I’m relatively new to the DC Metropolitan area, but it did not take long for me to understand the pride and distinctiveness of the nation’s capital. Some signs and symbols are inseparable from DC culture: the taste of mambo sauce, pillars in the food industry like Ben’s Chili Bowl or Georgetown Cupcakes, events like the annual Cherry Blossom festival. However, even as a native of Richmond, VA, an alluring segment of DC culture trickled its way down I-95 and into my life – go-go music.
Based on prior conversations and queries with people in North Carolina and Virginia, it seems that the popularity of this musical genre seems only recognizable in sporadic geographic areas or to those of particular demographic circles. However, if we examine the musical works of Wale, an artist that has received national and international acclaim, hip-hop aficionados will see that this lyricist merges open-mic-style, go-go and hip-hop seamlessly into various compositions. Throughout this reflection, I will briefly historicize go-go music and introduce several works by Wale, a DC-bred hip-hop artist who faithfully alludes to his capital city roots in his music and lyrical references.
Go-go first came on the music scene during the late 1960s, which helps explain its aural similarity to funk and blues. The term “go-go” was a slang term used within the African American community to signify a local music club (See: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ hit “Going to a Go-Go”). As Professor Irvine clearly expressed last week, pinpointing the origin of a sign is superfluous and the black box that is go-go music is no exception. Yet, the appeal, credit and placement of go-go in musical discourses has remained centered around African American subculture, no matter how much its popularity has ebbed and flowed in the spotlight of mainstream music.
The primary component or standard that distinguish go-go from its predecessors is its use of junior-sized congas, keyboards, drums, hi-hats and hand cowbells in a syncopated distinct rhythm, similar to that of swing music. Prominent artists within this genre include Chuck Brown (1936-2012) – the widely proclaimed godfather of go-go – The Backyard Band, Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, Junkyard Band and EU. With the help of Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, go-go group EU – which stands Experience Unlimited – became a recognizable face for DC’s feel-good music genre by way of their video for the song “Da Butt.” Many instances of remix culture rear itself in the makings of go-go music, specifically recursion, combinatoriality and dialogism. Like jam sessions in jazz, go-go music is often recorded during live performances, where much of the material is free-styled, off-the-cuff, improvised. As Yuri Lotman would say, “New texts are the texts that emerge as results of irreversible processes… i.e. texts that are unpredictable to a certain degree.” The grammar of go-go music is pretty simple and liberal, in that as long as you have the signature percussionist sound as your acoustic backdrop, the rest is free reign.
The essence of unpredictability also seems to be at the heart of go-go music, which often includes verbal shout-outs/odes to communities and sectors of DC; one go-go band is even named Northeast Groovers. More often than not, the only accessible text of go-go songs are those that were performed live. These recordings typically feature a call-and-response style between the band and the audience, which adds to the organic and unpolished nature of this musical genre. Many recordings exude the impression of an actual go-go, or party atmosphere – a feature of the music I’m sure isn’t coincidental.
The lengthy duration of some go-go songs like “Sick of Being Lonely” are the result of recursion – in this case, musical works that nest references, quotations, samples or allusions of prior works into a larger composition. This 14-minute live performance includes pieces of Atlanta rap group Field Mob’s 2002-hit “Sick of Being Lonely” and reggae star Lady Saw’s tune “I Got Your Man.” A similar song by go-go band Rare Essence called “Pieces of Me” is a cover of Ashlee Simpson’s 2004 pop song.
“Rare Essence – Pieces of Me” (5:04) [Derivative of Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me”]
“Backyard Band – Sick of Being Lonely” (14:18) [Derivative of Field Mob’s “Sick of Being Lonely” and Lady Saw’s “I Got Your Man”]
Wale, who was born during the peak of go-go’s rising fame, repeatedly pays musical homage to the funky genre along with another cultural staple – Seinfeld. In 2010, he released a mixtape, titled More About Nothing, which includes snippets from various episodes of the hit sitcom on each track, respectively. (Later this year, he plans on creating a sequel to this compilation – The Album About Nothing.) Undoubtedly enamored with go-go, Wale’s most recognizable songs, “Pretty Girls,” “Clappers,” and “Bait” are all derivative of DC’s signature music style.
“Backyard Band – Pretty Girls” – WARNING: Explicit Language
“Wale – Pretty Girls ft. Gucci Mane, Weensey of Backyard Band” – WARNING: Explicit Language
As we can discover, go-go music is clearly the offshoot of funk, blues and swing. Yet, primitive go-go is not like the traces of go-go we may catch occasionally on DC’s WYKS radio station. It has morphed with time, pulling inspiration from different signs to create unforeseeable results – the essence of discrete infinity. Like any musical form, go-go evokes nostalgia; searching YouTube for “go-go music DC” can easily grant retrieval of early texts from Chuck Brown and others. And while the infamy of go-go remains sporadic – with Wale seemingly the only mainstream artist carrying on its back – and less potent than that of hip-hop, its acoustic DNA can be found in texts from artists like Beck (“Where It’s At”) and Jay-Z (“Do It Again”). Thus, the semiotic and generative saga of go-go continues…
If you’re interested in hearing more go-go greatness or tapping into Wale’s repertiore, check out some of these songs below:
“Wale – The Break Up Song” – sample of Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do”
“Rare Essence – Sardines & Pork n’ Beans”
“UCB – Sexy Lady”
“DJ Flexx – The Water Dance”
“DJ Kool – 20-minute Workout” (5:48)