(The Root) —
"I created this sound so I can eat — and everyone who plays in this band can eat." —Chuck Brown, 2010
At a time when so much is changing in the once-Chocolate City, one thing remained constant in Washington, D.C.: Chuck Brown — who died May 16 at age 75 of undisclosed causes — and the wild and wonderful world of go-go music that he created. Until he was hospitalized for pneumonia in the weeks leading up to his death, on any given night you could count on seeing Chuck.
Well into his 70s he remained just Chuck, his sometimes-shirtless wiry frame ripped with the muscles of a man half his age, gold tooth glinting, strumming his gui-tar. Whether you found him onstage at sometime strip joints like the Legend, or white marble venues like Constitution Hall, the same Chuck would appear, bringing his whole life history with him.
His raspy singing voice told of his first cigarette at age 7. Calloused hands told of cotton picked while traveling from farm to farm in North Carolina and Virginia, living in sharecropper shanty houses. His down-home presence showed the humility of someone who lived in servants' quarters when his mother worked as a domestic. Each pluck of the guitar told of the eight years spent serving time at Lorton penitentiary, where he taught himself to play.
And this is important: Each hole-in-the-wall D.C. venue that he rocked — like the Maverick Room and Howard Theatre, where he perfected the conga-inflected go-go sound that has dominated Washington's popular music since the 1970s — told of what he called the "depressing" time after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. On April 4, 1968, D.C. police briefly detained Chuck while he was trying to tell looting kids to go home, he told this writer in a 2010 interview for my book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.
In the years that followed the uprising, Chuck would tell the kids more than just that. At a time when urban planners and policymakers ceded authority over inner-city Washington to the hustlers and the pimps, Chuck Brown showed kids how to play music. He showed them how to hype the audience through West African-style call and response, how to slow down ecstatic crowds to groove to the same sultry, slow-boiling conga beat. He showed them how to knit the audience into a community and to train them to come back, night after night, generation after generation.
Chuck taught D.C. natives to take those charred ruins of the civil rights movement in riot-blackened places like U Street and use them to make art. Not the kind of art that crosses over onto pop-music charts or that gets co-opted by multinational entertainment companies or even gets an NEA grant, but, nonetheless, the kind that generations of black Washingtonians have used for fellowship.
Together with his D.C. fans, Chuck Brown lit the creative spark for the go-go industry — what remains to this day a multimillion-dollar, almost entirely black-owned business, filled with musicians, promoters, graphic designers, security, bands, managers, recording studios, bootleggers, Web developers, fashion designers and radio personalities. He talked about finding that spark in the introduction to the 2007 album, We're About the Business:
I just had this feeling, that some of that old spiritual church music that we used to play in my church when I was a little boy. Real fast. You know what I'm saying? I heard Grover Washington come out with "Mr. Magic." He had that beat, only it was slower, groovy. It was slower, it wasn't hyped up like church music. I said, "they used to play that at my church!"
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.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.