Chuck Brown, the ‘godfather of go-go’ is no more.
He had postponed some of his shows in the past months owing to an attack of pneumonia and was subsequently hospitalised in April. He breathed his last on Wednesday at the John Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. He was 75.
And his music, well, his music is the stuff that puts ‘the groove in your move’, unlike that Samsung laptop in that monumentally idiotic ad. It was all about laying down a big fat groove, augmented by varied, eclectic instrumentation – there would be thumping rototoms and congas, an excitable horn section, and, of course, Brown’s staccato guitar phrases, the call-and-response chants in his distinctive voice, and his inimitable stage persona. This was the time (mid 70s) when disco was drawing people away from live bands, and Brown drew on multiple sources – Afro-Cuban and Latin rhythms, funk, calypso, etc. – to get his sound, so that the experience of seeing Brown and The Soul Searchers live would always be a novel one. He would compare his music to gumbo because of the endless variations and improvisations that would come with it in live performances – no two gigs were the same. There were lots of surprises at every gig – he would intersperse his songs with versions of jazz standards like ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ and ‘Harlem Nocturne’, Louis Jordan’s ‘Run Joe’, reworked R & B standards, etc. But why was the music called ‘go-go’? Chuck once said this was due the fact that “the music just goes and goes.” Go-go did flirt briefly with mainstream acceptance in the 80s, but it remained a very regional thing. Natalie Hopkinson in here brilliant essay hints that this allegiance to the live experience is what distinguished it from hip-hop — and this is probably the reason it could never become ‘pop’ enough. This is not to say he wasn’t hugely influential – his tracks have been heavily sampled by EDM and hip-hop producers. Coldcut’s ‘Say Kids What Time Is It’, Farm’s ‘All Together Now’ both drew from what is arguably Brown’s most famous song – “Bustin’ Loose”. Eric B and Rakim’s ‘Paid in Full’, counted among the greatest rap albums of all time, samples two of Brown’s songs. However, the most likely way by which you would have been exposed to ‘Bustin Loose’ is through Nelly’s ‘Hot in Herre’(ugh).
Then there is the social context – D.C. was an especially violent area mired in drug and gang-related violence. Shootings and beatdowns in parties and concerts were commonplace. Chuck Brown, in his gigs, would involve audiences like few others could. By this, I’m not just implying that he would keep yelling ‘ARE YOU NIGGAZ WIT ME’ between songs – he was famous for his ‘roll calls’, where he would call out the names of random attendees when fights would break out and these people would actually cool it, out of the sheer respect the man commanded in the region.