Go-Go Godfather Chuck Brown's Non-Stop Message

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Chameleon

2001

June 29, 2001 - It's 1 a.m. Saturday night - or Sunday morning - outside a Washington, D.C., club called the D.C. Tunnel. A white stretch limo and a black Humvee idle out front. Men and women, mostly in their 20s, wait in line to be checked by security, twice.

Go-go music legend Chuck Brown

Chuck Brown's been playing go-go for 25 years, and with the release of a new live album, he's hoping to finally put the music he invented on the map.
Photo: J. Adam Fenster/Liason Records

One woman wears a red rubber dress; one man sports head-to-toe cheetah and a '70s afro wig. They're all here to see Chuck Brown, the 67-year-old godfather of a homegrown musical phenomenon called go-go.

Elsewhere, "go-go" may conjure retro visions of vinyl-boot-wearing women dancing in cages. But in the nation's capital, go-go means the musical hybrid Brown created 25 years ago. It's "slower and funkier" than disco, yet relentlessly beat-driven; flavored with congos and cowbells, and overlaid with the call-and-response of Brown's gospel-church youth.

Unlike rap or hip-hop, go-go hasn't moved outside the neighborhoods where it was born. Aside from a couple of short-lived hits in the 1980s, go-go hasn't gone mainstream, it hasn't gone national - it has barely crossed over to next-door Virginia and Maryland.

Album cover for Your Game... Live at the 9:30 Club

Album cover for Your Game . . . Live at the 9:30 Club

But now, with a new live record out, Chuck Brown hopes for enough airplay to finally put go-go on the map.

Charles Stephenson, co-author of a new book on go-go, suspects it hasn't gone national because "you really have to experience it in order to fully appreciate it"; and because it lacks the hooks and formats of most radio-playlist staples.

As NPR's Madeleine Brand observes after a night at D.C. Tunnel, "There aren't any three-minute go-go songs - just the opposite. Go-go's appeal is that it never ends; it just keeps going."