The Sound of DC Go-Go in the ’80s
We explore the sound of ’80s go-go from the DC area, with tracks from Little Benny, Trouble Funk and Rare Essence. Drop the bomb!
Liner notes by DJ Soul Sister: This episode of Lost and Found features 1980s go-go from the Washington, DC, area (including parts of Maryland and Virginia), all from the original vinyl pressings. The genre of go-go refers to a style of live, funk-based music indigenous to Washington, DC, consisting of the necessary elements of conga drums, and a lead talker engaging in improvisational call and response with an audience. Live go-go shows highlight long-playing grooves and songs, whether originals, covers or improvisational vamping, bridged by breaks of the congas and other percussion instruments with the drums which “lock” together into a “pocket.” This creates the sense of one nonstop song. In his book Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One, Rickey Vincent wrote, “Go Go bands . . . delivered the strongest, hottest, truest monster funk experience of the decade of the 1980s.” Natalie Hopkinson wrote in her book ‘Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City’, “You also know it’s go-go because the audience is part of the band. Together the musicians onstage and the people below it create the music live – always live – through a dialogue of sounds, movements, and chants.” Kip Lornell and Charles C. Stephenson, Jr., also honed in on a necessary distinction in their book, -The Beat: Go-Go Music from Washington, DC: “Go-go is more than just music . . . [it] provides a voice for members of DC’s often overlooked, much maligned and truly disenfranchised African-American community. Its younger members identify with go-go musicians in much the same way that blues artists once provided a voice for the black community and rappers do today.”
Additional online resources on go-go:
Take Me Out To The Go-Go
Go-Go Forever by Ericka Blount Danois for MTV.com
Interview with Trouble Funk’s Big Tony for RBMA Daily
E.U. - Wind It On Up (1982)
Originally an Earth, Wind & Fire, inspired 1970s funk band known as Experience Unlimited, E.U. shortened its name and focused on the go-go style that was becoming popular in D.C., thanks to Chuck Brown’s 1979 hit “Bustin’ Loose.” This song kicks off the band’s 1982 studio LP, Future Funk.
Redds and the Boys - Hitt’n and Holding Live (mid-1980s)
Named after the band’s guitarist and lead talker, Redds and the Boys was yet another stellar band featuring several of what was an explosion of young (often teenaged) musicians playing go-go music in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia in the 1980s. This selection is another live, long-playing groove, in the true go-go style, and also features a guest appearance by legendary go-go lead talker and trumpeter Little Benny. The year isn’t listed on the album, but it was released between 1983 and 1985.
Hot, Cold Sweat - Meet Me at the Go-Go (1982)
This was another band that started as a more traditional R&B and funk band before switching to go-go in the 1980s. It holds a special place in my heart because it’s the first go-go recording that I ever heard – not in D.C., but on WAIL FM radio in New Orleans (where I grew up), thanks to an effort to distribute and popularize go-go outside of D.C. in the 1980s.
Familiar Faces - Status Quo (1985)
Produced and co-written by keyboardist Ivan Goff, who was also a longtime member of E.U.
Mass Extension - What’s That? (1984)
Originally released on Future Records, this studio recording was re-released the following year as part of Island Records’ work with Maxx Kidd to promote go-go music outside of the D.C. area. Kidd was a go-go music pioneer and proprietor of the independent go-go labels TTED and DETT Records. For the song’s 1985 re-release, the name was changed to “Happy Feet,” which was not only the song’s catchy chorus, but also the name of a popular dance in go-go culture.
Shady Groove - On the Move Live (1985)
Shady Groove was one of the first go-go bands to come from Virginia (along with Ovation Band), likely named after the Greene County community of Shady Grove, VA. Recorded live in the studio to simulate the non-stop feel of a live go-go show.
Expression - Release Pt. 1 (1985)
Recorded in Maryland.
Nature’s Creation featuring Chief Sir Funky - Let’s Fire it Up (1982)
This is a studio recording that was released on three different labels: Gimme Five, Jamtu (which is the pressing that this version comes from), and Sound Makers. The group was led by Donald Banks, who released his own version of Status Quo (see Familiar Faces above) in 1983.
Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers - Sho Yuh Right (Back-It On Up) (1985)
Guitarist, go-go icon, and beloved D.C. hero Chuck Brown is known as the Godfather of Go-Go. He’s credited with helping to start and pioneer the genre, which emerged in the 1970s. The group’s “Bustin’ Loose” became a Billboard #1 R&B hit in 1979, even crossing over to the pop singles chart at #34. Though Brown passed away in 2012, the Chuck Brown Band continues to perform.
Rare Essence - Shoo-Be-Do-Wop (1984)
Rare Essence is another of the major go-go groups who still perform regularly and enjoy large followings. The group’s legendary status is powered, in part, by memories of those who enjoyed their marathon live shows during this time, captured often on P.A. tapes that were taped by audience members or recorded direct from the mixing board, and then distributed among fans. This recording doesn’t capture the band’s non-stop, live sound featuring lead talkers Jas Funk or Little Benny, but does capture the group’s attempt to hone in on a shorter, radio-friendly format.
Little Benny & the Masters - Let Me Show You Medley (1987)
Trumpeter and lead talker “Little Benny” Harley left Rare Essence to start his own group, and this recording comes from their first full-length album. Though it was recorded in the studio, the group stayed true to recreating the non-stop live go-go style on record, making this medley of “Let Me Show You,” “The Message,” and “Hit and Run” one long song. Also considered a go-go pioneer, Harley passed away in 2010, and there’s a street (Little Benny Way) in Northwest D.C. named after him.
Pump Blenders - Talking About Freakbody (1984)
Closing out the show is a selection from the Pump Blenders’ album, Funk the People Live. According to the “Go-Go Glossary” of The Beat: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C. by Kip Lornell and Charles C. Stephenson, Jr., “At the go-go, the freak bodies are the ladies who get the most attention, who dance the best, who have the best figures and wear the sexiest and most current go-go fashions.”