With Natalie Hopkinson’s Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City (Duke University Press), go-go finally gets the serious consideration it deserves.
When Chuck Brown, the “Godfather of Go-Go,” died in May, go-go received more media attention outside of Washington, D.C., than it has at any other time in its history, but what the music and its culture is all about still wasn’t fully explained. With Natalie Hopkinson’s Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City (Duke University Press), go-go finally gets the serious consideration it deserves. Go-go developed in D.C. in the late 1970s — music parallel but distinct from hip-hop, and fusing R&B with Latin sounds. Go-go quickly became the go-to dance party music, earning a reputation for exuberant live shows featuring audience call and response. As its popularity surged, go-go became more than just a musical genre. Like hip-hop, it became a lifestyle. In Go-Go Live, Hopkinson captures the full go-go experience and chronicles a fascinating chapter in D.C.’s recent past.
Your book and some of your previous journalism covers issues like race, class, crime and gentrification — all through the lens of go-go. Tell us about your personal connection to the music and how it came to be so central to your work.
Like many people who arrive in D.C. for various reasons (in my case it was going to college), from the moment I set foot in the city, go-go was always a part of my reality, but it was just a matter of learning to recognize it. So, for instance, as a Howard University freshman in the early 1990s, I went to hip- hop parties near the Reeves Center at 14th and U Streets. I later realized it was a government municipal building that also was home to Club U, which was a go-go place. So a lot of it was just recognizing the culture that was there all along, hidden in plain sight. Because I was an arts writer for The Washington Post, it became my job to explore the arts in the area. And over the years, I found the connections to my own Caribbean background, as well as go-go culture’s place in the national discourse, to be a metaphor for the black urban experience in general.
I really like your description of go-go as a “counterdiscourse” to hip-hop that has maintained itself as “a uniquely black public sphere.” Can you give readers a short teaser about what you mean?
It is a counterdiscourse, meaning, “This is how you do it!” On the musical level, it is, you slow down the beat, add in some congas, throw in some cow bells, rototoms, a live horn section. Go-go is a way of slowing up the original of any popular song, making it slower, more sultry, making it funky. But on another level, the go-go industry is a different way to structure a whole cultural industry. Go-go is nearly entirely black-owned. The profits are derived from and circulate within that same black sphere. So unlike jazz and hip-hop, the profits stay connected to the people who created the music and inspired it.
For many people in D.C., go-go became associated with violence, especially during the late 1990s and into the aughts culminating with the closing of Club U. You give what I think is a really well considered and balanced explanation of violence within the scene. Has go-go’s reputation improved as violence in the city has lessened and as go-go has migrated out into Prince George’s County?
Not really. Unfortunately, go-go is still primarily portrayed in the mainstream media as a “problem” and not an art form. The D.C. metro area has come a long way from the “Murder Capital” days because the profits around the crack trade, for instance, aren’t as lucrative and thus as violently contested. But go-go tells the totality of the urban experience, warts and all. Media find it difficult to distinguish the culture from a few of its individual bad actors that may show up at a show. Violence is part of American culture. As soon as we solve that problem, we will solve the problem within go-go.
One of the truly impressive things about go-go culture is its DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic and, as you mentioned, its focus on keeping the money made from the music in the local community. You argue that go-go’s inability to break big nationally may have actually saved many local participants’ livelihoods.
Absolutely. One local filmmaker I quote in the book said, if go-go went national, a lot of people would lose their jobs. And it is absolutely true. I think what go-go offers is an opportunity to see what might happen if hip-hop or jazz remained under control of the people in the Bronx or New Orleans. Of course, those musical genres are amazing gifts to share with the world, but those industries are primarily benefiting the whole entertainment infrastructure and not necessarily black communities that created the genius in the first place.
People often wonder why D.C. hasn’t produced more famous rappers or hip-hop acts. But after reading your book, it seems obvious that it’s because a lot of the musical talent in the area has been more involved in the go-go scene. Do you agree?
I do. It is interesting to see a figure like the rapper Wale, for instance, who has successfully fused go-go elements and had some crossover success. Some critics bemoan his rough D.C. edges, but I think he’s making the right call. Hollywood and New York City are fickle. If you keep the D.C. area fans happy, you will never starve as a musician.
In the book you tell the story of Go-Go Nico, a central figure who has amassed an amazing collection of live recordings and who operates Go-Go Radio. Where do things stand with the recording archive that you and Go-Go Nico were hoping to establish?
Nico has his hands full with Go-Go Radio, as well as managing Suttle Thoughts, one of the leading “grown and sexy” bands in the area. Go-Go Radio is doing explosive amounts of traffic, mostly on mobile devices. It is truly amazing. I hope to find the right grant or other kind of support so that Nico can digitize his archives for his own business purposes, as well as provide access to future scholars interested in go-go and primary sources for an oral history of life in Washington. It is something we both need to find the time to work on.
Chuck Brown passed away since you completed Go-Go Live. Do you think his death has meaningfully affected the national profile of go-go? What has it meant locally?
The timing of Chuck’s passing was crazy. My book was literally being shipped to reviewers (I myself had not seen it) and I was getting tweets that it arrived on people’s desks just as word got out that he was gone. Chuck Brown was the soul of Washington. It was a very, very sad day, a huge loss for the city and this country. But at the same time, what go-go and other black musical traditions such as New Orleans Second Line culture teach us, is that death isn’t the end. It is a celebration. He will be even bigger in death than he was in life because his creative seed has spread throughout D.C. and the many people around the world that his music touched. It inspired many of the bands to keep go-go-ing. Nationally, I’m not sure it will change much.
Have you had any feedback from the figures in the book or from go-go fans?
Not yet. It’s still early. Nico for instance read his chapter when it was in my doctoral dissertation. Many people on the go-go scene have seen me around so much, they are just glad the book is finally out!
Now I’m really going to put you on the spot. If you had five songs to play to someone who has never heard go-go in the hopes of getting them hooked, what would they be?
Ha. That is easy. I would tell them, forget about YouTube, forget about iTunes. Go directly to Go- Go Radio (http://www.gogoradio.com) or Take Me Out to the Go-Go (http://tmottgogo.com) or P.A. Palace (http://www.papalace.com) and find out where the next show is. Suttle Thoughts, Be’la Dona, Facez You Know, Familiar Faces, Backyard Band, Rare Essence, TCB, Junkyard, Da Mixx Band or any number of new bands out there will help you experience the exuberance that is go-go. There is no substitute for seeing the show live, going in there, and putting in work on the dance floor. Absent that, get “The Best of Chuck Brown” or Rare Essence’s 1986 live p.a. classic, “Live at Breeze’s Metro Club.” You can’t go wrong.
Natalie Hopkinson covered go-go for The Washington Post and has written for such publications as The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times. She is author of Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation and is a contributing editor to The Root (http:// www.theroot.com). She teaches journalism at Georgetown University and directs the Future of the Arts and Society project at the Interactivity Foundation.
John McLeod is the sales and marketing director at the University of Georgia Press. He previously lived in Washington, D.C., where he worked for Counterpoint Press. He writes about music and books for Flagpole, the alternative weekly newspaper of Athens, Ga.