The Beat Don’t Stop: TV One’s Long-Awaited Go-Go Documentary Airs Tonite

By Ericka Blount Danois

There’s a spiritual aspect to D.C.’s homegrown go-go music that Doug E. Fresh hits on in TV One’s documentary “The Beat Don’t Stop” that airs tonight at 8pm EST. In the documentary, Doug E. Fresh can’t help but dance as he talks, just reliving the experience of listening to go-go for the first time.

Go-go is a contagious participatory experience that is difficult to explain in this show-don’t-tell genre. The genre is rooted in African traditions of call-and-response, improvisation, lead talkers who act as conductors, and African instruments like the congas, cowbells and timbales. Like Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, the beat goes on and on in a live show until the band is finished.

“The Beat Don’t Stop” gets the free-fun-loving spirit of the music, while also giving the history and bringing the voices of the musicians to the screen.

As I described it in a piece I wrote for MTV experiencing go-go live is the closest thing that a non-churchgoer could find to catching the spirit at a Pentecostal church and as close to a juke joint as a saved soul could experience.

A few years ago I was in the classroom of predominantly Latin American students in D.C. The teacher had invited Experience Unlimited’s Sugar Bear to speak to the children about his music career as part of “Teach the Beat: Go-Go Goes to School,” where artists are looking to infuse D.C.’s rich and unique tradition of go-go into the curriculum.

He was answering questions from the 4th graders — “How much did your guitar cost?” and proclamations: “I want to be a singer, Mr. Sugar Bear!” There are genuine “oooohs” and “ahhs” about his travels around the world as a musician. When he plays the video for E.U.’s hit “Doin’ Da Butt,” butt jokes commence for the next few minutes as they dance in their seats.

What’s clear is their immediate enthusiasm for the music. A few months earlier, at Tyler elementary school in Washington, D.C., during a “Teach the Beat” visit, the only white child in the kindergarten classroom catches the spirit, gets up and does a go-go shake dance. “Now that’s a go-go dance!” Sweet Cherie, who has played with Pieces of a Dream and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers says to her.

Cherie likens a go-go to a birthday party to a kindergartner who wants to know what one is. All the other students nod their heads in understanding.

In October 2019, D.C. Council passed legislation naming go-go as the official music of D.C. Most recently go-go bands played on the newly christened Black Lives Matter Plaza. Both were wins — the first — a response to gentrifiers trying to stop the music on a corner of 7th St and Florida Avenue where it had played for decades and the second a response to the current occupant of the White House suggesting that National Guard troops should attack their own citizens.

“The Beat Don’t Stop,” premieres on TV One at 8pm EST.

“The Beat Don’t Stop,” and go-go music’s story is an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement, executive producer Deirdre Leake-Butcher told a reporter. Trying to mute the music can be added to the list of national cultural wars — from segregated concerts to having white people replace black singers on the cover of their albums.

And local culture was as well in a city with oversight by the federal government and license plates that read “taxation without representation.”

Journalist Alona Wartofsky refers to it in the documentary as a music genre that has “systematically been muted by the government and white establishment for decades,” citing the uptick in violence in the 1980s and 1990s in D.C. as an excuse to blame the violence on the music and not the societal conditions that created the violence. Local leaders have almost always supported the music.

Former mayor Marion Barry’s summer youth employment program employed young musicians ages 14–21 years old on the Showmobile, a large tractor-trailer with a stage for go-go bands to perform. The Showmobile traveled around to various neighborhoods all around the city. Barry would show up unexpectedly at venues all over the city. He was equally supportive of the punk scene, remembers Johnny Temple, a former member of the punk band Girls Against Boys. Many of the early shows, particularly at venues like the 9:30 club downtown, featured punk bands like State of Alert, Nuclear Crayons and Bad Brains performing on the same bill with go-go bands.

“I remember we performed at the Reeves Center when they put Barry’s name on the building,” Anwan Glover, better known as Big G, founder of Backyard Band told me recently and who also appears in the documentary. “Mayor Barry told me your band is gonna go far. He never turned his back on us.”

Cathy Hughes, the executive director of the documentary and owner and founder of TV One, was the first to play the youth-oriented music, when other stations refused, on the first station she owned WOL-AM. “Giving voice to the voiceless,” she says in her appearance in the documentary.

The documentary also delves into the multitude of reasons why go-go, which began during the same time period as hip-hop, didn’t expand past the District.

There were many record executives interested in go-go music.

Chris Blackwell’s Island Records came calling working with Max Kidd’s local label T.T.E.D. Records to distribute go-go records.

Sony and Polydor signed bands. Trouble Funk signed to Sugarhill Records, and recorded a hit with Kurtis Blow entitled, “Party Time.” But in the end, all of the results were the same.

“Go-go didn’t break out of D.C. for the same reasons it was successful in D.C.” said music historian Iley Brown. “Record companies won’t change their format. Three-and-a-half minutes, play on the radio, verse, chorus, break, bridge, verse, vamp, finish.”

Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers probably had the most commercial success, but it was still primarily with independent labels and categorizing go-go was still problematic. Brown’s 1979 hit, “Bustin’ Loose” was a hit on the R&B charts.

The bands covered more ground by working independently. Young people led the way by selling the tapes they recorded on their boom boxes at the shows. The bands were playing every night of the week in the city. A tape that was recorded on Monday was old news by Tuesday. There was a market for these tapes that could sell for $10-$20. Stores like The Wiz, and other mom-n-pop stores popped up to sell tapes. Hustlers would sell tapes between 12th and F. Sts. downtown.

Initially, these tapes helped to market the groups, like mixtapes. They were being traded like baseball cards. “The bands weren’t tripping off not making money off these tapes,” remembers Woody Wood, who opened a store, InnaCity Go-Go on Georgia Ave. to sell tapes. “They were like 18, 19 years old and playing at the Capital Center. We were just having fun.”

Bands started recording their own “P.A.” tapes, recording directly from their public announcement systems so that it was clear. It would become the dominant medium to move the music. Major records stores like Kemp Mill and Tower Records sold P.A. tapes locally. The band, Northeast Groovers would put out a P.A. tape as soon as their show was over. They would run the tape through the machine, which took about six minutes, and sell it right as the crowd was leaving.

The genre grew into a multi-million dollar, almost primarily black-owned industry,” author Natalie Hopkinson notes in the documentary.

Ultimately, “The Beat Don’t Stop” showcases the music — a fusion of Latin, gospel, funk and jazz — and the artists that were empowered to play and continue to play it.

Big G said he was introduced to the music in his own neighborhood growing up.

“Pump Blenders, Redds and the Boys, Little Benny. I fell in love with Junkyard. My mom used to play Chuck Brown’s Bustin’ Loose,” Big G recalled by phone recently. “They would perform on 14th Street’s baskebtall court early evenings before the sun would set — that was our music, the heartbeat of our city.”

“Teddy Riley told me several times to my face that he got his sound from go-go and he once upon a time wanted to be a member of Rare Essence,” said DJ Kool by phone.

D.C. heads will enjoy old-school footage of local stars like Lil’ Benny and the Masters and Go-Go Live at the Capital Centre in “The Beat Don’t Stop.” And when they hear James Funk of Rare Essence ask:

Are y’all tired yet??!!!

“Heeeelll no!!!” the crowd yells.

Are ya’ll ready to quit????!!

“Heelll no!!!!” the crowd shouts.

Then put your Gucci watch on, synchronize the time and let’s rock!!

The cowbells from “Do You Know What Time It is,” come in sending the crowd into a dancing frenzy.

Go-go may not have made it out of D.C., but that point, like every night for a D.C. audience, seemed like less of a missed opportunity and more of a source of pride.

“Juju would always say you know why folks from go-go don’t make it big? Because they think they already are. They are ghetto superstars. And that’s fine with them,” go-go historian Kato Hammond told me. “Go-go is something that D.C. has and no one else ever will.”

The Beat Don’t Stop airs on TV One at 8pm EST on June 21st.

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