The Pocket: The DC Go-Go Movement

Directed by Nicholas Shumaker and Michael Cahill

From Madchester to Miami Bass, regional scenes have a way of drying up once their mass appeal has subsided. Folks outside the beltway might imagine that go-go–the funk variant birthed in Washington, D.C., that seemed poised to cross over nationally in the late 80s–met a similar fate. After all, it’s been 15 years since “Da’Butt,” the party anthem by go-go’s great pop hope, E.U., was featured prominently in Spike Lee’s School Daze; since then, tracks like the Junkyard Band’s “Sardines” have provided a bottomless source for hip-hop samples, but on the national charts go-go has been a no-show. Filmmaker Nicholas Shumaker, raised in Detroit, thought the scene had vanished completely until he enrolled at Georgetown in the late 90s. His recent documentary (playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center through February 13), The Pocket: The DC Go-Go Movement, sets out to prove that there’s life after “Da’Butt.”

Shumaker and partner Michael Cahill examine a subject ripe for exposure: a persistent, self-sustaining urban subculture that’s barely understood even in its own hometown. Their title has two meanings. The “pocket” is a musical term for the spot where bass and drums click into a perfect groove. But it also refers to the neighborhoods where go-go flourishes. Here, the film suggests, in the shadow of the capital’s monumental neoclassical architecture, real, living people can create a real, living culture. But though they capture the passion and pride of that culture, Schumaker and Cahill only hint at the real question go-go raises–why did this stuff survive, while so many other regional styles fizzled out or were sucked into the mainstream and diluted? It turns out that the same elements that kept go-go from crossing over big–its site-specific flavor, its emphasis on live performance, and its constantly changing sound–have helped it thrive locally. The pocket isolates, but it also protects.

And go-go does thrive. In the 2001 book The Beat: Go-Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop, George Washington University music professor Kip Lornell and ex-E.U. manager Charles C. Stephenson Jr. estimate that it’s at least a $10,000,000-a-year industry in the D.C. region. Programs like Go-Go Rudy’s Friday night show on WKYS build hype for big gigs, and DJs like Supa Funkregulata Celo spin at club nights and release mix CDs featuring joints new and old. The on-line zine Take Me Out to the Go-Go counts more than 1,000 shows a year in the area, and reigning acts like the Back Yard Band or 911 can play a packed club every week. There are gigs every night in countless D.C. and suburban clubs such as Legends, Breeze’s Supper Club, the Meeting Place, the East Side, and the Black Hole–places where top groups compete for weekly residencies. But this success also contributes to go-go’s isolation. Even after paying for the phalanx of security guards required for shows, players can make a living without leaving town. So they generally don’t, which means few people outside the area get to hear this music. Though great reissues are still being put out–Liaison Records’ two-disc companion set to the Lornell and Stephenson book is worth seeking out–national distribution for new go-go recordings simply doesn’t exist.

Part of the problem (if it is a problem) is that studio records have never been essential elements of the go-go scene. A handful of hit singles have made a splash (notably Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” and Redds & the Boys’ “Movin’ & Groovin'”), but go-go has always been primarily a live music. As the documentary makes clear, the name was originally used to describe D.C. club R & B in the 60s, when the Young Senators and Tony Vann & the Professionals hustled gigs between the district and Baltimore. (The Senators were D.C.’s top act until former Temptation Eddie Kendrick whisked them away to be his backing band.) What’s now thought of as go-go was synthesized in the 70s by a struggling soul musician named Chuck Brown. Brown found himself competing for gigs with inexpensive disco DJs who could spin one record into another so the music never stopped, and he decided to find a way to fill in the dead space between his numbers. Brown dug the rhythms of the Latin groups he’d played in and had taken a shine to a certain Grover Washington Jr. percussion pattern, so his band the Soul Searchers began playing endless jams driven by dense, syncopated cowbells and congas.

In the 80s, groups like Trouble Funk and Rare Essence built up on Brown’s foundation and battled for supremacy at the popular D.C. Armory jams. But because the music was so rooted in live performance, creating radio-ready tracks was difficult: a three-minute single makes for a blurry snapshot of an all-night party. To make matters worse, the heavily synthetic production styles of the era were a lousy fit for the music’s fluid groove. Andre Harrell, president of Uptown Records, signed the group Rare Essence (through his man in D.C., Sean Combs, aka Puff Daddy, aka P. Diddy), but the group’s recordings for the label turned out to be unsatisfactory. In general, go-go fans complain that most studio recordings aren’t “hitting it.” Today there’s still a trickle of official go-go CDs, on labels like Liaison, that sell quite well–Chuck Brown’s 2001 disc Your Game…Live at the 9:30 Club, Washington DC moved 50,000 units, Rare Essence sold 30,000, and 911 sold 15,000. But fans prefer the tens of thousands of bootleg cassette and CD dubs of live gigs, known as “PA tapes.”

Go-go has always been incredibly adaptable. It’s distinguished by a fatback beat played somewhere between 70 and 90 beats per minute, but just about anything–lush or otherworldly synths, regal horns, nasty guitars, party-people call and response–can be piled on top. Now as hip-hop swallows up styles with a bloblike efficiency, go-go remains distinct. In fact, in its own way, go-go assimilated hip-hop: in the 90s, younger acts like Northeast Groovers, Pure Elegance, and Back Yard were sometimes fronted by gruff “talkers” reminiscent of hip-hop MCs. They also dropped the horn blasts of 80s bands like Trouble Funk; to the dismay of elders who cut their teeth on Cameo and Ohio Players covers, some new tracks are little more than vocals, bass, and drums. After their fling with Uptown, Rare Essence retained local dominance by changing their sound (and their personnel). Their song “Body Snatchers,” a house-shaking boogie with a creepy undercurrent, epitomizes the new style.

When it comes to fans, go-go gets ’em young and keeps ’em coming back. In the late 80s, following a rash of drug-related shootings, D.C. council members attempted to enforce curfews that would in effect shut down the clubs. Today, over-21 venues such as Club U and Legends dominate the scene. Yet venues such as Hot Shops still host all-ages early shows and 19-and-up late shows. The club gigs bring in loads of third-generation go-goers eager to lose themselves in the groove or do what they can’t do at school functions–namely, freak-dance each other. Go-go’s continued popularity with teens is such that amateur shows are common at area high schools, and it’s not unusual for new acts such as the Uncalled 4 Band, profiled in The Pocket, to start gigging in their teens at community centers. As with D.C. punk, the scene has always counted on being discovered by succeeding generations of teenagers.

In fact D.C. punks have long talked up the go-go scene. One such fan, hardcore icon Ian MacKaye, appears in The Pocket, celebrating the music’s distinctively local character. D.C. is a notoriously transitory town, he notes, adding, “If you’re from here, you gotta hang on tight.” Yet many of the go-go players in The Pocket, such as E.U. and Chuck Brown, aren’t eager to resign themselves to regional status. A decade after the majors lost all interest, pioneers like Brown continue to promote the music outside of the city. Editorials in Take Me Out to the Go-Go concern themselves with the economics of PA tape trading and strategies for taking the music to the next–presumably national–level. The go-go story is inspiring to some, who see a homegrown culture that’s outlasted the tainting effects of mass marketing. But the story is dispiriting to many of its creators, who still hang on to their big dreams and show no signs of letting go.