospel music beat found in black churches.
Another popular local cover band in the early 1970s, Aggression, would use rhythm breaks to keep fans dancing while they prepared for the next song, fixed guitar strings, etc. As Aggression gained popularity, they started holding dance contests during the rhythm breaks, which subsequently grew in length. The audiences began to look forward to these contests and the band's style evolved to where the beat would stop only occasionally during the course of a show.
In 1976, James Funk, a young DJ who spun at clubs in between Soul Searchers sets, was inspired (and encouraged by Brown himself) to start a band--called Rare Essence (originally the Young Dynamos)--that played the same kind of music.
Experience Unlimited (a.k.a. E.U.) who originally formed in 1974 was a band more influenced by rock (their name a nod to the Jimi Hendrix Experience), that started out in the 1970s. After witnessing Rare Essence in the late-1970s, they modified their style to incorporate the go-go beat. Kurtis Blow's "Party Time" subsequently put them on the map to be later tracked down by Grace Jones and to take the King of Go-Go Production, Maxx Kidd to an international level with Island Records, then on to make their greatest hit for the soundtrack of School Daze written, directed and produced by Spike Lee.
Trouble Funk had its roots in an early 1970s Top 40 cover band called Trouble Band, then fronted by drummer, Emmett Nixon. With the inclusion of Robert 'Dyke' Reed (keyboards, guitar, vocals), Taylor Reed (trumpet, vocals), James Avery (keyboards, vocals), Teebone David (percussion), and Tony Fisher (bass, vocals), the band changed its name, and, in the late 1970s, after seeing the light at a gig they played with Chuck Brown, they, too, adopted the go-go beat. The band was signed to the Sugar Hill Records label in 1982 and recorded with Kurtis Blow. Trouble Funk recorded the go-go anthem "Hey, Fellas".
Go-go's first national chart action came when Black Heat (the first D.C. go-go band to be signed by a major record label) released their Billboard top 100 hit "No Time To Burn" from their second album on Atlantic Records in 1974. They then toured with such national acts as Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament Funkadelic, Ohio Players, The Commodores and others. Later, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers released their "Bustin' Loose" single in late 1978; it reached number one on the Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs R&B charts, and held that position for a month during February and March 1979 (peaking at #34 on the Pop chart).
In the 1980s, some go-go bands achieved success, while others did not. Trouble Funk put out a few records on New Jersey-based label Jamtu before signing with one of the more powerful hip hop labels, Sugar Hill, where it released a six-track LP called Drop the Bomb in 1982, which included the hit "Pump Me Up" which had already been a regional hit years before.
In 1984, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell heard Chuck Brown's "We Need Some Money" on the radio in New York, which ultimately led to him signing some of the brightest stars of the go-go scene. Trouble Funk and E.U. were both signed to Island, while Chuck Brown, Mass Extinction, Yuggie, Redds and the Boys and Hot, Cold, Sweat were signed through a distribution deal between T.T.E.D. and Island subsidiary 4th & B'way.
Along with the recording contracts Blackwell was handing out, he also wanted to make a go-go film and soundtrack; a D.C.-based version of The Harder They Come, perhaps. The resultant film, Good to Go (or Short Fuse, as it was called on video) was plagued with problems: co-director Don Letts was let go halfway through production, the film became less about the music and more about drugs and violence, and despite the fact that most of the post-production was completed in the fall of 1985, the film was held for release until late-summer 1986. When it did poorly on release, it seemed that go-go had missed its best chance to break into the mainstream.
The Junk Yard Band started out in 1980 as a group of kids (as young as nine) from the Barry Farm, Washington, D.C. projects. Unable to afford instruments for their band, they fashioned drums out of empty buckets and traffic cones, tin cans substituted for timbales, and, in place of a brass section, they used plastic toy horns. Adding real instruments to their gear a little at a time, by 1985 they had joined the ranks of D.C.'s finest; they were scooped up by Def Jam, who released a Rick Rubin-produced single "The Word" in 1986. Not much happened with that record--at first. However, within a year or two of its release, the flipside, "Sardines", had become (and remains to this day) the group's signature song; it even performs it in the 1988 film Tougher Than Leather.
E.U. got its big break in 1986 when it was booked to play a party celebrating the release of Spike Lee's debut film, She's Gotta Have It. Lee liked what he heard, and tapped the band to perform a song in his next movie, School Daze. "Da Butt" (written for the film by Marcus Miller and E.U. keyboardist, Kent Wood) made it to number one on Billboard's R&B chart (#35 Pop) and scored the band a Grammy nomination (they lost to "Love Overboard" by Gladys Knight & the Pips). Hoping to build on their success, in 1989 they released Livin' Large on Virgin Records. Two singles from the album ("Buck Wild" and "Taste of Your Love") made respectable showings on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart but they failed to repeat the success of "Da Butt." (The album peaked at #22 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart and #158 on the Top 200.) A second Virgin release, Cold Kickin' It, came out the following year but failed to make much of an impression on the national charts. Experience Unlimited had a resurgence in the mid-1990s by partnering with the jazz and gospel singer Maiesha Rashad, performing under the name "Maiesha and the Hip Huggers". Maiesha and the Hip Huggers have headlined events and concert venues such as B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill, DAR Constitution Hall, Black Family Reunion and D.C.'s Stone Soul Picnic and Unifest.
As time passed, more and more of a hip-hop influence crept into go-go. Early MCs like D.C. Scorpio gave way to DJ Kool, whose 1996 indie release, "Let Me Clear My Throat"--based on a sample from DJ Mark the 45 King's "The 900 Number"--was picked up by American Recordings and in 1997 became go-go's last certifiable hit single (#4 on Billboard's Rap singles chart, #21 on the R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart, and #30 on the Hot 100). As the hip-hop content in go-go increased, the complexity of the musical arrangements decreased. Where bands once featured horn sections and multiple guitarists in addition to a phalanx of percussionists, many current go-go bands have stripped down to just keyboards and percussion. Another trend is to have a dedicated percussionist with plastic "wood blocks" performing much of what used to be handled by the Junior Congas.
There is, however, a retro movement going back to go-go's original style of marathon sessions covering currently popular R&B songs. Bands playing in that style include Maiesha And The Hip Huggers, Suttle Thoughts, WHAT? band, and Familiar Faces. Many of these bands use the term "Grown 'n Sexy" to indicate a focus on appealing to audiences over 25. In 2006 and again in 2007, there was a Grown and Sexy Category at the WKYS 93.9 Go-Go Awards ceremony held at DAR Constitution Hall, which the Familiar Faces won in 2006, and L!ssen Da Grew^p won in 2007.
Some go-go artists have been able to transition into other areas of entertainment. Anwan "Big G" Glover -- a founding member of the Backyard Band -- became an actor, playing Slim Charles on HBO's The Wire. D.C. band Mambo Sauce also had hits with "Miracles" and "Welcome To D.C." which both cracked the Billboard charts. Welcome to DC also became the official intro song for all of the Washington Wizards & Mystics home games and the video for the song was in rotation on VH1 Soul and BETJ and received airplay on MTVJams, MTV2, MTVU and BET.Kevin Kato Hammond, former lead guitarist for Little Benny & the Masters and former rapper for the band Proper Utensils, started the online magazine Take Me Out to the Go-Go in 1996. In addition to the magazine being a source of information on go-go shows, it serves as a community forum in which go-go fans routinely submit their own articles on issues unique to the genre. Take Me Out to the Go-Go has expanded to include a radio show on GoGoRadio.com, as well as several YouTube channels, one of the most notable being XclusiveGoGo.
Additionally, musicians from other genres of music have incorporated elements of the go-go aesthetic into their compositions and stage acts. Jazz/rock musician Mike Dillon, leads a band called Go-Go Jungle, often playing long, non-stop sets that incorporate go-go beats and raps interspersed with other subgenres of funk, jazz, and rock. Another example is Bob Mintzer's composition "Go Go" from the Yellowjackets' 2003 release, Time Squared. Composer Liza Figueroa Kravinsky composed the Go-Go Symphony, an original full orchestra symphony that incorporates the go-go and bounce beats. She founded the identically named Go-Go Symphony ensemble, which performs the Go-Go Symphony and other mashups of go-go and classical, sometimes in partnership with other full symphony orchestras. The February 21, 2014 world premiere of the fully orchestrated Go-Go Symphony and similar pieces, performed with the Capital City Symphony, received standing ovations and rave reviews.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, it became harder for go-go bands and local venues to hold concerts as law enforcement in both Washington, D.C., and neighboring Prince George's County in Maryland viewed the concerts and bands as inciters of violence.
In 2003 TCB, a band based in the Washington area, created a spinoff sound from go-go called bounce beat. Bounce beat is a heavier version of its ancestor that relies on timbales, drums, keyboards and bass to form its signature sound. At a time when bands like Backyard, UnCalled 4, and Raw Image were moving the genre toward a more driving sound by using a more forceful "breakdown" beat, bounce beat seems, in retrospect, like a natural progression. Still, the music was initially dismissed by all but a core of believers. It took fans time to realize TCB's innovation wasn't a rejection of "traditional" go-go, but a shift. Instead of paying homage to the genre's early greats by copying their style, bounce beat built on a strong foundation and showed that the music still had more ideas to explore, limited only by percussive innovation and imagination. Fans of bounce beat, like the sound itself, tend to be much younger than the traditional go-go crowd. The rototom-dependent subgenre was initially maligned--some called it "noise," others argued that it wasn't go-go at all. Criticism of bounce beat was similar to what was said about the trap rap bubbling in other cities around the same time: It was blasted for its sometimes suggestive lyrics, its thwacking beat, its tempos that vacillated between syrupy and frenetic. But over time, bounce beat made inroads.
It was eventually embraced, or at least accepted, by go-go fans both young and not so young. In a city that considers "swing" go-go the soundtrack of its story, this was no tiny feat. Even old-timers who deny the appeal of bounce beat understand why it exists. The brash style not only changed the way people danced and partied but became the music for a new chapter in D.C.'s story. If the swing sound carried a generation of Washingtonians through the rough '70s and '80s, a time when funk, jazz, and soul was a much-needed salve, bounce grounded them in the '00s and '10s, helped them keep their bearings at a time of shifting city demographics, when go-go's epicenter realigned as the sound of black Washington, at least from the '70s onward, was pushed to the suburbs. With its pummeling tone and tempo, bounce beat remains a perfect musical metaphor for what young people have experienced as they've watched their city be slowly replaced by something unrecognizable.
In the 11 years since its creation, bounce bands have flooded the area: Reaction, TOB, New Impressionz, ABM, XIB, Allstarz, UEB, HQB, AAO, Gameova, Dreamteam, Drama Squad, Main Attraction, Heavy Impact, All Jokes Aside Band, A2C, and many more.
Proclamation issued in Washington DC proclaiming June 11th as The Young Senators Day