Go-Go: The Districts own music

By the

April 26, 2001

“Are you gonna go in there?” one of the young black men asked us, half feigning shock. The four of us, all white Georgetown students, were apparently quite conspicuous, standing on the corner of Georgia and Morton at midnight one Friday. “Don’t go in there, for the love of God don’t go in there,” he reiterated.

One of his friends was slightly more optimistic; he simply recommended that we stay away from the crowded front of the party and instead hang near security at the back.

That night was a first for all of us; we were entering the world of D.C.’s only truly homegrown music scene, go-go. After 25 years, the sound continues to thrive in the District while receiving minimal attention at the national level.

When asked if many white people attended the Backyard Band’s regular Friday night appearances at D.C.’s Capitol City Pavillion, the first man laughed.

“Yeah, usually it be, like, zero percent white people and about, yeah, one hundred percent black people,” he said. Once again his friend chimed in; in his view, most white people aren’t interested in go-go. “They think if they show up, there’s gonna be trouble.”

The Origins Of Go-Go Music

Go-go music began to develop in the D.C. area during the mid-1970s. Musicians listening to pop-radio funk and hip-hop tunes from acts such as James Brown, Parliament and Kool and the Gang started to draw these sounds together into a new style built especially for live shows. The term “go-go,” meanwhile, had been in use in the District funk music scene for some time simply to describe the non-stop party atmosphere of the area’s concerts. The name “go-go” was subsequently bestowed on the music that developed around these shows in an age when most American bands were more concerned with emulating the sounds of Top-40 radio than building a live-show reputation.

Chuck Brown founded go-go with “Blow Your Whistle,” a track off his 1973 album Funk For The Folks. Brown himself credits the beat from Grover Washington, Jr.’s radio hit “Mr. Magic” for giving him the idea for the new element he had been seeking for years.

This trait, the critical distinction between go-go and relations such as funk, hip-hop, reggae and blues, is the genre’s rhythmic style. Hip-hop and funk four-four drum lines typically feature an emphasis on the second and fourth hits in the measure. While the beats may be quite complex, this underlying framework remains. Go-go music is often built on uniquely syncopated drums, so the emphasized hits may be anywhere in the loop. And the drums never stop?go-go shows are renowned for their hour-after-hour musical continuity.

Another consistent feature of go-go tunes is a slow tempo. Reacting in part to the simple, hyped-up beats of radio-friendly disco, go-go bands developed an easier groove more appropriate for non-stop playing.

Combining the slower tempo with the syncopation creates music for, as one go-go aficionado put it, “shakin’ that ass all night long.” Go-go is dance music first and foremost.

Beyond percussion, a go-go band will typically include a bass guitar, a rhythm guitar, one or more keyboards and several vocalists. Bands have multiple vocalists for several reasons, not the least of which is the crowd response to be culled from an ever-rotating lineup. However, the convention has practical foundations as well. Each vocalist typically has a specific role, from rapper to chant caller to straight soul crooner.

During the early years of go-go (during the heyday of bands such as Trouble Funk and Rare Essence), horn sections were also a common feature. Newer groups center around the percussionists, diminishing the horns’ competing rhythmic role. For many older go-go fans this shift is characteristic of the sound’s unfortunate movement away from musical values towards a focus on dancefloor pragmatism. Younger listeners, of course, just see it as progress.

For Brown and his band, The Soul Searchers, developing go-go seems to have been a chance to revolt against everything they didn’t like about the popular music of the day while retaining what they did. Go-go was and still is intimate, in your face, but still completely reflective of the sounds of the times. This tradition continues up to this day, with go-go borrowing heavily from radio’s current darling, hip-hop.

Given that go-go has built such a devoted following among Washingtonians, it is somewhat surprising that it has yet to leave the confines of the District in any large way. This lack of recognition is not total?several go-go groups have been signed to major labels, and rappers have used unauthorized samples of go-go tracks for years; Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “My Mic Sounds Nice” features a drum line played on empty cans and buckets which Moe Shorter, former manager for the Junkyard Band, claims was lifted straight from a Junkyard track.

One of the chief reasons for go-go’s ability to thrive in D.C. while gaining little ground elsewhere is the District’s remarkable tradition of live musicianship. As Charles Stephenson, former manager for go-go act Experience Unlimited, said in an interview last year with the Washington City Paper, “In New York, you’d see a kid walking down the street and he’d have a basketball in his hands. Well, down here [in D.C.] you’d still see the kid with a basketball, but you’d also see a kid walking down the street with a horn, or you’d see him with a guitar or drumsticks.”

Thus, the District was the perfect place to foster go-go’s emphasis on live performance. In other cities, the story was different. The genre’s similarity to funk and soul combined with its increasingly symbiotic relationship with hip-hop meant that the rest of the nation, while missing out on go-go, already possessed music scenes catering to a similar crowd. The fact that a producer with a mic and a sampler can produce a great hip-hop track may explain the general lack of enthusiasm for go-go on the part of producers and promoters beyond the District. To a kid making hits with one piece of equipment and no musical training, go-go bands have arguably missed the boat.

Go-go’s healthy evolution into a self-supporting scene within D.C. may also have slowed growth by removing the urgent sense of a need for national success that grips so many bands. Go-go acts recorded tapes themselves and distributed them at shows or through local record shops; seeing as their D.C. fan base was solidly established, a local tape-distribution network was totally sufficient. Larger CD-focused labels have picked up tracks and put releases together, but always well after the material has long since entered the tape collections of countless District go-go fans. “You can’t go in a real music store and find go-go,” said one fan waiting to hear Backyard. “Or when it does come out, it’s, like, old.” The man next to him claimed to have one hundred go-go tapes.

A Night At a D.C. Go-Go Club

Go-go is not just a type of music; it is an experience. The scene outside of the Capitol City Pavilion is just as critical to the go-go experience as what is going on inside: The cops, the yelling, the cliques of five or ten at a time and the line that wraps around the block are just as important as the music and dancing that take place just beyond the metal detectors.

A friendly cop holds open two glass doors, smiling and informing you politely that you can’t take jackets, bags or cigarettes inside. Upon hearing that jackets are prohibited, most people give a look of confusion and leave. But they soon return, having placed their coats and items in parked cars, in order to pay their $20 entrance fee into the world of Backyard, currently the most popular go-go band, and the party inside.

Security guards at the front door of the Capital City Pavilion tell you, “In and to the right, no jackets in tonight.” A woman with drawn-on eyebrows hands you a small plastic bag to put the contents of your pockets in. The security check is next. First, you take off your shoes, sit on a chair and your legs and socks are patted down. Next, you move to another security agent where you are told to take off your sweatshirt, belt, watch and jewlery. The security officer begins to pat you down, puts her hands in your pockets and then asks if you are wearing an underwire bra. When you reply that you are, you are confused why she asks this, and then realize that the underwire must set off the metal detector. The guard tells you to move behind a nearby stairway and take it off. You return and hand the contents of your pockets, your jewlery, belt, sweatshirt and bra to another security agent. You notice that the majority of people going through the intrusive check act as if it just a normal part of their Friday night. You pass through the metal detector and find your belongings on the other side lying on a table. Slightly disoriented, you decide to go to the bathroom to put your bra back on, and notice that a security officer is watching you and everyone else in all of the bathroom stalls. You are both alarmed and relieved that security is so tight; what ever has happened to make security so stringent probably won’t happen again with such strict measures. You then go back to the first room where concertgoers, after passing through the secuirty check, are sitting on the ground and talking, waiting for the show to begin.

You decide to move into the main room where the stage is. It looks like an old community center; the marquee outside advertises “Afrocentric weddings” in addition to the weekly appearances by the Backyard Band. The ceiling is high and gilded, but the giant room is dark except for multicolored stage lights. In the back, you can buy a polaroid picture of yourself taken in front of a choice of two backgrounds airbrushed on large sheets: a giant Versace logo or a pimped-out truck in front of a mansion. The polaroids are the only thing for sale inside; no alcohol or food is available. High school-aged kids are sitting around the edge of the room on a wall-length bench, or standing in clusters, some already dancing to the pre-show music.

When the band begins, they start off with slow go-go, almost the kind of go-go that would be played in an elevator, probably to give the female vocalist time to shine. Some people stroll towards the stage, but the majority of the crowd stays seated. When the second, faster song starts, kids rush towards the stage dancing. For the next 20 minutes, the band plays a go-go version of Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” It is hard to determine how many people are in the band; between 12 and 20 people walk on and off the stage, and the vocalists rotate.

Go-go dancing is space consuming; people don’t crowd around each other. Many dancers bounce slowly with the music’s pulse, often with their eyes closed and arms spread out before them, revelling in the experience. Others move about the room, guys looking for girls to dance with. Some of the less attractive girls stand up on the bench, maybe in hopes that their increased height will bring them attention. The more attactive girls dance on the floor drawing crowds of guys around them. One girl bends over and looks as though she is tying her shoe, and continuing to dance bent over quickly attracts a guy who begins to grind with her. The crowd is young, mostly 16-to-23-years-old according to a Metropolitan Police Department officer.


Three or four MPD officers stationed at the door is standard for the Pavillion. The club attracts about 3,000 to 4,000 visitors every Friday night, so a group of authorized personnel to man the entrance seems rational. Most other clubs, however, don’t have a group of uniformed officers waiting outside their front doors, standing watch throughout the night. Maybe that is because, as one officer pointed out, the crowds that come to hear Backyard aren’t just everyday club-goers.

“You see how everyone goes in with a big group?” the officer asks. “That’s so if something gets started, they’ve got some backing.” According to the officer, who prefers to remain nameless, nearly all of the gangs from D.C., Maryland and Virginia are represented by at least a small cluster at the Pavillion on Friday nights: “When they beef outside and then are in the same room together, of course something’s going to happen,” he comments, explaining that violence is common at the Backyard concerts. Last weekend, a young man was beaten severely inside the club and left on the ground for security to call an ambulance. According to the officer, the boy has lost a decent amount of memory and is still in the hospital.

Considering the crowd is quite regular from week to week, any newcomers easily stand out. “You can’t mind your own business in there,” the officer says. If someone doesn’t like you, for whatever reason, they’re going to let you know it.

Marie Whitfield, ANC Commissioner for 1A09, says she is perfectly aware of what is going on in her district. In fact, she believes that the Capitol City Pavillion is one of the safest places in the neighborhood, as well as being assured to be drugfree. “Incidents do happen,” she says, when asked about violence at Backyard shows, “but they can happen anywhere.” She firmly believes that the owner of the club is doing the best that he can. Whitfield feels that he “knows first hand what’s going on in there” and that he’s making it a point to ensure that the environment is”drugfree, clean and wholesome [and] gives the best to the kids.”

Nevertheless, Whitfield is still looking for improvements. She points specifically to the MPD officers who take the night shift at the club, saying “they really need to have somebody at night that understands young kids and knows how to deal with the situations.” She believes there isn’t enough communication and understanding on the part of the officers and thinks that the kids are essentially good.


D.C.’s shameful position as the least integrated major city in the U.S. may help explain the unique story of D.C. go-go. The division of the city helped foster the growth of a music solely targeted at an African-American audience. Unlike rap, which has been adopted by the white suburban middle class, go-go has been able to remain focused on its original core audience.

Just a few blocks away, down on V St, the 9:30 Club is arguably the focal point of D.C’s rock scene. There the security check is minimal, and the club’s main concern is preventing underage drinking. The priorities of MPD officers outside the Pavillion show how just a few blocks can make a world of difference.

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