Goodbye to the Godfather of Go-Go

D.C.'s Chuck Brown has died at the age of 75, but his legacy -- a city's signature art form -- lives on.

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So I decided to try it and started playing "Mr. Magic." From there, we started dropping down into the percussion. The same feeling I had with [the local band] Los Latinos, I took the same percussion with me. So we started dropping that percussion and we had other ideas. The audience liked it. They liked the call and response. They liked the participation. You know, the band participating with the audience. And I was searching for a sound for the town ...

Hip-hop, on the other hand, rose above its New York origins; with the help of BET and MTV, hip-hop came to standardize black youth-culture styles in slang, dress and popular music throughout the United States and then the world.

Go-go's stubbornly divergent path can be seen as an answer to this. It stayed true to time-honored cultural scripts such as live call and response, live instrumentation and its locally rooted fashions, slang, dance, distribution and economic systems. Simply put: Go-go never sold out. There is a grit and texture to the music -- sometimes derided as "pots and pans" -- that gives voice to the communities where it was created and from which profits are taken.

Not "going national" is often framed as a failure of go-go. But consider what go-go has gained by staying against the grain. Today, at a time when all around the world kids don't understand the concept of paying for music, live is still where the action is. Everyone from artists on the rise to megastars such as Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Madonna have gone back on the road. Go-go's live business model, innovated by Chuck Brown, has stayed against the grain long enough to come back into style.

In the process, it also remained deeply engaged in responding to an enduring transatlantic call and response of black musical traditions. At a time when the process of gentrification is killing the Chocolate City and its institutions, Chuck's artistic legacy is indestructible.

Wherever black people do gather, as long as someone can get their hands on some cymbals, a cow bell or tow, a conga drum and a microphone, folks will be getting right back up to find out where the next party is. And when it's all over, someone -- probably black -- is going to eat.

Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. This essay was adapted from the forthcoming Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.

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