Joey Negro on Washington’s go-go scene
Two weeks ago a musician by the name of Chuck Brown passed away, he was widely-regarded as the godfather of go-go. If you don’t know what go-go music is, it’s a derivative of funk and has close ties to hip hop – born in Washington, where it still lives on, go-go came across the Atlantic in the early eighties, but failed to really make its mark on the British music scene. However, it remains an important genre and one which I was keen to know more about. A little while before Chuck died, I spoke to go-go expert Joey Negro, who recently compiled a go-go compilation…
When did you first come across go-go?
I suppose when I bought Chuck Brown ‘Bustin’ Loose’, in about 1980. I used to listen to Paul Gambaccini on Radio 1 and, for the first hour, he would play the number one record in various charts and I remember that because it was the number one record in the soul chart. I don’t know if I liked it straight away, but it grew on me because it was number one for about six weeks and he would play it quite a few times, so when I saw it, I bought it. I didn’t know it was a go-go record, I thought it was just a wicked funk track. Then I read about Trouble Funk in NME, it was around 1983 when there was a big push by Island Records after they’d signed a few of the key players. That’s when everyone was more aware of go-go and that there was a scene in Washington.
So it came to the fore around the early eighties?
I guess yeah, it was around the time when electro had become pretty popular but it was still underground – during that period there was a lot of interesting stuff happening with black music. A lot of the early proto-house stuff, drum machines were starting to come into use more creatively and becoming more sophisticated… but go-go was the opposite of that, it was actually very organic with drummers and live musicians. I think that appealed to some of the people who didn’t like the electro. So, there was a big push, I remember Island Records flew a load of journalists over to Washington and really put a lot of money into trying to break go-go as a chart force – like an alternative to hip hop.
How popular was go-go at its height?
It was big in clubs, but it didn’t go anywhere near radio I don’t think there were any real radio hits there. There wasn’t anything that Radio 1 back then would have considered good radio music, it was more of a thing that you would hear at a club night. Maybe at more commerical places as well as the underground clubs like the Mud Club and the Wag Club – they would be playing go-go alongside hip hop, James Brown-type funk, proto house etc… there were quite a few early hip hop tracks that were heavily go-go influenced.
There seems to be a strong connection between the two, especially in the lyrical delivery.
You had people like Kurtis Blow, who did ‘Party Time’ which was a go-go record. The Real Roxanne did Let’s Go Go, there were a few hip hop influenced go-go tracks that probably did better than the original go-go because the rapping made it a little bit more quirky and radio-friendly I guess. E.U (Experience Unlimited) did have a big hit in the States with a track called Da’ Butt – in the late eighties, from Spike Lee’s School Daze, and that was up there with ‘Bustin’ Loose’ in terms of a record that really crossed over in the States. Later on I think songs like Beyonce ‘Crazy In Love’ and Amerie ‘One Thing’ were influenced because the guy who produced them, Rich Harrison, is from Washington and influenced by go-go. They needed a couple of those back in 1985 to kick things off!
Was there a specific dance that was attached to go-go?
There was a dance called The Wop which is mentioned a lot, which I think was a formation type of dance. The thing about go-go is that it was played in public halls and community centres, where it’s still happening now… which I think is the interesting thing. Bands like Rare Essence and E.U are still playing live regularly and to lots of people, but it’s pretty much unknown outside of Washington.
How did go-go start?
Apparently Chuck Brown was recording with the Soul Searchers in the seventies, supposedly he was saying to his drummer, “Keep going between songs rather than stopping and we’ll just come in”. Then, the drum breaks became longer and people got more into the breaks, and it ended up becoming one long jam that doesn’t stop for two hours… pretty exhausting if you ask me! I remember seeing Chuck Brown and Trouble Funk and looking at the drummer thinking, “That guy must be fit” because it’s a constant, remorseless beat. It’s not too crazy, but it’s just keeping that groove going.
So, when did you see those guys?
The late eighties, when funk, rare groove, hip hop… it all fitted together very well, especially for the more underground clubs. Trouble Funk were coming over here quite a bit, as was Chuck Brown. I worked in Rough Trade in the late eighties and put a little go-go compilation for them, they released a Chuck Brown album which sold a lot better than something that you would consider a specialist genre. The thing is with those bands is that they were exceptional live because that’s where they were coming from, sometimes the recordings didn’t do justice to the live performances.
What was it like seeing them live?
I saw Chuck Brown at The Astoria and Trouble Funk at Hammersmith. What was interesting was that there was such a mixture of sub-cultures coming together as well. You’d had some of the trendy Wag Club types, you’d have more of the Essexy types with long hair… it was that era where you had ecstasy and house music, everyone was getting on, combined with a great performance. Anyone who’s seen Trouble Funk will tell you they’re one of the best bands they’ve ever seen live. They’d been practising for that would tour since forever, it was very percussive and charismatic. I mean those long drum breaks don’t seem to go as long when you’re a hot, sweaty room.
Why do you think, after Island’s big push, it never really reached the heights it could have done and has remained an insular scene in Washington?
They never had the songs I guess. It got pushed too much as the next big thing, unless it does deliver people get a little bit resistant to it. I think there was so much else going at the time and it got kind of absorbed into hip hop, that’s what went onto to be the successful side of go-go. Also a lot of the go-go acts were trying to be too commercial and lost what was good about them, they were making records with drum machines and trying to sound like Run DMC, instead of sounding like what they were good at.
Can you imagine go-go being around for a long while to come then?
So much of the music we listen to now is synthesised and electronic, but I think it’s good to hear that there are still people are playing live – it’s still happening somewhere. In Washington they still have this live band scene, it’s good that there are still groups like this, all around the world, with horn sections and musicians who really play their instruments, new and old. I hope so, scenes like this are to be treasured.
GoGo Get Down compiled by Joey Negro will be available on double CD with full-length versions and released on 7th May through Z Records HERE.Tagged in: Chuck Brown, go-go, go-go compilation, Joey Negro, music, washington
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