Chuck Brown (August 22, 1936 – May 16, 2012) Go-Go and DC Culture

Chuck Brown (August 22, 1936 – May 16, 2012) Go-Go and DC Culture 

By J. Plunky Branch 

I was on the scene when go-go was born.  The passing of Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-go music, makes me pause to consider the man and his music and its impact on Washington, DC and beyond.  I must have shared the stage with Chuck twenty times or more, and in my mind’s eye, as I look back and out over those audiences, I have thoughts about who they were, and the events, the venues, the businesses and the culture that brought us all together.  Go-go has been a driving musical force in the nation’s capital and the surrounding region, but how did it originate and why did it take root in the area?  Who were some of Chuck Brown’s co-creators and what happens to the music going forward?

Chuck Brown was beloved by his community as evidenced by the huge turnout at his day-long vigil and viewing of his body at the newly refurbished Howard Theater in Northwest Washington, DC.  That event turned into a happening, with go-go lovers, vendors, radio station personalities, an array of television broadcast trucks, street closings, and public officials intermingling with the neighborhood folks; all hanging out to honor and document the celebration of a local hero.

And then two days later there was Chuck Brown’s memorial service at a packed Washington Convention Center which was a grand tribute featuring musicians, politicians, dignitaries, friends, comedians and thousands of his adoring fans.  They came not to mourn, but to praise him.  He was lauded for his tireless performance schedule and endless promotion of DC and his dedication to his family and musicians.   Chuck Brown with his gold-toothed smile, guitar and dapper apparel became an iconic DC figure, bigger than life in the close-knit neighborhoods of Black Washington.

During his career Chuck Brown received a Grammy nomination and a Lifetime Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.  He had a top-ten hit record and a DC street named after him.  And he created go-go, a signature music sound for the District of Columbia (DC), a never-stop-the-groove style, imitated by all those that follow in his footsteps along the path toward audience participation and funk-jazz-dance-soul satisfaction.

I was around performing with my group, Oneness of Juju in the DC area in the early 1970’s when go-go was being born.  Because I pre-date most of the people now involved with go-go, I am now probably one of the elder statesmen of this Afro-funk musical genre.  In 1975 Oneness of Juju released “African Rhythms,” a song that became an underground hit.  The song got a lot of airplay in DC, particularly on Howard University’s radio station, WHUR; eventually being used as the theme song of the station’s evening news program called The Daily Drum.  So without claiming too much credit, our group, with our African and Latin percussion, was a big part of the scene at that time of very beginning of Go-go. 

Back then Charisma Productions, a DC booking agency and production company, booked and promoted a number of progressive jazz and R&B groups in the area.  Their roster of acts was almost legendary.  It included Gil Scott Heron, Hugh Masekela, Roy Ayers, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Oneness of Juju, Lonnie Liston Smith, and a group called Brute, which was named after the president of the company.  Charisma Productions would book the live entertainment in various venues and night clubs around town, putting various combinations of their acts together for shows.  So it might be Oneness of Juju opening for the Soul Searchers; or we might open for Gil Scott Heron or Roy Ayers or South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

In those days Hugh Masekela’s band was from Ghana, West Africa; they were called Hedzoleh Soundz and their master percussionist was named Asante.  After touring with Parliament-Funkadelic and the Jazz Crusaders, Hugh Masekela and the members of Hedzoleh Soundz went back to Africa.  Asante stayed in the DC area and he joined Oneness of Juju because he said we were the most authentic and creative Afro-funk group he had heard here.  Asante’s unique Ghanaian talking drum rhythms would inspire some of the young percussionists who would later go on to provide the percussion for several of the prominent go-go bands. 

But in addition to Asante, Oneness of Juju also used two Latino brothers, Rafael Solano on congas and Afredo Mohica on timbales; and sometimes we used a group called the Ilu Drummers in addition to Ndikho Xaba, a South African ex-patriot who was like a mentor to me.  So Oneness of Juju might have a whole battery of drummers on stage, and that African percussion was a big part of the group’s sound and imagery. 

During that time one of the biggest acts in Washington was Gil Scott-Heron and his group, co-directed by his musical collaborator, Brian Jackson.  They utilized lot of the local percussionists to create a funky Afro Latin feel to many of their songs, particularly in their live performances. 

Sam (as in Samantha, not her real name) who worked at Charisma Productions during its heyday reminisces:

“… there was so much more than Oneness of Juju and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers on the DC scene at that time. … I remember the rhythm sections of Gil's [Scott-Heron] bands (Midnight Band, Amnesia Express--did I leave out one or two?) being at the forefront of "popularizing" African rhythms in DC.  Yes, there was jazz in Gil's music, but I think many did not know how to categorize Gil and company. (Naming Gil as a Last Poet is credence as to how immersed he was in African rhythm.)   … I remember the Doctor (Barnett Williams), Adei Nola, Tony Duncanson, Tony Green and anyone else who played percussion with Gil as being front and center of fusing African rhythms and R&B, which Plunky refers to as the blend that birthed go-go.

The main catalyst in all this fusion was Fort DuPont Park's outdoor concerts--especially in the '70s--with the black community south of the Anacostia [River] fully embracing and claiming the African rhythms as Black DC's own music.  The movement was also bolstered by the D.C. Black Repertory Theatre and Melvin Deal African Drummers and Dancers dancing to African rhythms; along with Sweet Honey in the Rock singing to the African rhythm.  

This is the melting pot I remember that promoted the infusion of African rhythms with the music of local R&B bands (Brute, Man's Theory, and Nature along with Experience Unlimited, Rare Essence, Jimmy Castor Bunch and others), who played one song for 20 minutes or more, with a background of cowbells, tambourines, shekeres, and timbales, to prolong the dance for us clubbers. This was the embryonic mix for go-go.   Chuck Brown was the man that birthed go-go.   As I said, this is from what I remember. I came to DC in 1973, perhaps around the same time that Oneness of Juju became a name in DC.  So, now you have two perspectives.”

The 1970’s was a great time for live music.  There were thousands of bands performing all over the place in those days before the deejay driven disco era of the 1980’s and the hip-hop of the 1990’s.  Back then if you were going out to hear music, nine times out of ten, it would be all the way live.  All the major east coast cities had large audiences for Black music, but DC was someplace special.   

As a performer I was always very excited to play in Washington because the audiences were so enthusiastic and so responsive.  We would come to DC and be amazed because the people would start partying in the pre–concert warm up time. 

We would play at Crampton Auditorium on the campus of Howard University or at Fort DuPont Park or at Ed Murphy’s Supper Club and the people would start dancing in the aisles before we would even hit the stage.  And no matter how progressive a sound we played, no matter how African or avant garde the funk, the people really got into it!  There would be exuberant call and response between the performers and audience.  The call and response of go-go really comes out of an African tradition that goes back, not decades but centuries, if not longer, where everyone participates.  It seems that DC has always had that strong communal vibe.

The Black cultural atmosphere in DC during 70’s was progressive and Afro-centric.  WHUR’s “The Daily Drum” is an example of the tone of the community’s orientation.  There were numerous Black political groups, cultural groups, and progressive and left wing and nationalistic organizations that created and serviced a large audience for, not only a Black art, but also for progressive political thought. 

For example for 15 or 20 years, around the weekend of May 19th (Malcolm X’s birthday) there was African Liberation Day (ALD) which took place in Malcolm X Park in Northwest DC.  ALD was a protest demonstration, a political rally and a cultural festival; but more than anything, it was the manifestation of a dynamic political movement calling for the liberation of Africa.  This was during the time when apartheid was in full swing in South Africa; and other countries in the southern part of Africa were literally, at war fighting for their freedom.  At ALD and other festivals and demonstrations, African drumming was the incessant sonic backdrop.

It was not just local people who impacted the cultural milieu of DC, not to denigrate or lessen the impact of people like Marion Barry and the many local officials and community leaders.  Black leaders came to DC from all over the country and from around the world.  Activists like H. Rap Brown and Kwame Toure would come to speak and garner attention.  African political leaders and people who were destined to be presidents of countries would make appearances in Washington to make their pitch for the end of apartheid or to solicit support for their countries and their movements to make Africa a post-colonial continent. 

So you had African leaders coming and cultural and thought leaders coming.  You had all this political activity and Black Nationalism in full sway; you had Kwanzaa being born; and you had artists and musicians who were reflecting all of these attitudes.  Out of this cauldron of activity and progressive African spirit, go-go music developed. 

Washington, DC is a very special place in Black culture.  It is, as George Clinton called it, Chocolate City, and go-go is its signature sound.  Erika Badu referred to it as “tribal” in nature. Go-go music is a commercialization of African music, and it is a popularization of the African spirit, the African drum, our African-ness as a people. 

While go-go music is a natural outgrowth of the community, it takes proponents like Chuck Brown and proponents like the principals of the groups like E.U. and Rare Essence and Trouble Funk and all the rest to cultivate and develop that music.  And of necessity if the music is going to survive and thrive in a capitalist system it also has to have some commercialization; or it won’t exist.  We artists make our living by living this culture.  If there is no commercialization, no economics, then you get the concept of the “starving artist” and that really doesn’t the artists or the community; and it certainly doesn’t help the culture to perpetuate itself. 

So Chuck Brown becomes a monumental figure, not just in terms of DC local musicians, among whom he clearly deserved his status; but even in terms of the national and international impact and the ongoing development of Afro-centric culture.  The ability to keep something so African – the conga drum and African rhythms – so central to a modern American pop music helps to keep our culture alive and kicking.  So Chuck Brown deserves all the praises and honors I am sure he will continue to get.

What happens to go-go now?

I don’t know where go-go is going from here, but I do know the music will stay alive.  It may become an historic or classical artifact, which has happened to other genres of our music.  When we say something is classical it means it lasts over several generations.  Jazz music has become classical because it has survived and it can now be used as a historical reference.  Go-go music almost assuredly have in its destiny to become a significant part of our regional popular legacy.  Nothing lasts forever, but hopefully our art and music and cultural will survive us.

Studying the music of the United States, and that largely means Black music, you can almost designate decades by the styles of popular music.  We say the 1920’s was the jazz age; the 30’s was big band swing era.  The 40’s had be-bop and then the beginning of R&B.  The 50’s had R&B and the beginning of rock & roll.  60’s was hard bop, avant garde jazz and soul music.   The 70’s was the decade of disco music and the 80’s saw the advent of hip-hop.  Most of those musical genres had a peak of popularity spanning about ten years and then waned.  So, Go-go may have already had its peak.  But none of those other music genres disappeared.  You can still hear swing music.  You can still hear bebop.  You can still hear R&B and soul music.  So even though go-go may have had its peak it doesn’t mean it goes away; and, it can still have influence.

Another thing we know about history is that often styles, events and even personalities and proponents recycle and have comebacks.  They make a spiral.  They continue to go upward but they often “come back as an old school track.”  The whole idea of sampling and hip-hop music is an example of that.  It has a higher technological basis but with sampling, basically you are going back to get something from the past and then updating it.  So I believe go-go will continue to be sampled and used in hip-hop and other new forms. 

When I think of people who might represent that future I think of not only the current and younger go-go groups and artists coming up in DC, but also, some of the national neo-soul artists.  Even someone as popular and at the top of the game as Jill Scott has used some go-go influences in some of her songs.  Her song “It’s Love” and the Grammy-nominated song she did with Chuck Brown also called ”It’s Love” represent a kind of trans-generational, genre-bending possibility and a passing of the torch. 

Go-go may become a historic cultural music.  In 10 or 15 years people may be receiving grant funding to study and preserve this music, like today people get grants to do jazz music.  At many jazz festivals, R&B and soul acts are being added to the line-ups.  Some jazz purist may want to keep those genres separate but for others there is the recognition that those musics share a common heritage; and R&B and soul music, now 40 and 50 years old, are historically relevant and significant.  So I think go-go will find its way into that milieu.  In ten years Rare Essence will be as old as I am now and people will book them in some jazz festivals; and maybe some educational institutions will study go-go as the soundtrack of DC culture in the 70’s and 80’s. 

I believe the music will definitely have an audience in places like Europe.  Europeans pay homage to and ascribe great value to things that have proven themselves by standing the test of time.  It doesn’t mean they don’t like Beyoncé and the latest pop divas and teen idols, but Europeans definitely appreciate and pay tribute to things that last.  Internationally, traditional Black music is appreciated as art that has impacted and influenced world culture.  So, go-go artists will likely be able to go to Europe and be treated with some measure of respect because the music had impact on the culture of DC, the US and in many places around the world for more than 30 years. 

Chuck Brown’s importance can be measured in the number of gigs performed or record sales or critical acclaim and even awards received.  But one can also look at his longevity and Chuck’s influence on other musicians to begin to assess how important he was to the area’s music scene.  He spawned a generation of followers, imitators, co-creators and adherents.  And he had legions of fans. 

Chuck’s band and mine shared the stage together many times, at least five or six times in Richmond, VA alone over just the last two or three years.  It was a logical billing in my neck of the woods, maybe because he and I were from the same generation; maybe because we both feature African and Latin kind of rhythms and percussion and our sounds were so compatible.  Chuck was always cordial, supportive and very kind.  I read an article in the Washington Post that said Chuck would never fail to allow himself to be photographed by and with his fans.  He would endlessly pose and flash that gold-toothed smile and had untold amounts of patience. 

But I’ll just share this anecdote: at one of the gigs we did together I handed him a CD.  Two weeks later Chuck called me personally, long distance to tell me how much he enjoyed my CD.  That’s not the response of a normal, egotistical superstar musician.  He took the time to call me personally and said “Man, you gave me that CD; we listened to the whole thing on the bus and I just wanted to let you know I thought it was killing.”  He just went on and on about it.  So that’s just an example of how sharing and giving he was.  That’s my story about Chuck… 

We probably appeared together 20 times and most times I would do my hit and be gone and he would do his hit and be gone.  But I had warm relations with not only him but also his band members and his management.  So from top down they were good people.  And that’s the way it is among musicians in DC.  There is a kind of community spirit that is almost palpable. 

To go further, go-go music is communal.  I mean it’s not a virtuoso’s music.  Even though we pay homage to Chuck as an individual, as the godfather, go-go is a group experience music.  And it is groove music, and the groove doesn’t happen without people.  Groove is rhythm we all feel together.  It means were all in this together: everybody in this room, in this club, on this playground, at this festival is feeling something together.  It is not like jazz where you go in the woodshed and practice for years and when you come out you set out to show how accomplished you are as an individual artist.    That’s not what go-go is about.   Go-go has an African denominator which says “We’re all part musician, we all have a voice; we all can sing; we all can dance.  Now let’s all do all of that, all together; and make something that’s bigger than we are as individuals…” 

We should all use our individual voices and talents; join in and groove together: musically, socially, culturally and politically.  And do it until we’re satisfied.  Let’s keep go-go go-going…

© 2012 J. Plunky Branch