I disliked go-go the first time I heard it. And many, many times after that.
It was summer, and it was hot, and it was nighttime, and I was 17 years old and had just moved to D.C. to start my freshman year at Howard University. The music was blasting out of a car on Georgia Avenue, and it was off, to my California ears—just a raucous collection of stuttering beats that forced you to listen.
In 2002, all I knew about go-go was what upperclassmen told me as they laughed derisively: “Oh, that’s go-go. It’s the natives’ music.” I’d never heard anything like it, and I didn’t like it. My ears were used to steel drums and soft guitars and all the terrible music the radio played in the late ’90s. And as I had no friends who were “natives” at the time—somehow I’d ended up in a suite with two other Californians and a Floridian—I spent much of my first year of school thinking go-go was just another weird predilection of the District’s.
That summer, I went home to California. I hung out with my family, got my fill of the food I missed, and took longer and longer drives alone through Northern California fields while dreaming about going back to D.C.
My first night back, I was settled into my dorm in LeDroit Park, and for the first time, I smiled a little when I heard a go-go song coming out of someone’s car.
By the end of 2004, Rare Essence’s cover of Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me” was such a big hit in the area that local stations were playing it in their regular rotations. I was still prejudiced and complained to my friend from Florida about it. She pointed out, “This is a way better version.”
That’s when I started listening. Somehow Simpson’s so-so lyrics took on an entirely new tone when performed by a singer who could actually blow. And the alt-rockiness transferred beautifully to a cover that rocked even harder.
But I wouldn’t say I was a fan, yet.
After my last year of school, I moved to New Jersey for work. That October, I drove down to D.C. for Howard’s homecoming celebration. The windows of my car were open, and, yes, go-go was playing out of somebody’s vehicle. Suddenly it felt like I was home again. I’m not sure if it was nostalgia or maturity or some combination of both, but that’s when I started hearing go-go for the art form it is. It’s made to get you moving, to transport you briefly from where you are. If you’re sitting in traffic at night on Florida Avenue, that’s a very good thing.
I began to explore the genre after that. I sought it out whenever I was homesick in New Jersey, familiarizing myself with the lions of go-go, finding Chuck Brown’s incomparable work, listening to E.U. and Rare Essence, and closing my eyes to get back to those hot nights in D.C. when I was young and dumb and had nothing more to worry about than what I’d wear to a house party.
When I moved back to the District two years ago—as I always knew I would when I graduated—I drove around a lot, alone, at night, just looking at all the changes. One thing that hadn’t changed? The sound of go-go streaming from cars.
On the day Chuck died, the only beats streaming from all those cars were, of course, the Godfather’s. And my reception of the hard drums couldn’t have been any more different from my first impressions. In the space of a few blocks, several cars I passed were blasting “Block Party,” and “Go-Go Swing” and “Bustin’ Loose” in loud tribute to the man who helped D.C. find its own sound. I nodded my head and bobbed along.