Chuck Brown Proves Go-Go Hasn't Gone-Gone

Founder of percussive, crowd-pleasing, D.C.-born sound looks back on 30-year career.

The June 5 release of Chuck Brown's Your Game … Live at the 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C. marks the latest festively funky collection from the founder of go-go music, the D.C.-born sound Brown and his band, the Soul Searchers, created in the early 1970s. With its relentless grooves and heavy percussion, go-go has been a favorite sampling source for numerous hip-hop acts, including Timbaland, Brand Nubian, Salt-N-Pepa and Kid 'N Play.

Go-go is known for its lively give-and-take between singers and audience, which can make shows interactive experiences for energetic fans.

"It's about love, the communication between performer and audience," Brown said of go-go. "When you're onstage, the people put that love to you and you give it back. There's no other music like it."

As with hip-hop, go-go artists incorporate the music of other popular acts into their own routines. It's a practice whose roots can be traced to Brown's early membership in several D.C.-based cover bands. On Your Game Brown and his band rework songs by Blackstreet, Barry White and the Stylistics into a seamless flow stretching for more than 60 consecutive minutes.

"That particular night was such magic," Brown said of the January performance. "I didn't even let all the band members know I was recording. These guys are hot all the time."

Although go-go is practically a religion in the D.C. area, it has been unable to spread across the country for a variety of reasons, such as its raw sound and dearth of national exposure. However, that hasn't stopped top go-go acts such as Junkyard and Rare Essence from becoming local legends who enjoy both radio play and well-attended local shows. Brown, for example, performs in front of capacity crowds up to six nights per week.

Brown, 67, was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and moved to Washington in 1942. He learned to play piano when he was 7, but started living on the streets at 15. He earned his high-school diploma in the now-defunct Lorton Penitentiary, where he also picked up guitar and eventually became the prison's most popular performer.

"It was easy for me to start learning guitar because I was familiar with the keyboard," said Brown of his early 20s. "I'm glad I went there. That's where I found myself and my career."

Brown hit the music circuit upon his release and eventually joined top-40 cover band Los Latinos. "I fell in love with that sound," he said. "I decided that when I started my own group, I would use that Latin flavor with the congas, timbales and cowbells."

Brown set out to create a new form of music in 1972. His first two albums, that year's We the People and 1973's Salt of the Earth, set the foundation. By 1976 fans were starting to crave Brown's nonstop (hence go-go) sets that included cover tunes, original material and call-and-response participation.

Brown wrote his best-known recording, "Bustin' Loose," in 1976, though he and the Soul Searchers spent two years perfecting the tune prior to recording it.

"It had a whole different groove to it," Brown said of the song, which became a 1978 hit on R&B charts. "The disco groove was 120 beats per minute at the time. The DJ would be playing the records and when we'd come on, it looked like people wanted to take a rest. I had to figure out how to change that. I kept feeding them our beat. They finally started catching on to it and we had audience participation, crowd call-and-response. That's what makes go-go so interesting. I slowed down the disco beat and gave you a chance to breathe, and it took over in this town."

Brown doesn't know precisely how many albums he's released. He has literally scores of recordings to his credit, insofar as may of his live shows, such as Your Game, which will be released on his own Raw Venture label, are sold as "PA tapes" (recorded off the sound system) either at the venue following the show or at local stores in ensuing days. His many other studio albums include Bustin' Loose (1979) and Any Other Way to Go (1987).

"My thing was longevity," Brown said. "I wanted to be out here for a while, and it's been 30-some years now. I'm delighted the other bands picked it up. That's my reward right there. I'm glad I was able to contribute something to the community, something for the young kids to follow and for the older people to enjoy."