More Congas, Less Crime

by Belle Waring on February 7, 2012

Answers to Questions No One Asked Me, Part 1 of n+1 where n > or = 0
Belle, what’s go-go music? Many a time I have heard that question not asked by someone moving to the DC area, or not asked by a person who hasn’t heard about go-go and knows I went to high school in DC. I have failed to be asked this question on literally countless occasions. That’s all over now. Go-go is a distinctive sub-genre of music popular only in the DC metro area (including Baltimore). It has always been dance music (as in “Going to a Go-Go”) and has always relied on this one beat. As far as beats go it sounds a distinctly Latin one, but there’s no Latin influence on any of the rest of the music ever. Wikipedia claims that “unique to Go-Go is an instrumentation with 3 standard Congas and 2 “Junior Congas”, 8″ and 9″ wide and about half as tall as the standard Congas, a size rare outside of Go-Go. They were introduced to Rare Essence by Tyrone Williams aka Jungle Boogie in the early days when they couldn’t afford enough full sized Congas, and are ubiquitous ever since.”

Yeah OK, but Chuck Brown, with or without The Soul Searchers, is considered the “Godfather of Go-Go,” did everybody change their kit later? And do all mostly black musical sub-genres have to have someone named “Brown” be the godfather of them? And “it was because they couldn’t afford bigger congas” has urban legend written all over it. Anyway, yeah, a whole bunch of congas and bells and whatnot. The only time a white DC audience ever heard that many drum solos was when Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” concert was in town. (Before Randy Rhoads died in that tragic plane accident at Ozzy’s ranch. Who knows what magic might be flying off the fretboard of his distinctive “Flying V” right now. I’ll tell you all about my deep, deep love of “Tribute” and how I cry when I listen to “Goodbye to Romance” another time.)

Yeah, anyway, why two Rare Essence songs? OK, they’re my fave go-go band. But also I think this shows the evolution of the genre from something like funk to an intriguing version of hip-hop backed with live percussion and horns. It has continued to evolve, and is still popular in the DC metro area despite never making it anywhere else. Well, that’s not quite true, in that the music has been heavily sampled for other hip-hop songs which are then, perforce, go-go.

This is ye olde skuel, “Body Moves.” It’s special because it includes the DC slang word “sice” in the call and response at the end. “Sice” is more or less entirely equivalent to “psych,” (I’m siced for this party!) but can’t be negative (you can’t “sice someone out.”):

Back in the crack epidemic years go-go clubs were the site of lots of crime and shootings, and since the DC City Council is a bunch of morons, they decided to solve this problem by banning certain clubs from playing go-go. Ha ha pretend. NO RLY! One wonders whether, if such a club were to play, say, Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” (not that it would be a good idea, mind you) whether the club would be in violation, since the main loop is a sample from Chuck Brown’s “Busting Loose.” (Notice Chuck saying “give me the bridge now,” in 1978, that’s the oldest song I know that does that.) “It’s go-go!” “But it’s just a sample. It’s as if there are invisible quotes around the go-go that make it safe!” I could imagine the liquor license board debates getting pretty metaphysical. Next up is Rare Essence’s most popular ever song. It even made it to Yo! MTV Raps, as you can see (video way worth watching).

It is a testament to how not gentrified parts of DC are that I still don’t know where the hell Montana or Minnesota Avenues is. They’re getting the shout-outs, I assume they’re in S.E., but damn, that’s a lot of not knowing shit about your hometown. Go-go’s just weird in that none of its practitioners have ever hit the big time, even though it’s more or less next to New York. Even little old Savannah, GA has had more success in this regard (Outkast). I was originally going to defend disco from its detractors in the Don Cornelius thread who complained there was only one beat and the bass could never stray, and that was bad, by showing a) the bass can walk all over the damn place, and b) no harm in having generic constraints. Do you hate Loleatta Holloway and the SalSoul Orchestra, I intended to ask? Do you hate dancing (N.B. there is a go-go break in that song, “212 North 12th St.”)? Do you hate life itself? Then I got distracted. Squirrel! What? John insisted on the title. Brought to you by Stuff White People Like.

DISTURBING UPDATE: People born on the day Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” was at #1 are old enough to comment on youtube now. I mean, I know stray dogs comment on youtube, but still. Possibly more disturbing: I have a sweet-tooth weakness for this song.

NOT PARTICULARLY DISTURBING AT ALL UPDATE: If you find the openly proffered go-go unpalatable, then listen to the more funk-like Chuck Brown track linked above. You will probably like it more. If you like funk, which you probably do, because it’s funk, and all.



turtleherd 02.07.12 at 10:19 am

Thanks for sharing. I went through high school in the 80’s in a wonderfully integrated suburb of Baltimore and Go-Go was a staple of our underground high-school parties (whoever had absent parents for the night). Not a big Rare Essence fan but I used to have an old LP called “Paint the White House Black” and a tape from a band called Shady Grove (I think) that I would love to find again.


Tim Wilkinson 02.07.12 at 2:11 pm

I’ve got a Rare Essence LP I picked up many years ago without knowing what it was (Rare Essence, not go-go) – the cover just had their winged sort of logo thing on it (a gogo logo). I think I guessed it might be some kind of funk fusion, which wasn’t far off in a way.

Never really got on with it, maybe partly because it’s a pretty raw live set IIRC (I haven’t got my vinyl with me to refresh memory), heavy on the shout-outs and congas and not much in the way of bass, horns, or indeed anything else so far as I remember.

In fact, lack of bass, melody and general depth/lushness of sound is a bit of a stumbling block for me wrt the genre (genre-let?) as a whole – to compensate, I’d want some serious rhythm and I wasn’t hearing it. I have a similar problem with some of the more spartan E Coast hip hop at times.

I agree (FWIW) about disco being wrongly maligned to an extent – but in defence of the anti-disco crowd, they are maybe thinking of something a bit more central to the disco sound – by the tail end of the 70s there was a lot of formulaic, plodding stuff divorced from anything recognisably soulful.

Salsoul Orchestra has disco-y elements but is more latin-jazz-funk or something, innit? It would certainly be open to someone to resist the implied reductio (‘no like disco -> no like SSO -> wtf?’) by replying that, yes, they do like SSO, but only in inverse proportion to its proximity to disco’s centre of gravity. (Actually, listening to those 2 RE tracks I’d say something similar vis-à-vis go-go; no offence. The first one is, agreed, like funk, or some non-melodic kind of post-disco funky soul, er, groove, and is OK (to my random, undistinguished ear I mean); the second one not so much, for the reasons given above.)

But yeah, disco (leaving aside obvious crud) – even something like Chic (or that Loleatta Holloway track) is considerably more soulful than the relentlessly pounding stuff like I dunno, or – which has its charms for a rhythm-and-bass freak but you can see why it might not be some people’s cup of cha.

(Oh yeah – FWIW, JB used to say ‘take it to the bridge’ a lot, notably in ‘Sex Machine’ which was 71 or 2…not sure that’s what you mean though.)


Bloix 02.07.12 at 2:42 pm

Montana Ave. is N.E., as it happens. Minnesota Ave crosses from S.E. to N.E. It even has a Metro station (Orange Line).


J. Fisher 02.07.12 at 2:45 pm

Belle, I’m quite sure that you’ll soon learn the location of Montana Avenue (NE, actually) because you’ll soon start shopping there, right?


Michael Bérubé 02.07.12 at 3:18 pm

Awesome, Belle. Here’s some nostalgic love for Trouble Funk, who did have some regional success in the mid-late 80s (I caught them live in 1987, all the way down in Charlottesville), and for the 1985 compilation Paint the White House Black, capably reviewed by the NYT’s Robert Palmer (no, not him, the other one) here.

Trouble Funk’s biggest “hit” was probably “Drop the Bomb,” but my own fave was “Let’s Get Small.” And about that bridge — wasn’t James Brown asking Bobby Byrd if he could take ’em to the bridge in “Sex Machine” (1970)? I have always wondered what that song would be like if Bobby had said, “no, man, don’t take ’em to the bridge. Not a good idea right now.”


Western Dave 02.07.12 at 3:28 pm

I’ve never had the chance to teach history of American Popular Music but when I do, you can be there will be an essay on why NYC rap beat out Go-Go as the dominant popular music form. It’s hard for tha kids to understand now, but rap was never the pre-ordained victor. DC partisans usually claim that rap won because it’s easier, no live instruments and all, and NYC partisans have their own spin on this focusing on technological change, but I think both underestimate the fact that rap evolved in NYC and had easier access to cultural capital in the form of critics, labels, and most importantly MTV. Once MTV started airing rap videos, it was all over for Go-Go. Had MTV been headquartered in LA, Chicago, or DC, we might have seen a very different evolution of urban popular music.


Tim Wilkinson 02.07.12 at 4:00 pm

DC partisans usually claim that rap won because it’s easier, no live instruments and all

More specifically and at the risk of stating the obvious, the fact (if it is a fact) that go go requires the use of congas as a primary and dominant element, while hip hop doesn’t, must be a big factor. While I’d agree with Belle that as a rule there’s no harm in having generic constraints, there are limits. (I mean take the congas away from the foreground and add sufficient instrumentation/samples to get a full-blown genre going with a reasonably varied repertoire, and you might be looking at something pretty similar to hip hop – or alternatively, to the R&B line which is continuing alongside, and intermingled with, rap-based stuff.)

“Sex Machine” (1970)
Yeah, not 71-2


Steven Hart 02.07.12 at 4:15 pm

This paleface first heard about go-go with EU, which had a featured spot in Spike Lee’s School Daze.


Cahokia 02.07.12 at 4:27 pm

Belle: Bringing all the X to generation timber.


Adam 02.07.12 at 5:08 pm

Am I the only one who thinks “Work the Walls” sounds amazingly like what Fugazi was doing (also in D.C.) in the early ’90s?


Trevor 02.07.12 at 5:42 pm

I’ve always had a hard time really getting into Go-Go, which is from what I gather a pretty common experience. For those looking to ease into it, Wale’s 2007 mixtape ‘100 Miles and Running’ has quite a few pretty good hybrid Go-Go/pop rap beats. I also recommend the Roots’ ode to Go-Go, ‘Rising Up’. For Wire aficionados, Anwan ‘Slim Charles’ Glover is also a long-time Go-Go figure from the band Skillet.


Doc Sportello 02.07.12 at 5:52 pm

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a post on go-go … anywhere.

I used to go to show when I visited D.C. in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and I still get every Chuck CD that comes out.

If you want to check out the scene vicariously, you could do far worse than the birthday concert for Chuck in 1991. Also appearing are E.U., Little Benny, 911 and others.


Trevor 02.07.12 at 5:52 pm

*Whoops: Glover’s group’s name is the Backyard Band; their most prominent album is Skillet.


lemmy caution 02.07.12 at 9:56 pm

“Each and every dollar that I come across goes into my gas tank and out my exhaust”.

It is a shame that go-go did not get as popular as rap music because I would them have more occasions to brag about the impressive sounding go- go concerts I had attended. They include:

EU at the 9:30 club for spike lee’s birthday where spike lee first saw EU

a Trouble Funk/Government Issue double bill

and a James Brown concert with Chuck Brown opening up


casino implosion 02.07.12 at 10:02 pm

Trouble Funk and EU did a double header dance party in my high school gym in DC in 1985. Good times.


Tim Wilkinson 02.07.12 at 10:16 pm

And I suppose they would also be more impressive-sounding to the average audience.

BTW my mum was just telling me the other day that Spike Lee accused Steve McQueen of being effete (not ipsissima verba I don’t think) because of the way he threw a baseball in his character’s cell in Escape from Alcatraz, which was taken to mean he didnt know how to throw a baseball properly.

But when you are sitting on the floor leaning against the wall and repeatedly bouncing a ball off the opposite wall and catching it, you don’t use the same action as a baseball pitcher.

So we agreed that Lee was wrong to accuse McQueen of being effete on those grounds.


todd. 02.07.12 at 10:47 pm

Second the recommendation for Wale, both “100 Miles” and “The Mixtape About Nothing,” which both is a concept rap album about Seinfeld and (as far as I understand go-go) has a few go-go tracks.

Unfortunately, after that, the pressure of a major deal seemed to weigh the dude down & his stuff fell off considerably.


Bill Benzon 02.07.12 at 11:00 pm


Belle Waring 02.08.12 at 1:45 am

Oh duh, James Brown. Yeah, I knew that, but I wasn’t thinking about it. Lemmy: those are some impressive concerts!


Belle Waring 02.08.12 at 1:51 am

I also wonder in songs like that, what happens if they bandleader says “take us to the bridge” or whatever and then…they just get another chorus!? Or wasn’t the approach of the bridge inevitable and didn’t need to be invited? I probably should have put “Busting Loose” up there instead of the first RE song, I just love it and am amused by the use of “sice.” But it’s much more like regular funk/more approachable.


Belle Waring 02.08.12 at 2:04 am

Oh, and I see that it is a testament to my not being on DC and riding on the Metro that I don’t know where Montana Ave is (laughably close to my mom’s house, in fact.)


Belle Waring 02.08.12 at 2:35 am

17: Fuck, maybe they did run out of money before they bought all the congas they wanted.


tomslee 02.08.12 at 2:48 am

the way he threw a baseball in his character’s cell in Escape from Alcatraz

[nitpick]Surely “The Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III. [/nitpick]


lurker 02.08.12 at 2:55 am

I don’t get the mystique of gogo. Most of it sounds to me like ’80s rap from a world where all records are made by The Weather Report. Arkade Funk is fun though.


Warbo 02.08.12 at 3:36 am

Eighteen months ago ABC (Australia)’s Foreign Correspondent did a report on go-go and the politics of black DC. Not sure if the video will work outside Australia.


js. 02.08.12 at 5:48 am

This is awesome. Cheers. Vaguely knew about Rare Essence, but hadn’t ever paid much attention to them. This will now change.


Tim Wilkinson 02.08.12 at 10:17 am

Belle @22, re todd @17 – maybe they did run out of money before they bought all the congas they wanted I still think there may be a certain inherent limitation on how far a studio artist can continually develop, musically speaking, while keeping within them generic constraints. Go-go, having gone the way it has gone (or gone-gone) seems to me, like say neoplasticism, to have, er, painted itself into a stylistic corner.

tomslee – [nitpick]Surely “The Great Escape”

Yeah, realised shortly after posting – that would have been Mr Eastwood of course. Didn’t correct it because I was trying not to be too much of a comment section pest.

Emboldened by your intervention, I’d add that I failed to mention a key aspect of the action in question – that the ball was (IIRC) being thrown, not only at low velocity as befits a small room or cell, but downwards, so as to bounce from the floor on to the wall and thence back to McQueen’s waiting mitt, a point which I think clinches the issue of whether a baseball pitcher’s action would be appropriate.

(I’m not quite sure it counts as a nitpick when it’s not noticeably less consequential than the original point though. Pointing out that it’s “Weather Report” rather than “The Weather Report” – now that’s a nitpick.)

BTW, FWIW, etc – I think I remember working out why I initially thought Rare Earth might be funk fusion. From the sleeve I would have known the date and place of origin, and possibly some surnames, possibly some prose. Then I believe there would have been a combination of unconscious associations with 1. rare groove and 2. Earth, Wind and Fire. There was also an attempt to ‘read’ the cover design, which I can’t hope to verbalise.


Belle Waring 02.08.12 at 10:48 am

Tim: This is actually a perfectly good way to buy albums, and I often do “judge a book by its cover” in this way. One is right in one’s intuitions about the album more often than not.


Tim Wilkinson 02.08.12 at 10:55 am

Yes – also, this would have been a very-cheap-but-mint second-hand copy, most probably shoved-in-a-crate-on-the-floor-along-with-the-Tijuana-Brass kind of cheap, so my ‘exposure to downside risk’ would have been minimal.


Tim Wilkinson 02.08.12 at 11:26 am

NEWSFLASH – In fact, a funk fusion band of that name does in fact exist (kinda close ‘on paper’, but from what I’ve just listened to, emphatically no cigar, btw – I was thinking of funk-jazz or funk-soul or perhaps funk-R&B a la v. early 70s Al Green) – it’s actually likely I had heard of them as they were the first all-white band (statistically, not a good sign in this stylistic territory) signed to Motown.

Funky Black Man – yes, that’s right: ‘Funky Black Man’.

And that wiki says Motown had a label actually called ‘Rare Earth’ – the plot coagulates…I may report back on that.

Or roughly contemporaneous: – they actually get something close to a decent groove/riff going here but then they get going in earnest and everything falls apart – this kind of territory is always teetering on the brink of being utterly ridiculous; they do not teeter for long.


Belle Waring 02.08.12 at 12:06 pm

Ah, Tijuana Brass, always there for you when you…hang on, never need it. I’m siced because I picked out a bunch of rare groove 12″s in DC based only on who the producers were; they were DJ copies with nothing but a white sleeve. I haven’t had a chance to listen to any of them yet, as they are stranded in Malaysia (long story), but I am certain there is going to be gold in them thar hills.


The Witch from Next Door 02.08.12 at 3:00 pm

I was trying to work out what was familiar about the name ‘Rare Earth’. Turns out I was thinking of the Motown band mentioned by Tim Wilkinson @30, via Gil Scott Heron:

“The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.”


Number Three 02.08.12 at 5:19 pm

Someone beat me to it, but yo, you don’t know where Minnesota Avenue is? You must be one of those NWers. Check out Fort Dupont Park sometime. Best mountain biking in D.C. And Montana Avenue, huh? Never drove out to College Park, neither, I guess.


Eli Rabett 02.08.12 at 5:45 pm

Troubled Funks keyboardist, James Avery explained why go-go is DC music

“To be perfectly honest, people in D.C. are used to those kind of marathons,” he says. “What you in Chicago will be getting is two hours of nonstop go-go music, which will be as much as you`re ready to handle. This will be a first taste of it for you, an introduction.”


Belle Waring 02.09.12 at 2:07 am

Number Three: I don’t drive, and haven’t lived in DC since the early 90s. In all likelihood someone drove me along Minnesota Ave and I wasn’t paying attention because I was wasted don’t drive. The closest main drag in DC to my mom’s house is Georgia Avenue, and we generally drove through Rock Creek Park to get to Georgetown/whatever. I took a stupid U-shaped route from Takoma station to Tenleytown on the Red Line to get to school.


Ed 02.09.12 at 5:44 am

#6 Much as I love the idea of an alternate reality in which Chuck Brown is a half-billionaire thanks to his clothing and fragrance lines, and the Junkyard Band are playing Carnegie Hall, it was never really going to happen, was it?

What was the peak of Go-go’s mainstream visibility? 1986, with the ‘Good to Go’ movie, I would guess.

By that time, hip-hop had given us a fantastic variety of music: Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, the Skinny Boys and Mantronix. Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, KRS-One and NWA were just around the corner. By contrast, Go-go just seemed a bit… samey.

Just like in the rest of the economy, the machines – turntables, then synths, then samplers – beat human effort. And it turned out that the machines were not only easier, they were also more flexible and allowed for greater creativity.

That said, Go-go is always welcome when it crops up. Not least in the towering ‘Crazy in Love’, the greatest single of the 21st century, by a mile.


Alex 02.09.12 at 4:59 pm

What an outstanding thread. Alternative musical timelines are always fun; imagine if the 2000s had ended up like this.


Substance McGravitas 02.09.12 at 6:11 pm

The hip-hop family tree comics here are excellent:


nic 02.11.12 at 6:17 pm



Ed 02.13.12 at 5:00 am

Of course, there is an alternate reality where Chicago, not New York, came to dominate popular music. It’s called Europe.

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