“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that go-go swing” is one of the many classic quotes that a DC/metropolitan area native would remix due to their altered reality of many mainstream trends. Formerly known as Chocolate City, Washington DC’s culture has been shaped by not only its politicians, but it’s entrepreneurs, fashion designers, drug dealers/criminals, artists, actors, and musicians. Namely, Charles Louis “Chuck” Brown who birthed an entire genre of music called Go-go. Born on August 22, 1934 in Gaston, North Carolina, Brown’s mother was a housekeeper and his father was a marine, and also not present in Brown’s life. At the age of 6, Brown and his mother moved to Washington DC, where he served as a preacher from ages 11 to 13 and played the piano in church. As for academic endeavours, Brown quit school after completing the seventh grade, and found himself homeless shortly after at 15 and early into his 20s. Brown performed numerous jobs to provide for himself, including shining shoes at the Navy Yard in DC. At 17, he joined the Marines for a short period, only to leave and get imprisoned several times for robbery and selling stolen property. In the 1950s, Brown was convicted of murder after an aggravated assault victim died. Brown states that his actions were in self defense. During his eight years in the Lorton Reformatory, Brown acquired his guitar and love for the instrument.
Upon release, he performed at parties throughout the area, while still managing odd jobs. His performances were limited, as he was on parole and could not be in venues serving alcoholic beverages. In an interview, Brown describes early Go-go shows to be something because got dressed up for, and sat around tables and listened to. As the concerts progressed, the people’s minks and watches started disappearing along with the tables and chairs. Go-go was and still is the sound of all house parties. His newly acclaimed house music would be popular for this area even through the rise of hip hop. In one of his interviews, Brown points out that he and other lead singers at that time, would rhyme on the beat before what we know to be Hip-Hop truly hit the scene. He even proclaims that soon to be hip-hop stars attended his shows before they became large stars. This idea of Go-go being the elder and more sacred genre, stuck with Washingtonians through the 80s,90s and now. Son of notorious drug dealer Tony Lewis Sr., Tony Lewis Jr. explains in a Breakfast Club interview that native Washingtonians trying to pursue rap careers were not supported by the larger community because they were seen to be copying the young black community of New York. This would, arguably, contribute to the rise of go-go in the community but the lack of acceptance from other regions.
Chuck Brown is said to have been influenced by bluesman Bobby Parker, but much of guitar skills came from playing in a local Latino band called Los Latinos. Brown and his childhood friend Joe Manley started this band as young adults and would inspire Brown’s sound for Go-go. The band would cover top 40 songs adding a Latin beat to the background using timbales, drums and congas, and cowbells to create a festive and international feel. Brown went on to go and create his music style with his band the Soul Searchers in the mid-1960s. Their hit single Bustin’ Loose topped charts and was awarded a gold album in 1978. This would be this first of many Go-go features in mainstream culture like radios and movies. In 1986 he released his hit Go-go Swing which was a rendition of Duke Ellington’s classic It Don’t Mean a Thing. This style of mixing classic and modern songs would be a major component of the music genre as a whole.
Go-go culture was and continues to be an intricate part of the Chocolate City experience. This is due to the audience’s direct connection to each Go-go song that is recorde. Unlike most genres, Go-go is not typically recorded in a studio, instead is literally a live performance every time you hear it. This has contributed to the lack of exposure on Go-go in other regions, but serves as a sacred practice/experience for fellow Washingtonians. Most traditional Go-go songs are recordings of a live concert, and bands such as Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, and the Junkyard Band would follow this sound.
Throughout his career, he performed for different non-profit and communal organizations. In 2005, Brown was awarded the Arts Lifetime Heritage Fellowship Award and gave a funk tribute performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the following year. In 2009, the city of Washington DC honored Brown by renaming a street “Chuck Brown Way”. While Go-go still stayed closely tied to and popular in the DC metropolitan area, Brown was able to create popular its that all commutes could jam to. In 2011, Brown received a Grammy Award nomination for Best R&B Performance for his feature on Jill Scott’s Love. After a long battle with his health, Brown was pronounced dead on May 16, 2012 at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Those who remember Brown describe him as a symbol of authority and inspiration. Following his passing, various things were put into place to continue to honor him including his park located in DC, in order for his fans to continue to appreciate his influence.
Go-go gives a voice to the voiceless, and has continuously been used as a political tool in the black metropolitan area. In the 80s and throughout the 90s, bands such as Rare Essence, Troubled Funk and the Junkyard Band, started trends in Go-go music to simplify the content to pair dances with the music. So instead of the music explaining goals or beliefs, it gave instructions on how to hit the most popular dance crazes at the time. These songs also took time listing out explicit instructions for women to follow as well as shooting out local hoods, birthdays and other messages encouraged by the audience present that night. ed Many of the Go-go songs at this time became renditions of popular songs, keeping the tradition of the genre.
Today, much of what is go-go can be described as less of an instrumental genre, and more of a techno, computerized remix and chopping of current songs. While this music is enjoyable to those DMV natives born in the 90s, those who grew up listening to or watching the evolution of Chuck Brown’s version of go-go often dismiss the sound as true go-go. Nevertheless, the “youngins” of the DMV continue to support their local bands by playing their songs at parties and hiring them for small community events. In the summer of 2019, complaints from new residents around the intersection of Florida and Georgia Avenue in NW DC would revive the Go-go scene. A storefront’s constant blasting of Go-go music was reported to local authorities, enraging the original black community because of the constant micromanaging and blatant gentrification said new residents were perpetuating. In response, the larger community came together to start a bi-weekly block party, where Go-go bands performed through the evening and night on a busy DC street in response and resilience to new resident’s cries. This festival was named Moechella a play on the concert “Coechella” but replaced with a common DC referencer: Moe. Moe is similar to “bru” or “dude” in other small social cultures, and is directly stemmed fromGo-go culture and Chuck Brown. “Go-go Moe” was a man who frequently visited the Go-go club, and along with the music stic as a genre, the name stuck as a name holder.
Charles “Chuck:” Brown will always be a renowned star in Washington history, and his music will live on as samples, original recordings, and crank sessions with the party/concert goers. Bands such as Rare Essence will be known for their creation of Go-go house party fashion and culture in the wake of the war on drugs and mass incarceration. XIB and TOB would inspire children of the 2000s to jump around or move their feet rhythmically around one another to hit the beat with a new sound of Go-go. No matter the era, Go-go serves as a tool of communalism to black Washingtonians, and this feeling was birthed by Chuck Brown’s style of mixing. His sound would continue to live on in many other popular songs, without people even knowing the roots of the timbales, cowbells and congas carrying the song.
There are many “popular” songs with Go-go inspired melodies, from Chuck Brown features, Beyonce hits, and plain renowned Go-go hits that most people don’t even realize is the genre.
Forever the God Father of Go-Go
Asch, Chris Myers, and George Derek Musgrove. Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital. University of North Carolina Press, 2017. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9781469635873_asch. Accessed 25 Sept. 2020.
Hopkinson, Natalie. Go-Go Live: the Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Duke University Press, 2012.
“Chuck Brown: National Visonary.” Chuck Brown: Oral History Video Clips and Biography: NVLP Oral History Archive, www.visionaryproject.org/brownchuck/.
Ellis, Thomas. “Overview.” Teach the Beat!, 2013, www.thebeatisgogo.com/about-go-go.
Lornell, Kip, and Charles C. Stephenson. The Beat!: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C. University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
Written by Sarah Godfrey | Published on October 30, 2019. “The History of Go-Go: A 6 Step Guide to the Essentials.” Washingtonian, 18 Dec. 2019, www.washingtonian.com/2019/10/30/history-go-go-6-step-guide-the-essentials/.