"Rhythm and Blues had a baby, and they call it Rock and Roll."
- Little Richard
Go-Go: continuous, complex, heavy rhythm arrangements focused through two thematic patterns performed on multiple congas, timbale and roto-toms, interspersed with tambourine and cowbell parts, driven by heavy-footed drumming and punctuated by crowd "call-and-response" as in many African-American church sermons.
By the early 1970s, Chuck Brown, a veteran of the DC club scene, playing dozens of Top 40 covers a night to crowds that were slow to get on their feet. “They’d come in all dressed nice and sit down at their tables and then not get up till they were drunk,” he recalls. It didn’t help that the songs lasted only two or three minutes each; any dance floor momentum stopped dead while the band geared up for the next tune.”
So Brown hit on the idea of using a running percussion beat to tie all the songs together, making a set sound like a medley of individual numbers starting and stopping over a pounding, nonstop rhythm. “We started breaking the tunes down and talking to people at the same time, and rhyming with them, and then neckties would come off and the floors would get packed right away.” Brown called this new music “Go-Go” for two reasons. It was the era of “go-go clubs and go-go girls, but there was no go-go music.” The other reason: “Once the energy got going on the floor, the people kept going and going.” After a few more years of doing covers, Brown started writing his own songs. His first hit was “Bustin’ Loose,” recorded and released in the late ’70s. Along with Brown, early Go-Go bands like Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, and Experience Unlimited (EU) followed suit.
Go-Go’s biggest success was in the late 80s. EU had a the national spotlight when Spike Lee used one of its tunes, “Da Butt,” in his 1988 film School Daze. The Junk Yard Band began as a group of children as young as nine years old, that performed music on buckets and thrift store musical instruments. They signed and toured with New York's Def Jam Records, where they released 12-inch single The Word.
Unlike its cousin, hip-hop, which developed in New York around the same time, go-go features a full band, typically including guitars, bass, percussions, keyboards and, most important, horns. The presence of a horn section is probably the greatest difference between old-school go-go groups and newer ones, which are influenced by hip-hop’s stripped-down rhythms and cadences. Some prominent new-style go-go bands are Backyard, Lissen, Junkyard, Suttle Thoughts, and Optimystic Tribe. All perform original material, but don’t be surprised to hear the odd cover or two.
"R & B had another child, and they call it GO-GO."
- Ignatius Mason