U Street Reacts to Chuck Brown’s Death: “When He Plays, He Has Meaning”
You could hear U Street NW learning of the news of Chuck Brown's death this afternoon as stores and drivers flipped on their radios one by one. By 6 p.m., the sounds of conga drums and roll calls had reached block-party volume. Black Broadway was sending Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go and the soul of D.C. for a generation, off in style.
At Ben’s Chili Bowl, go-go was pumping and would not stop any time soon. Several people compared Brown's passing to the death of Michael Jackson. Staff expected big crowds tonight, and people were already streaming in to reminisce.
Jerry Smith works at Ben’s. He jumped around the little room in the back where a crowd of reporters from Al-Jazeera was watching Fox 5’s coverage of Brown’s death. Smith hopped around tables, pointing to several pictures scattered around the room and remembering each of Brown’s visits to Ben’s. “We were all like family,” Smith said.
William Lampkin was working behind the counter, flipping half-smokes. He’s a fan, but he’s younger, and he’s never seen Brown live. Now, he never will. “I guess this is an opportunity I missed out on,” he said. But he’s optimistic about go-go's future: “Through his music, [Brown] already inspired as much as he possibly could.”
At Ben’s Next Door, Al Brown (no relation) was drinking a beer. He saw Chuck Brown in concert with Erykah Badu last summer at Merriweather Post Pavillion. “He took up so much time they had to pull the plug on her,” Brown said. “It was her show—she was the headliner—but he stole the show.”
Farther down the counter, Yvonne Perry, Robbin Sparks, and a man named Chris, who declined to give his last name, rattled off memories, praises, and analyses.
Perry grew up in the District listening to go-go, sneaking out of the house every Wednesday for shows. Brown even played at a childhood friend’s prom. “Matter of fact,” Perry said, “I’m taking the next three days off. He’s part of my family.”
The three lamented the turn the go-go scene has taken in recent years, as Brown, Rare Essence, and E.U. made way for a younger crop of groups. “Now you have go-go bands that are like bumbumbumbum,” Chris said. “But Chuck Brown—when he plays, he has meaning.”
Perry chimed in: “His meaning to life was having good peace and love.” Today’s younger crowd is driven by money, she explained. Chuck Brown used to play in alleys and parks for free, but today’s musicians charge for their concerts. “They don’t really know what they listen to,” Perry said. “They just dance to the music.”
Brown crossed lines other go-go artists don’t, Sparks said. His appeal was multigenerational and multiracial. He played everywhere: alleys, concert venues, even in Virginia. He knew his audience and stayed close to home, she said.
“A real go-go band talks about the inner city of D.C.,” Chris said. “Now they just try to make money. They used to play in parks.”
Sparks stopped me before I left: If you remember one thing about Chuck Brown, she said pointedly, it has to be his concert last June on the U.S. Capitol lawn. “He had the NSO playing go-go,” she said in awe.
By 6:03 p.m., even some of the newer additions to U Street were blaring Brown's music. Lovely Yogurt at 10th and U had Brown on the radio, but cashier Bro Demissie had never heard of the godfather—or of go-go. “We just—WPGC, so…” he said.
At the intersection of 14th and W streets, 19-year-old Delon, who would not give his last name, sat on a fence, head in his hands. He’d never seen Brown up close, but he grew up with his music. “It’s tragic,” he said. “Like 9/11. It’s tragic ’cause everybody’s so sad.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery