Technology with attitude

Review: Natalie Hopkinson Looks at D.C. through Go-Go's Lens in Go-Go Live


Go-go music has long been the dominant force in D.C. culture. It’s the beat of the real D.C. The music is a percussion driven brand of funk that was invented by Chuck Brown in the 1970s. There have been a couple of national hits over the years, Brown’s Bustin’ Loose and E.U.’s Da Butt are the most notable. But mostly the music has stayed as a phenomenon local to the D.C. area. In her new book Go-Go Live:  The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, Natalie  Hopkinson uses it as a way to examine the recent history of the city and the surrounding areas.

Any discussion of the recent social history of the D.C. area has to focus on gentrification and the implications for black culture in what George Clinton dubbed Chocolate City. As D.C. gets whiter, will its indigenous music disappear? Hopkinson’s answer is that go-go is healthy, but its center has moved slightly east: out of the city and into Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Judged in terms of today’s national music scene, Go-go music is very different. It’s live music in an era of producer-driven studio-created pop. The music is distributed on PA tapes recorded live in clubs, rather than albums or singles. For years, go-go didn’t reach out of the circles of young black folks in D.C. But the recent death of Chuck Brown (after Hopkinson had completed the book) has shown that the music has gained at least some institutional respect. Though the coverage from the New York Times and other publications outside D.C. still focuses on the genius of Brown the individual rather than the genre as a whole.  This is the second book on go-go. Kip Lornell and Charles Stephenson’s The Beat focused on the music itself rather than its social implications. But two books published by university presses indicate that (three decades late) some appreciation of the art form has arrived at the academy.

The book actually opens with the funeral of another go-go icon. Little Benny Harley was getting parties started for decades before he passed away in 2010. He sang and played trumpet for Rare Essence, Little Benny and the Masters, The Legends and frequently got on stage with countless other bands. It seemed like you could catch Benny performing somewhere  every night of the week since 1978 or so. His funeral was held at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center. Thousands turned out on a weekday afternoon. It’s the intersection between the people who grew up with go-go and the official aspects of D.C. that interests Hopkinson. Former Mayor Adrian Fenty becomes the target of the harshest criticism for politicizing Benny’s death while seeking reelection and for his policies encouraging gentrification.

The case of a murder at city-run Club U also illustrates the problems with the intersection. The club closed down and the go-go scene lost a great venue (it seems almost impossible, that not only did E.U played for free on Thursday nights, but there was free chicken). Needless to say, the club shut down.

Hopkinson profiles several individuals from different parts of the go-go scene including Big G from Backyard Band. The deep-voiced lead talker is probably best known for acting on The Wire outside the DMV, but he was a local hero long before that. His story is a familiar but always inspiring tale of overcoming a violent youth. With Chuck Brown gone, Big G is the new face of go-go. The D.C. area can be proud to have him. Other profiles include Grandview Ron, a regular at the go-go clubs, and PA tape distributor Nico the Gogo-ologist. When the focus is on the bands, Hopkinson chooses some surprisingly obscure ones like the INI band that played at the University of Maryland in 2006.

There has been a lack of good writing about a cultural force as important as go-go in a major city. Hopkinson definitely fills in some of that hole and Go-Go Live is definitely good writing. So, it’s a little disappointing when Hopkinson places herself in the center of this book. Many of the stories are about how she personally connected to go-go and D.C. by using her family experience in New Orleans and the Caribbean. It’s mostly welcome to know where the author’s coming from, but it’s occasionally too much of Hopkinson on herself when the pages in this slim volume could be better spent exploring D.C. culture. The pages devoted to Hopkinson’s feelings about the Obama presidency seem particularly out of place. Her family experiences are certainly useful as comparisons, but at times just becomes a distraction from the discussion about D.C. and go-go.

The most interesting part of the book may be the final chapter, an annotated transcription of a Rare Essence show from 1986 at the club known as the Met. Not just a “PA Tape,” this was an officially released record and later CD–“The Album That Kept the Whole Neighborhood Rocking.” Of particular note are the repeated shout-outs to notorious D.C. drug dealer Rayful Edmond and his partner Tony Lewis. I’ve listened to this album countless times and never noticed these names among the many called out by lead talker Jas. Funk. Reading the transcript and annotations provided a new perspective on the show and the mid-eighties scene when go-go popularity was at it’s peak.

The D.C. area continues to change rapidly. As does it’s music. Bounce Beat with an emphasis on timbales and rototoms instead of congas is now established as the young sound. Technology is changing how go-go is promoted and distributed (there are now two good go-go radio station on the internet: and and one ok one: P.A. Palace). Hopkinson recognizes the complexities of a changing city and its evolving culture. Nobody is eager to return to the days of Rayful Edmond and D.C. as the “Murder Capital,” but that time period contributed to the artform of go-go and the lifestyle that surrounds it.  Even after losing a legend like Chuck Brown, the area’s signature is still go-go, perhaps no longer the music of the Chocolate City, but still the sound of black DMV.

Thirty-five years into the genre’s existence, there’s still a lot left to be written about go-go. Hopkinson contributes a valuable piece to the cultural history of a changing city.