JYB circa 1986

The Record Labels Descended On DC to Devour Go-Go…and Go-Go Won

In the mid-80s Go-Go was poised to be the next ‘big thing’ but it never happened…thankfully

Big business always wins.

Big business in urban development takes the form of Gentrification. In that regard, former clubs and arenas that could have been landmarks, become lofts or retail stores.

Big business in the music industry translates into bands, record labels, and music scenes submitting to and being controlled by the Big Three (Universal, Sony, & Warner).

In the mid-80s record labels were in search of the ‘the next big thing.’ Although Disco had appeared to be a fad (it really just morphed into something else) Reggae, Punk, & Rap had endured and had begun to bring a decent financial return.

That ‘next big thing’ appeared to be another musical scene that emerged in the mid to late 70s. That scene was Go-Go.

When the music industry becomes involved, from Athens to Seattle, it usually spells disaster. The labels send in scouts that scoop up every and any band they can find, package it, promote it to holy hell, make it a fad, and then POOF, the scene is either gone or it morphs into an easy to package product.

As we talked about here, Rap in it’s original context is mostly unknown and rarely listened to because it was indigestable. There was no structure. But the energy and the spirit were there. So slowly but surely, original Rap was chiseled down to what we have today.

Record labels felt that they could do the same with Go-Go. They failed. Because of that, Go-Go music endures. How did Go-Go survive where other scenes didn’t? Why did the music fail to die? And what can we learn from Washington D.C.’s homegrown music?

Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers

Generally speaking, I hate the comparisons between Rap music and Go-Go. I don’t think most of them hold water. Outside of the fact that the music was shaped by the demands of the audience, not much else is the same. Go-Go is a music created by bands — groups of eight to nine individuals — playing instruments.

When Go-Go first started, groups like E.U. and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers were already accomplished musicians with albums under their belt (Never forget, the Break beat “Ashley’s Roachclip” was a Soul Searchers song).

The only place that Rap and Go-Go are aligned is their years of public emergence.

As with most things dealing with our people, we have to rely on oral history which places the first years of Go-Go in and around 1975. Chuck Brown was one of many Top 40 Cabaret bands. He was a year off of Salt of The Earth (the album that “Ashley’s Roachclip” was on). Noticing that in between songs the dance floor would clear out, Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers decided to continue to play between songs.

And this is where the comparison of Hip-Hop reigns true. The audience preferred the parts that were played IN BETWEEN the songs, so Brown played that part longer, and Go-Go was born (also like Hip-Hop, it didn’t have a name). Soon bands like E.U. (who had the Jazz/Soul album …Free Yourself out at the time) adjusted to playing more of that “part” as well..

One of the first bands to take that “part” and expand it was started in a Congress Heights’ basement by the name of Rare Essence (whom we’ll discuss later). Their emphasis was less on Top 40 songs and almost entirely on that “part,” at the time referred to as ‘the beat.’ Another young group that would expand on that idea was Trouble Funk (more on them later as well). By 1979, the scene was set.

Usually the thing that causes a musical land grab is a hit.

Not in 1979. Then a hit may have spawned imitators but in February of 1979 record labels were terrified of fads and novelty records. The Disco bubble was months away from going pop but the end was in sight. As we illustrated in Just Don’t Call it House, what people consider Disco was the time between 75 and 79 where the industry surrounding the music had ballooned to a $4 Billion dollar a year industry.

But the backlash was strong and by the time the Disco Sucks Record Burning Ceremony took place, independent record labels were closing left and right and major ones were retreating back into their tried and true segmented corners.

Because of this, “Bustin’ Loose,” Go-Go’s version of “Rapper’s Delight,” was a smash hit…that was followed by……………nothing.

Chuck Brown’s song was #1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Singles chart from mid February to mid March having unseated Parliament’s “Aqua Boogie” (no small feat, that jawn is the jizam). People had a hard time figuring out the special sauce of “Bustin’ Loose.” Sure, the drumming of Ricky Wellman was grooving but it was his beats accompanied by the conga playing of Gregory Gerran that gave it that swing.

“Bustin’ Loose” was released on Source Records, a Black-owned label founded by music industry pioneer Logan Westbrooks. Brown followed that with the album Funk Express, also on Source Records but that album had no “Bustin’ Loose” type song. Go-Go’s first breakout hit was a one-off deal.

I was just writing about how difficult it is to find concrete dates that Television programs aired. Well, I ran into the same issue here as well.

Luckily for me, I know that I’m not suffering from a case of revisionist history. My entry into Go-Go, like my entry into Futbol, came from a one time viewing of a television show — in this case, That’s Incredible (despite the fact I keep telling myself it was Kids are People Too).

But very much like in that above video, the clip on That’s Incredible was of seven kids who couldn’t been no older than me and my brother Ade, playing buckets and toy horns on the streets of D.C.

No idea the words they were saying, still remember the melody. The group was aptly named Junk Yard Band. It’s after (we lived in) North Carolina and before England so I’m placing it some time around 1980.

Of course this is hindsight, but that performance on That’s Incredible was more Go-Go than the songs that KDKO was playing. I’m actually shocked that I knew songs like E.U.’s “Knock ’Em Out Sugar Ray” and Trouble Funk’s “E Flat Boogie.” I guess they were close enough to R&B that DJ Daddio didn’t mind exposing his Denver constituents to those songs on the weak 1510 AM signal. In my estimation, recorded Go-Go was very similar to recorded Rap — it didn’t resemble the true Go-Go experience.

Since Junk Yard is my entry, I’m gonna stick with the JYB as a frame of reference.

It seems that every time Go-Go makes a step out into the world, it takes two steps back into the District and shortly thereafter it changes form.

The Go-Go that existed before “Bustin Loose” was a closer cousin of R&B. Those songs were more radio friendly in sound and structure. I would assume because bands like The Soul Searchers and E.U. were already proper bands equipped at making songs with recordings to show for it.

But the music that Rare Essence was making was focused on “the beat.” Rare Essence gained popularity by playing as many of Mayor Marion Barry’s Showmobile performance series shows as possible. And Trouble Funk? Trouble Funk was scorching the earth with their hard-driven grooves. If Rare Essence was “The People’s Band,” then Trouble Funk was “The Fan Favorites.” So while Chuck Brown was touring with Bustin’ Loose, Trouble Funk were easing into The Soul Searchers’ vacated throne.

And Trouble Funk made hits. Songs like “Pump it Up” and “Drop the Bomb” didn’t just ring out in the Nation’s Capital. Those songs shook butts out in the Mile High City and more importantly for this writing, they made noise in NYC.

(Trouble Funk also released “Straight Up Funk, Go-Go Style” in 81, the first REAL Go-Go recording but I don’t think that it made Nation-wide impact)

Wanna hear Trouble Funk when they were going strength to strength? Click on this here link to listen to the Side Two of Saturday Night: Live in Washington DC. Hear that crowd? So-called old school Rap fans might recognize those percussions.

Trouble Funk’s Emmett Nixon, Mack Carey, & Timothy David deserve total credit for LL’s “Rock the Bells” and those Hurby Azor produced tracks for Salt N Pepa (“My Mic Sounds Nice”/ “I’ll Take Your Man”) & Kid N Play (“Rolling with Kid N Play”), not to mention the opening of “Fight the Power.”

That’s why it comes as a shock to me whenever I read Chris Blackwell, of Reggae exploitation fame, was turned on to Go-Go by Chuck Brown’s “We Need Some Money.” “…Money” may have been a banger, but Trouble Funk had Rapper status in the early to mid 80s.

Meanwhile Junk Yard was transitioning from a novelty kids-playing-buckets-and-toy-instruments act to a possible contender. And it was a packed field. For starters, Junk Yard was opening up for Redds & The Boys, a group founded by Anthony “Redds” Williams who sometimes was an alternate guitar player in Rare Essence and Redds nem were pretty large. But it wasn’t just DC bands.

Go-Go had spread into Maryland & Virginia (the DMV). Virginia had bands like Ovation & Shady Groove, while Capital Heights, Maryland had the highly popular Ayre Rayde (some say they were THE band of 85) and Oxon Hill, Maryland had a band that started with classmates at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Prophecy Band, which happens to be the band that bassist Me’shell Ndege’Ocello started out in.

There were countless bands between 1980 and 1985. You had bands that were around from the days before Go-Go took over but adjusted quickly like The Mighty Peacemakers and Mass Extinction, you had the Chance Band, Petworth Band, Pump Blenders, Reality Band, you had Class Band (whom some say was THE band of 84 — everyone loved Tyrone “Tidy” Callahan on the mic), and the list goes on. One thing is for sure, bands like Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers, E.U., and Trouble Funk were a league apart.

Chuck Brown maintained legend status, E.U. went on tour in 83, and Trouble Funk was large enough to open up for the P-Funk Reunion on March 28, 1983. Notice I didn’t mention Rare Essence? That’s because Rare Essence was a cut above the rest as well. Professionally ran, RE always stood apart and that would play a major role in what took place in the years 84–86.

Maxx Kidd at the barbershop in between sessions at Shrine, taken by a member of The Counts mid 1960s. photo courtesy of Kevin Coombe

Again, I hate to make the Hip-Hop/Go-Go comparisons, but in order for you to understand Maxx Kidd, I have to.

Before Russell Simmons joined on with Rick Rubin and started Def Jam, he ran one of the biggest management operations in NYC, RUSH Entertainment. “Rolling with RUSH” was a thing. If you were down with RUSH, then you were getting the top of the line treatment. Often times, it was assumed acts were on Def Jam because they were so closely associated with Russell Simmons and RUSH.

Well…that’s what Maxx Kidd was to early to mid 80s Go-Go. Wanted to get your songs played on the radio? Kidd was your man. Wanted to have professionally recorded singles or albums? You would jump on to Kidd’s TTED record label.

Maxx Kidd was getting his acts played on New York radio in a time when New York radio barely played rap. And it was through Kidd’s efforts that Island record man, Chris Blackwell came to hear Chuck Brown’s “We Need Some Money.” After hearing the song in New York and that it was making noise in Europe, Blackwell sought out Maxx Kidd in July of 1984. Kidd invited him down to DC.

That was the beginning.

It might be hard to understand why the record labels swarmed the Nation’s Capital in hopes of finding G0-Go Gold, but as we explained in The Infiltration of Black Rap, even a minor hit of 150,000 records sold could yield a great return.

When Nelson George wrote “Go-Go Music Ready To Go Global” discussing Blackwell’s deal with Max Kidd…

Washington, D.C.’s polyrhythmic “go-go” music, once a black underground dance phenomenon, is about to receive major domestic and international exposure via a distribution deal with Island Records and a proposed film documenting the scene. Nelson George. Billboard Magazine, 9 Mar. 1985, pg 65.

…the Go-Go Gold Rush began.

The April 27th issue of Billboard illustrated how serious this rush was:

Further testimony to go-go’s “hot” status is the fact that Atlantic Records chairman Ahmet Ertegun has been spending time in Washington, initially bypassing managers and agents and going directly to area recording studios. He dropped by three studios here and told surprised owners that he wanted “the best stuff you can send me…” Bill Holland. Billboard Magazine, 27 Apr. 1985, pg 76.

Outside of the acts that were signed through the Maxx Kidd deal (E.U., Trouble Funk, Chuck Brown, Mass Extension, The Yuggies*, Redds & The Boys, & Hot, Cold, Sweat), Little Benny and the Masters signed with Elektra, Rare Essence joined on with PolyGram, and pulling up the rear, Junk Yard signed with Def Jam.

The ‘paper of record,’ the New York Times dedicated 1,550 words (“Capital’s Go-Go Bands Keep The City in Motion,” 26 May 1985) to the scene, Spin Magazine had Barry Michael Cooper do a three page write up (“Kiss Me Before You Go Go,” June 1985), and it appeared all of the buzz would culminate with the release of Chris Blackwell’s D.C. version of The Harder They Come. Boy, was that wrong.

There was a way that this movie could have succeeded. But it seems that no one had any interests in doing that at all.

So we’re clear, there has never been a fictional film or television show that did the early Rap scene any justice either. Wild Style was authentic…but outside of being poorly done, there was nothing there. I don’t even have to talk about those films that came out in 1984.

I finally got to watch Good to Go and it was just as bad as I imagined it. Fab Five Freddy leads a gang of junkies as they snatch chains, knock Hari Krishnas to the ground, and terrorize motorists all in the name of getting their next high.

Meanwhile, Art Garfunkle plays a journalist under extreme pressure to find a story. He finds it in the exploits of the junkies but mistakenly associates their actions with the Go-Go. There’s shootouts. Stand-offs. It makes no sense.

But that’s whatever.

What sucks the most is that the music scenes, which are supposed to be the selling point, are lame. Instead of letting the groups perform live and let the action happen naturally, the groups lip-synced to recordings. The audience looks scripted.

If I were watching Good to Go and knew nothing about Go-Go, I would have never liked the music. So let’s look at the many ways OUTSIDE of the story that caused the movie to fail by making quick comparisons with The Harder They Come.

First of all, the story of The Harder They Come has been simplified like a mug. Sure, Chris Blackwell was involved, but the movie was written, produced, and directed by another white Jamaican, Perry Henzell. The project was a pet project of Henzell and he took complete and total ownership of it.

No such character existed in the production of Good to Go. The original director, Don Letts, was from England. When he was fired, Blaine Novak, also not a Washingtonian, took over. Novak not only didn’t take ownership of the film, he didn’t even bother to show up for the Washington, D.C. premiere.

I have too many detractors in Washington . Why should I come back for them? I’ve been made to feel very unwanted there. Blaine Novak.

And, unlike The Harder They Come, there was no appealing central character. Why no one sought out the Jimmy Cliff of Go-Go is beyond me. Surely Go-Go was (and is) overflowing with dynamic personalities. Not to mention, there was no character development for any of the band members. They might as well had been the band in Chalmun’s Cantina.

Worst of all, the film’s style was out of wack with the times. Good to Go seemed like it would have fit better in the 70s — the same time that The Harder They Come was released.

At that time, exploitation films in general, Blaxploitation ones in particular, were in vogue so it’s understandable why the film was marketed in the US the way that it was. Marketers applied that same aesthetic to Jamaica, and with a star like Jimmy Cliff as the lead, that approach was sure to put butts in the seats. That may not have been Henzell’s intent (it’s why he took over distribution) but it was certainly of the time.

Good to Go was slated to be released in August of 85, while the iron was still hot, but Maxx Kidd, Island, and some of his bands had a falling out. When the movie finally premiered in late July of 1986, enough bad press and bad blood was out there that the film couldn’t do anything other than fail. And fail it did.

Rare Essence escaped that debacle. Not falling under the Maxx Kidd umbrella did have a privilege or two. Sadly, Junk Yard got trapped in their own failed god awful movie universe. When you click on that hyperlink for Good to Go, off to the right (if you’re on a lap or desktop, and below if you’re on a mobile device) is perhaps one of the worst things ever committed to celluloid. I’m talking about Tougher than Leather.

Thankfully, I never saw the movie in the theater but when I stumbled across it on YouTube I decided to give it a whirl. Yo. Awful from start to finish. Sayyed Munajj and myself even put up an imaginary wager on if I could watch it to the end. Once I started suffering though, I had to bring it to completion. Not going to talk about the plot or anything that went on in that movie.

Suffice it to say, Tougher than Leather was also delayed…by two years and sure Run DMC took a knock because of that but it was Junk Yard who suffered the most. Aside from the fact that the band was relegated to one scene, the song they played, “Sardines” was, you guessed it, two years old. Incidentally, “Sardines” is the song that Junk Yard is most known for — a song that blew up despite Def Jam’s disinterest in the group and the single.

Well, by the time it was 1988 and nothing has happened for us. We’re thinking that it’s time for us to get out of this contract ’cause we can do nothing by ourselves. So we started proceedings to get out of this contract. We were in our option year, which made it easy to get out of. Moe Shorter

In comparison, Junk Yard’s suffering was longer than all the other groups. Little Benny only released one song, “Who Comes to Boogie” before being dropped by Elektra. The Maxx Kidd, TTED/Island deal saw a couple of albums released and then that was over. And Rare Essence, man, PolyGram squeezed an awful song, “Flipside” out of them produced by Patrick Adams which, on paper looks good, Adams has worked with many of the greats, but in reality it was a bad combination. Adams knew Jack about Go-Go.

Once again, Go-Go would retreat back home.

You mention Go-Go to most people, all they know is “Da Butt,” it’s where Go-Go starts and ends with the general populace. Enough has been written about that song released in April of 88 that I don’t need to say anything further here.

The majority of what made that song stick with the populace, aside from E.U. performing it in School Daze (finally, Go-Go was featured in a good movie), was Spike Lee’s memorable video. Spike, at the time was firing on all cylinders and his marketing abilities were second to none. The casting, the t-shirts, the hats, everything about that video was right.

E.U. was snapped up by Virgin and released Livin’ Large…a non-Go-Go album. And that may have been good thing for some people who wanted smooth R&B songs like “Taste of Your Love” but the rest of us desired something else. We were expecting that heat that we saw on BET.

Historically BET didn’t play Go-Go (despite being based in Washington, D.C.) but late at night they would play clips from Go-Go Live at the Capital Centre, a concert performance excellently directed by Sheldon Shemer, in front of an audience of 14,000, dancing and singing patrons. I never saw Rare Essence, Chuck Brown, Junk, or Hot, Cold, Sweat’s performances, never really saw all of E.U.’s set. But what I did see, tape, and watch over and over, was the “Go Ju Ju” performance…let me drop that below so you can marvel at it before you proceed.

As you can see in this clip, “Da Butt” and all the songs that became hits were a far cry from the actual experience of Go-Go. Not only does the music sound different (better), you can’t replicate the audience at 3.26 and lord knows nothing touches the crowd at 8.56 in. Had the performances in Good to Go been like THIS….it would have been a totally different movie.

Over the next few years, Junk Yard would move to the forefront of the pecking order, bringing their unique style honed over a decade performing. They would strip away almost all vestiges of Top 40, introduce two more microphones, a rapper and a singer, and their pocket would influence many of the younger bands who would completely alter the music.

Scientists may be able to recreate fission, but recreating the atmosphere of a Go-Go might be akin to actually capturing lightening…literal lightening in a bottle. Ain’t gonna happen (But we will discuss in another article the closest equivalent…later, man).

A recent Nola article spoke about the rise in the Second Line industry in New Orleans. Second lines are given for various reasons with the most common now being the wedding. Streets are shut down. People parade behind the band. You seen the videos.

The heart of the Second Line — the Brass Bands. For the past two decades the Brass Bands have taken on influences other than traditional jazz, they’re even written of as Funk Brass Bands — bands that take from Funk and Hip-Hop.

When I hear bands like Stooges or TBC Brass Band, I hear a kindred spirits of Go-Go. The drums, the syncopated rhythms, it’s so African. It’s so us.

You can go on YouTube and listen to clips or go to iTunes and buy their recordings. Despite the polarizing effect of songs like “Let Your Mind Be Free,” you never see or hear people talking about what it will take to “break” Brass Bands or if Brass Bands will survive. You know why? Music is a part of New Orleans’ culture.

And guess what? Musicianship is a part of the culture in the DMV. Generation after generation young kids are taking up instruments. All my young cousins and their friends play (They even have their own band, Just Us Just Listen).

If the money of the Record Industry had of set in when “Bustin’ Loose” was climbing its way up the Billboard charts or if Chris Blackwell had of been successful at the commodification of the scene in 85, maybe the music wouldn’t be ingrained in the people. Luckily both didn’t happen.

What Go-Go has to fend off is the influence of Rap. While the Brass Bands of New Orleans may use some influences of Rap, that hasn’t affected the artist’s appreciation for the tradition from whence they came.

Since Junk Yard grew in stature and influenced the generations that followed them, Go-Go has been moving away from its foundation. There’s more chance of that ruining the music than any outside forces. But despite all of people’s lament for the days of old, Go-Go continues; confounding the older generations, reinvigorating the scene, and scaring off Record execs.

Keep it up, Go-Go. You could have easily gone the way of Grunge before Grunge was even a known (or labeled) thing. Classic clubs and arenas that Go-Go once played in may have given way to gentrification —the once-famous Ibex club is now lofts and the Washington Coliseum (aka the Uline Theater) may be DCs REI Flagship store — but it doesn’t matter.

We’re not buying all that Go-Go being pushed to Maryland stuff either. Go-Go’s been performed in Maryland as long as there’s been Go-Go. Hell, if anything Go-Go was BORN in Maryland — at Palmer Park, MD’s Club Lebaron — to be exact.

And Go-Go is still here. Don’t pay attention to what the media is saying Go-Go, you won. It wasn’t by a knock-out and you didn’t win on points. You won by forfeiture. But hey…a ‘W’ is a ‘W’ and you lived to fight another day.

*I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of The Yuggies, nor have I found any info on them. Apparently they were the all-woman band that proceeded Pleasure…dunno. Hopefully, someone can help me out.

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