How Go-Go Grew

The sound of go-go was born on the streets of Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s, a mutant variation of the funk and R&B grooves that had been evolving over the course of the decade. At its core, go-go is all about the beat—and while one of its chief calling cards is a primal, butt-shaking feel, the go-go groove is also an extremely precise and specific sort of beast, adorned in just the right way with congas, timbales, and Rototoms accentuating the bone-deep rhythm the drummer is dropping. It’s music for getting a good, sweaty party going all the way through the wee hours, and it’s been embedded in the culture of the Baltimore/D.C. area for decades, transcending all sorts of borders. For instance, in the ’80s, D.C. punk pioneers like Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye eagerly left their comfort zone behind for the city’s black clubs to catch go-go heroes like Trouble Funk in action.

But partly because it’s always been such a regionally focused scene, go-go has usually remained a cult phenomenon for the rest of the country. One of the only times it even came within spitting distance of the national mainstream was when E.U. was featured performing “Da’ Butt” in Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze. Even the ultimate go-go anthem, Chuck Brown’s 1979 tune “Bustin’ Loose”—generally credited as the genre’s flagship track—only reached the middle of the pop charts. (Nelly fared far better with his 2002 blockbuster “Hot in Herre,” which borrowed its hook from Brown’s song.)

But on February 19, 2020, go-go truly became part of American history when D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser signed a bill into law declaring it to be the official music of the city. Let’s take the long view of how go-go grew. Look back to the early influences of the scene, from the fiery funk of Young Senators to the jazzy jams of Grover Washington, Jr., and the sweet soul of The Moments, then shift to the giants of the go-go game like Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, and Rare Essence, and run up to hip-hop/Go-Go crossover kings like DJ Kool.