5 years ago, on May 16th 2012, Chuck Brown died. An event that didn’t seem like a shock in the (music)world. Except in Chocolate City, Washington D.C., which was the place of birth for Chuck Brown and the genre of music developed by him: go-go.
Go-go gets its name from the fact that the music goes and goes. Originally the term go-go was used to identify the place where youth had (musical) parties. It was later used for identification of the genre. Go-go is an irresistible combination of funk, blues, gospel, soul and salsa and is instantly recognizable by the polyrhythms and the use of multiple percussive instruments. In between songs the rhythm section (including the percussionists) kept on playing, while the bandleader entertained the audience with call and response chants. The beat is hypnotizing. Go-go turned out to be vital to (the development of) rap, hip-hop, dance and jazz. Miles Davis enlisted (Chuck Brown & The) Soul Searchers’ drummer Ricky Wellman in his live-band. A lot of his beats were sampled in rap and hip-hop songs.
Why did go-go come from Washington? It is not without reason that George Clinton called Washington Chocolate City, because “in a Chocolate City, black is normal”. Public Enemy’s Chuck D. has called go-go “the black CNN”. In any case, go-go paints a perfect picture of inner-city life after the murder of Martin Luther King and before the rise of the crack epidemic and its devastating consequences. Go-go isn’t just dance music. It was also inspiration for commenting on the (living)standards of the black population.
Godfather of go-go
Chuck Brown (composer, guitarist and singer) is the one who developed (the blueprint for) go-go in the early 1970’s. Brown got the idea, to create a kind of music that never stopped, from the rise of disco and the DJ’s at the discotheques, who made sure the audience could dance entire evenings (and nights). The DJ’s sometimes talked (or rapped) over the instrumental parts of the music, making them local celebrities. Brown incorporated that idea in his music and translated that into the call and response chants, as described above. This became immensely popular, partly because every day facts (like birthdays, persons, graduations, marriages, etc.) were woven into the performances. Just as in the discotheques, Chuck Brown’s concerts turned into marathon-sessions, which kept audiences on the dancefloor for hours and hours.
Go-go = Chuck Brown = go-go
Without overstating it, go-go equals Chuck Brown. He single handedly developed and marketed the genre.
Go-go grew popular very fast in the Washington area and competition among various bands was fierce. The breakthrough came in 1978, when Brown released Bustin’ Loose. The momentum wound down after that. In 1984 it seemed an international breakthrough for go-go was imminent when Brown released We Need Some Money. But, once again: no.
Go-go never gained any popularity of any importance in the Netherlands. In Holland the name Trouble Funk, next to Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers, is relatively well-known. Their Trouble Over Here… Trouble Over There from 1987 was well received in Holland.
Chuck Brown very much wanted to record an album with a woman, on which they would share vocals together. That opportunity presented itself in 1992, when he recorded the album The Other Side with (then) unknown talent Eva Cassidy.
In 1987 I got a job at Concerto (Amsterdam’s, still existing, main record store) and there the double-album Live ’87 by Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers went through my fingers. In the store we could play music we liked ourselves. Curious about the record I played it in the store and was immediately grabbed by the beat, the rich instrumentation and the entire feel it had. I purchased the album and have enjoyed it for years. Later on I acquired Any Other Way To Go? on cd. Every listen is great, enjoying We Need Some Money, Go-Go Swing, Midnight Sun, Here We Go Again or the adaptation of Sly Stone’s Family Affair.
On the back of the Live ’87 cover a written piece by D.J. Jay Strongman is included (Strongman was the founder of Flame Records, the label on which Live ’87 was released):
It’s over 75 degrees on a hot summer’s night in downtown Washington D.C. and inside the hangar-like space of a local dance hall the temperature is even hotter. Thousands of eager teenagers are partying down to the percussion–fueled funk of Chuck Brown And The Soul Searchers, the capital city’s no.1 band. The big beat rocks the hall as the kids chant back in response to Chuck’s calls and dedications from the stage, from the soulful jazz of “Harlem Nocturne” to the hip-hop of “The Show”, the Soul Searchers kept that D.C. dance rhythm movin’ an’ groovin! Two and a half sweat-soaked hours later the concert is over, the Godfather of Go-Go has done it again, an exhausted but happy crowd pour out into the night air. This is the experience of Chuck Brown And The Soul Searcher playing live, putting the go into Go-Go, the fun into funk.
Chuck Brown should be greatly missed in the music world. Unfortunately, go-go remained a local Washington phenomenon. Chuck Brown said: “It’s about love, the communication between performer and audience. When you’re on stage, the people put that love to you and you give it back. There’s no other music like it”.
No argument here. Give it a chance!