How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Go-Go

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.

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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.

Our Readers Say

I'm a go-go convert also. When I moved to DC in 1999, my first effective exposure to go-go (other than EU's "Da Butt", which I never did make the connection until someone told me), was a bunch of go-go covers of the r&b hits of the time. I'd turn on the radio looking for the current r&b and hip hop hits and the stations would be playing all these covers of the songs in go-go style. I wasn't impressed. It was a while before I heard some original go-go songs and it started growing on me.
I'm glad you guys have an open mind to our music considering I'm a 41 yr. old native. You don't have to be a Washingtonian to adapt to the D.C. culture. When I called my cousin in ATL to say he died she's like who is Chuck. I said google him. I wanted to hang the phone up on her but she's pregnant. I was in disbelief b/c Chuck is reknowned all over. One of my fondest memories of Chuck is lying to my mom at 17 that I'm spending the night at my best friend's house which I did but we ended up at the Washington Plaza Hotel to see him and Rare Essence w/a fake ID. That was a great night! He may have lost his life but his spirit still lives on......Luv U Chuck!!!!!!!
WMUC. I must have said that more than Chuck Brown did. I cried and cried and cried when I heard that Chuck Brown died. And though he may have said, don't cry for me, well, what else could i do. i don't know anyone else like him, and i doubt seriously if i ever will. i absolutely love his version of my funny valentine. i guess you start to realize that you are ... well, not just getting older, but you realize the people that shaped who you are. like martin lawrence said: "just ride this train until the wheels fall off."

see - you chuck.

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