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Your Game...Live at the 9:30 Club
Back when Island Records chief Chris Blackwell was flying journalists to Washington, D.C., for guided tours of the city's go-go scene in 1985, locals remained skeptical that their funk vernacular could go global. The music (which has nothing to do with zipper boots of the same name) was simply too rooted in the sweltering live experience--too synonymous with all-night call-and-response dialogues between band and audience, congas and horns, palms and buttcheeks. The "songs" were all breakdowns, the melodies all cheerful commands. And that distinctively slow, deliberate drumbeat might be sustained for up to two hours in concert. Compared with the in-and-out requirements of pop, this was tantric sex.
As it turned out, the industry buzz quickly dissipated, and D.C.'s chunky percussiveness reached most stereos only as rap samples--or in E.U.'s serendipitous collaboration with Salt-N-Pepa, 1988's "Shake Your Thang." The one straight-up go-go smash was E.U.'s other '88 single, "Da Butt," which Spike Lee featured in his movie School Daze nine years after Chuck Brown scored the genre's first R&B breakthrough with "Bustin' Loose." Such were the bookends of go-go's shelf-life as a "craze."
So the dance music of African-American D.C. flourished underground, and there's nothing wrong with that. For outsiders, though, what go-go always cried out for was a good compilation--something leisurely enough to capture the evolution of the patient groove yet edited for pop attention spans. And now we have just this in The Beat: Go-Go's Fusion of Funk and Hip Hop (Liason), a double-disc, 15-act collection that feels like Christmas for funk fans. Kicking off with "Bustin' Loose," and proceeding through two decades of gritty syncopation, the anthology is a testament to the pleasures of secret, local America--and to the unbowed exuberance of a music made by, and for, a population without votes in Congress or hits on MTV2.
For the breadth of selections, we can thank the authors of an eponymous companion history on Billboard Books, a valuable if bookish study that at least gives historical due to Chuck Brown, who launched "the beat" 25 years ago. As the 67-year-old tells it, he lifted the seemingly simple go-go rhythm from Grover Washington Jr.'s "Mr. Magic," which reminded him of an old church beat.
Speaking over the phone from his D.C. home, Brown remembers firing one drummer who couldn't get it right, and appeasing another who could. "He said, 'Wow, I feel so empty,'" Brown laughs, explaining that drummers love to overplay. "I said, 'You feel empty, but look at the floor!" The city was dancing, and it still is.
Brown fills floors even today, picking the blues and croaking sweet soul over that beat twice a week--go-go prizes stamina and endurance above all else. To even come up with a theoretical comparison for the Brown phenomenon, you'd have to imagine, say, Professor Longhair, still alive and packing New Orleans clubs every other day like some Cash Money Millionaire. The go-go godfather is that big and beloved. (A couple of his band members have parents who met at Brown's concerts 30 years ago). And now his latest album, Your Game...Live at the 9:30 Club (Liason) finds him playing his 1988 classic single "2001 (That'll Work)"--a Prince favorite--in a year when history seems to have finally caught up with him.
Speaking of history, if go-go can be traced through Brown, I might as well name its humblest of origins: D.C.'s Lorton prison, which closed last month after 92 years. Lorton was where the then-young North Carolina native paid for his first guitar with five packs of cigarettes while serving time for assault. "Every year for ten years straight I go down and play for the inmates," he says. "And I always see my old buddies."
Brown is getting up there in years himself--audience members call him Pops--but when I ask if he gets tired a few hours into a go-go, he vigorously denies it. The musician seems to enjoy the pre-dawn hours, watching young people show off the latest dance steps. "They're always coming up with new moves," he laughs. "And some nights they pick up my little old country-ass steps. I say, 'Y'all want to dance like old folks? Check me out.'"