Go-go Research Part I

I was born in DC and grew up in a Virginia suburb about 20 minutes west. As a child of the 80s-90s, Go-go was this hyper-local sound that was always in the background. While there was a vibrant scene for it in the District, you didn’t find shows or hear much about it outside of the DC metroplex. As I understand it, it barely registered just 45 minutes up the road in Baltimore or south of Fairfax county. I don’t recall seeing a proper show in the district, unless maybe I heard something at a Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, but after the breakdancing era there seemed to be one go-go band at every school talent show and youth concert in my town for much of my memory. (Apparently Rare Essence played my hometown circa 81-82?)
As I understand it, the beat started at a Chuck Brown (and the Soul Searchers) show in the late 70s. Chuck’s claim to fame was his 1978 song “Bustin’ Loose” which peaked at 34 on the Billboard Hot 100. While it’s a dope funk bop, it’s not go-go. Chuck was running late to the gig one night, and the band had to start without him. They vamped on Grover Washington Junior’s tune “Mr. Magic” for a considerable amount of time, and kind of swung the beat a bit more. When Chuck arrived, he rapped, did call and response vocals with the crowd, and did much of the band’s rep over the vamp without stopping. This is where it started. The music of DC came from vamping on a 1974 instrumental by a tenor saxophonist from Buffalo. On drums that night was Ricky “Sugarfoot” Wellman. After a period as sort of a Go-go journeyman, Wellman did a few years in perhaps Miles Davis’ last touring band appearing on the records Amandla and Dingo, as well as stints with Herbie Hancock, Kenny Garrett, and Santana.
In a future blog, perhaps I’ll write out some sample drum set and percussion patterns, but it’s important to learn it by rote first. Like most great music, oral tradition is critical. If you’re from anywhere near DC, this is probably one of the first beats you learned, beat out on your desk, and jammed on when the band teacher was out of the room.
Here’s a few notes if you’re not from the mid-Atlantic US and you want to check out the right recordings. Studio albums aren’t the right source as Go-go is a live art. While I’ve heard a lot of fine studio captures of go-go bands, trying to cram the essence of a 45 minute set into a “song” is not the genuine article; you want board or PA tapes. The sound quality will be all over the place, but this is how it must be experienced. Growing up, either you got these from a friend, or a swap meet, or at show. You could also tape shows off WPGC (95.5 on your FM dial) on Friday night. I swear I would hear a Junkyard Band show while in the McDonald’s drive-thru on a Friday night, and again from someone’s Jeep in the school parking lot Monday morning.
Aside from certain obvious hallmarks (the beat, long 1-2 chord vamps, call + response vocals, etc), two percussive elements became mainstays from the innovations of early go-go bands: junior congas and rototoms. Maybe rototoms are optional, but many bands actually gave them their own solo. Junior congas are about half the height of congas, with a smaller diameter head, and usually played on a stand. You’re not gonna keep the party going without the junior congas, as they produce the high pitched offbeat accent in most stock go-go conga patterns. Bear in mind hand drums in go-go are usually tuned higher than Cuban or Puerto Rican traditions. I don’t know if I could get on a set of drums right now and play a convincing go-go pattern, but I do know that it was a weird foundation to have when I arrived at my first undergrad salsa band rehearsal. “You mean I don’t play these things cranked super high until my hands bleed?”
So I made a playlist on the youtubes. I tried to include every band I could remember. Some are household names (if you live in a really cool house) as bands like Trouble Funk and EU were on major labels and included in various film soundtracks. Some bands I totally forgot about or have been googling for years under incorrect spellings (Ayre Rayde, crankin’ jonx, questionable spelling). I’m having a chuckle knowing that Junkyard played the Safari Club in 1994, as that’s the first club I played in DC, probably 2 years earlier. It was a hub of both the hardcore scene and go-go shows. The genres worked together on occasion; one of Minor Threat’s farewell shows was a triple bill with Trouble Funk and the Big Boys from Texas.
I’ll revisit this at some point and add any tracks or shows I come across as this is a rabbit hole I head down regularly.