A crowd dancing at a Junk Yard Band show. | Thomas Sayers Ellis
In our nation's capital, once you look past the marble monuments and Smithsonian treasure troves, a couple things stand out. One, citizens of the District fly their white-and-red flag a little more prominently and pointedly than in most cities. For true locals, city pride seems to mean something extra here. Two, a lot of that pride, that D.C. identity, is wrapped up in a style of music almost no one outside the immediate metro area has ever heard of.
Go-go, D.C.’s homegrown Black funk genre, builds long party jams out of call-and-response vocals, slinky bass lines, big horns and conga-fueled percussion. The style evolved sort of in parallel to hip-hop, and there's definitely some cross-pollination. But it's very, very different, its own thing, often more like throwback funk or soul, driven by full-scale bands, and all about the dance floor.
When WILDSAM created our book about D.C., we got a take on go-go from noted author Jason Reynolds, and went deep into the go-go stream to find some key tracks.
JASON REYNOLDS ON GO-GO:
“I grew up in the ’90s. Everything felt very, very Black. It was Chocolate City.The go-go was everything. Whatever you had to do to get there—lie to your mama, whatever it was—you could hold up your T-shirt and hear Big G shout out your neighborhood, your crew. Felt like people could see you. That people knew that you, your neighborhood, friends and crew existed in the world. You could go get that tape. You could say, “I need a 5/28, Backyard at the Icebox.” And you got the sense that everybody in the city was listening to the same tape.
I think this music is the Blackest music to ever be created. It literally is every single Black music put into one music, when you look at the history of all the Black musics. Chuck Brown was a bluesman, so you got blues, funk, soul, hip hop, call-and-response—like old field songs from slavery—Afro-Caribbean music, South American music, with the timbales and the rototoms. You've got Caribbean music, when you think about how dancehall rhythm has a particular rhythm, just like go-go music has a particular rhythm. A lot of our songs sound the same, but intentionally so. Or the remaking of songs—which is also a Caribbean thing, a dub thing.
So I feel like this music is all the Black musics in a singular music, which just makes me very proud. It's the Blackest music in the world, and I think we should start talking about it like that. The Blackest music in the world, you know what I mean?”