Soundtracking the emergency: Is there space for climate change in dance music?
David Lee aka Joey Negro released a compilation album of gogo tunes on the Z Records label earlier this year. The CD is a mammoth and rare retrospective of Washington DC’s spectrum of ghetto funk. If you don’t have it, here is Joey Negro’s top ten go-go funk records of all time.
What is go-go?
Go-go is a localised brand of funk that developed in Washington during the late 70s/early 80s. It’s distinguished by a very percussive bumpy beat, call and answer party chants, spacey sound fx and raucous live feel. It started more as a live phenomenon. Legend has it that go-go godfather Chuck Brown coined the term go-go and invented the style. The story goes that Chuck was playing a concert in D.C. and after finishing a song he saw the dance floor thin out as people went to the bathroom or outside to smoke. He didn’t want them leaving so he turned to his drummer and said, “go, go”, urging him to keep playing. Chuck figured if the groove kept on going the crowd would keep on dancing. He was right. And go-go funk was born. As time went by the beat between the songs developed into its own sound. One of the more creative aspects of go-go is its resourceful, make-do-and-mend aesthetic, which meant almost any object could be used as a percussion instrument. Groups like the Junkyard Band made what can best be described as DIY go-go, by utilising a variety of household (and other) effects as musical instruments.
Who are the best known acts in go-go?
The recently deceased Chuck Brown is often credited as the godfather of Go-Go and his band the Soul Searchers track Ashley’s Roach Clip from 1975 is viewed as the first recording of the Go-Go beat – its subsequently been sampled many times in hip hop. Chuck’s gritty funk cut Bustin’ Loose was a big dance/soul chart hit in the USA in ‘79, right in the midst of the disco boom and was later the inspiration for Nellie’s Hot In Herre. Trouble Funk are probably the second best known go-go act, with cuts like Drop The Bomb, Pump Me Up and Say What released on the Sugarhill label. They later signed to Island Records and both them and Chuck were regular visitors to the UK to perform as live acts. While Rare Essence and E.U are the other stalwarts of the scene but never quite had the same European promotion.
How did you discover go-go?
From a personal perspective I had bought Chuck Brown’s genre defining Bustin’ Loose in a second hand record store in the early 80s and was also aware of Trouble Funk from reviews in magazines. However, I don’t think many people outside Washington knew these acts were part of a bigger scene. In 83 there was suddenly an attempt to break go-go in the UK, spearheaded by Island Records who had picked up the rights to quite a few of the key artists. Journalists were flown over to DC ensuring plenty of press coverage, a special go-go division of Island’s dance label 4th & Broadway was set up and for six months go-go was all over clubland. The then powerful soul mafia of DJs jumped on it as they needed something new to play and hated the increasingly popular electro, so go-go was greeted with open arms in many quarters.
What were go-go’s biggest hits?
This depends what you call go-go and what classifies as a hit. Grace Jones’ “Slave To The Rhythm” had a definite go-go influence and features Experience Unlimited’s JuJu House on percussion. from a purist go-go angle Little Benny’s Who Comes To Boogie was a massive club hit in British clubs and managed to make No. 33 in the UK pop chart with little or no radio support. It was just after UK interest had waned that go-go had its biggest success in the USA, when E.U released Da Butt (from Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’ movie)
in 1987, a call-and-answer chant that somehow connected with the American public and reached number 35 in their Billboard Hot 100, which was no mean feat for a record of its nature. In general, the issue with go-go as a chart force was that it just is not radio friendly enough, featuring more party chants than songs. Island’s attempts to make Trouble Funk more “commercial” with songs like _Woman of Principle_ ended up with them losing their hard hitting funk sound but still were nothing radio would play.
What is Art Garfunkel connection with go-go?
He was the miscast star of the Saturday Night Fever of go-go – a thriller called Good To Go, in which Art plays the lead role as a Baltimore reporter who gets framed for rape. Despite some great live footage from Trouble Funk, Chuck Brown and EU the film is heavy going to watch and received little of no critical acclaim. Hence it floundered at the box office, with even a later release (re-titled ‘Short Fuse’) failed to revive it.
How has go-go influenced other musical genres?
There were a few go-go influenced rap cuts from the mid to late 80s from the likes of Salt ‘n’ Pepa, Full Force, LL Cool J – which maybe had the quirky hooks and image to propel them more into the mainstream than the pure funk of go-go. In many ways this later go-go sound can be credited as at least an influence on what became known as swing beat. Teddy Riley’s drum patterns often had a very go-go-ish syncopation. Certainly more recent productions such as Beyonce’s Crazy In Love and Amerie’s 1 Thing from DC based Rich Harrison are the song based go-go radio hits we never had in 84.
How is go-go doing in 2012?
Back in Washington the scene still carries on to this day regardless of its brief forays into the mainstream with Rare Essence, EU, Junkyard Band and many others still playing regularly. In most cases there is a nucleus of a couple of original members, while new younger musicians joining the ranks for periods of time. As rap has become such big business in the USA, there has been a strong rap influence on at least some go-go. With Chuck Brown passing recently it will be interesting to see what shape go-go is in in 20 years time.
- Chuck Brown – Bustin’ Loose
- Rare Essence – Body Moves
- Kurtis Blow – Party Time
- Little Benny And The Masters – Who Comes To Boogie
- Trouble Funk – So Early In The Morning
- E.U. – Sho Nuff Bump’n (Pt.1)
- The Junkyard Band – The Word
- Status Quo – Donald Banks
- Alvin – DT (Instrumental)
- Osiris – War On The Bullshit