Her 10th annual birthday show at Tipitina's will feature Chuck Brown's band, but her relationship to the Washington D.C.-based sound goes much deeper than the one she cultivated with the Godfather of Go-Go.
Last spring, Rare Essence tried to present a contemporary take on go-go with mixed results on Turn It Up. The album opens on a strong note with “V.I.P.,” which features the signature elements of the Washington D.C.-based funk sound—heavy, nimble percussion, call-and-response vocals, and a rolling groove that could go on for 20 minutes or the three and a half on the album. It is, like so much New Orleans funk and brass band music, the sound of a community as it’s played by a 12-piece band who embody inclusive social values.
Parts of Turn It Up show the stress of trying to think of what to do that’s fresh, so it is a little baggy at 40 minutes. DJ Soul Sister—Melissa Weber—dismisses the quibbles. Go-go lives on the stages of Washington D.C. clubs, she says, and the recordings all misrepresent the music, and she would know. Weber has done as much as anyone in a generation to introduce New Orleans to go-go on her WWOZ radio show and at her weekly “Hustle” parties.
“The reason go-go hasn’t gone national is because it exists primarily in live form,” she says.
Friday night, DJ Soul Sister will host her 10th annual birthday bash at Tipitina’s, this year with the New Breed Brass Band and go-go godfather Chuck Brown’s band. Brown died in 2012, but his addition of Latin half-time percussion to jazz, blues, and R&B songs in the early 1970s laid the groundwork for go-go. Weber goes way back with Brown. She first saw him play an Essence superlounge in 2003, then interviewed him in Jazz Fest’s Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, and performed a DJ set before his performance at Jazz Fest in 2009.
The music is notorious for struggling to find an audience outside of D.C., but Weber first heard go-go as a teenager growing up in New Orleans. The now-defunct WAIL 105 FM featured DJ Slick Leo, who “people unofficially acknowledge as being the Grandmaster Flash of the South,” Weber says. She recently learned that Slick Leo was from Washington D.C., so it made sense that he would add go-go to his mixes, and one day in 1982, a 10-year-old Melissa Weber heard him spin “Meet Me at the Go-Go” by Hot Cold Sweat—the first time she heard go-go. He played go-go regularly, so much so that Weber thinks “African Americans in my age range know Trouble Funk because of him.”
Weber didn’t know go-go was a thing at that point and wouldn’t for a few more years. As a teenager, she grabbed all the Trouble Funk she could find at garage sales, but it was just more funky music at that time. It wasn’t until one day in the late ’80s that she saw go-go on BET’s Video Vibrations and put two and two together. Video Vibrations was BET’s less produced video show with lowered stakes, and periodically she’d see clips on it from Live at the Capitol Centre 1987, a go-go concert video, and when she saw Chuck Brown play a go-go cover of LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad,” she understood the sound she had been tracking down for years.
Another interview at Jazz Fest led her to finally decide to go to D.C. and hear go-go live. Weber was listening to DJ Jubilee and the late Harold Battiste talk about the way rap, funk, and jazz intersected in bounce when a guy got up to say that in D.C., they had a similar thing, go-go. Afterwards, Weber went to talk to the guy, glad to find a kindred spirit. He turned out to be Ian MacKaye from Fugazi, who also talked about his love of go-go in the Washington D.C. episode of Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways series. He and Weber became friends and swapped bounce tapes for go-go tapes for a while. “After that, I thought, I’ve got to go to D.C. and see go-go for myself,” she says. In the early 2000s she did, and the first band she saw was Rare Essence.
The most popular go-go recordings are unofficial releases, Weber says. You can find “PA tapes”—live recordings pulled off the soundboard—dating back to 1978, and they’re the best representation of go-go’s essence. The Trouble Funk Drop the Bomb album from 1982 is a compilation pulled together by the rap label Sugarhill Records, and its live version of “Drop the Bomb” comes from an unlabelled two-record set, where the song is half of Side B.
“Studio recordings rarely capture the energy of what go-go really is,” Weber says. “Go-go is non-stop, so you can’t encapsulate that in a three-minute song. It is one long thing—literally. It has to be experienced live to believe it.”
That non-stop quality is one rarely in vogue among national audiences, which until the explosion of EDM tended to prefer its music broken into ADD-friendly chunks. Even in D.C., go-go flies under the radar these days. It has never stopped, and many of the bands who were staples on the scene in the ’80s—Junk Yard Band, Rare Essence, Trouble Funk—still play today, though now shows frequently take place in roller rinks or wedding halls instead of clubs and theaters. Despite those changes, go-go’s support in its core African-American community remains solid, and much the same way that New Orleanians want to see such musical expressions as brass bands and bounce preserved, go-go is more than just a music to the D.C. community that supports it. Because of that, Weber says, “This culture is not going to die soon.”
Again, like many New Orleanians, D.C. go-go fans have felt the uneasy touch of the world outside. Much of the awareness of go-go outside of D.C. can be traced to Sugarhill’s Trouble Funk album, the appearance of E.U.’s “Da Butt” in Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze or Island Records’ Go-Go Crankin’ from 1985. The latter featured Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, and E.U. among others, and it’s as good an encapsulation of go-go as has been widely available.
Island followed Go-Go Crankin’ in 1986 with the movie Good to Go, named for the track by Slim that opened the compilation. The film tells the story of a political reporter played by Art Garfunkel trying to make sense of tensions between go-go bands and those who parasitically prey on the scene they create, and the racist cop who simply wants to close the clubs. Island owner Chris Blackwell envisioned the film as The Harder They Come for go-go, but it didn’t find an audience then or now, even after it was blandly renamed Short Fuse. After the movie’s failure, Island released a few more go-go albums including two by Trouble Funk, but the label seemed to lose hope for go-go and eventually moved on, leaving some in the community feeling resentful according to Weber. Go-go supporters felt Good to Go played up the drugs and danger at the expense of an honest representation of the scene, and that, along with the low-grade feeling of rejection tainted Island in supporters’ memories.
“But if it wasn’t for Island, I probably wouldn’t have heard the music at all,” Weber says.