Go-Go 101

By Allie Martin

As an undergraduate in American University’s Audio Production program, I was able to invite a go-go band into the university's recording studio to do a session. Go-go is Washington, DC’s local subgenre of funk music, characterized by high energy live performances, audience interaction, repetition, and a beat that keeps people going on the dance floor. That beat is driven by a large ensemble that includes a variety of acoustic and electric instruments, but is always centered on an extended and driving percussion section.

Posters and instruments at the Long Live Go-Go/Moechella

pop-up shop, June 2019

One night, we were recording an original holiday song with the band, All 4 U. Setting up a recording session for a large band is a painstaking process, but after what seemed like hours of mic’ing and sound checking, we were ready to go. The band got through a couple of takes and was halfway into one when one of their members, T-Bob, said that something wasn’t right and moved to go from the control room with me into the live room where the band was mid-recording. I urged him not to interrupt the recording, but next thing you know, T-Bob was in the live room, taking over the cowbell. To this day, I will admit, the song was absolutely missing cowbell. This is go-go's instrumentation: seemingly massive, complicated, and at times unwieldy. But at its heart, go-go music is built around a few key instruments and rhythmic combinations that have been the sound of DC for over 40 years.

Go-go music is a decidedly percussive genre, and can be performed anywhere, from its typical club venues to outside in public parks. Required in most go-go bands are a drumset, conga drums, and auxiliary percussion, which can include cowbells, tambourines, and roto-toms, and timbales. This combination can vary and can be difficult to get right, as seen from the cowbell incident. The drumset and congas create the “pocket,” which is the beat from which all other go-go music is built. This beat was honed by go-go pioneers in the 1970s, including artists such as Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, Trouble Funk, and EU. Kip Lornell and Charles Stephenson, Jr. describe go-go's rhythmic attributes:

Go-go's essential beat is characterized by a syncopated, dotted rhythm that consists of a series of quarter and eighth notes (quarter, eighth, quarter, (space/held briefly), quarter, eighth, quarter)... which is underscored most dramatically by the bass drum and snare drum, and the hi-hat... [and] is ornamented by the other percussion instruments, especially by the conga drums, timbales, and hand-held cowbells.[1]

While the percussion section is the heart of the band and is central to the style, many other instruments are employed. Old school go-go music also features one or two electric keyboards, electric guitar and bass, horn sections that include trumpets, trombones, and saxophones, and often several vocalists. The main vocalist in any go-go band is called the “lead talker” or “lead mic.” The lead talker’s job is to lead the band, sing and/or rap, and engage with call and response with the audience. They might ask questions about where people are from, start a chant that the audience is sure to follow, or even announce birthdays if notes are handed to them. In this way, the voice is one of the most important instruments in go-go music. Go-go is a communal conversation, built on the repeated action between audience and band, blurring the lines and making the audience a part of the band.

DC Go-go band the Junkyard Band plays “Sardines” at RFK Stadium in 2010.