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.
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.
What began as a subgenre of funk with significant Latin influences (both in rhythmic patterns as well as the combination of congas and cowbells) has shifted over the years, and newer generations of go-go feature more hip-hop and rap influences. While go-go's standard pocket beat remains dominant, the genre also contains a number of subgenres, characterized by subtle (or not-so subtle) changes in instrumentation. The first is “old school,” which is noted for playing the pocket beat described above, and has continually fueled the Chocolate City’s music scene. All early go-go music uses the pocket beat, from Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers to Trouble Funk. As discussed above, the instrumentation of early go-go centered on the drumset and conga, along with small percussion instruments. It also typically included synthesizers and horns.
From old school grew “crank,” made popular in the 1990s by bands such as Northeast Groovers and Backyard Band. These bands feature more rapping and have largely done away with horn sections. Still operating with drumset and congas, crank often features a faster, more aggressive pocket, which is sometimes called a socket. In the center of the go-go spectrum lies “grown and sexy,” a subgenre of go-go that still utilizes the pocket beat but for a sleeker, R&B sound. Top grown and sexy bands include Suttle Thoughts and Be’la Dona, the latter of which is one of the scene’s only all-women bands. In pursuit of this mature, R&B sound, some bands, such as Suttle Thoughts, regularly feature horns in their performances.
The newest evolution of go-go and the fourth subgenre is “bounce beat,” a more percussive style of music than its predecessors. Named for its signature “bounce beat” (sometimes called the slow bounce), it features a slightly different instrumentation than the earlier subgenres.. Rather than congas, bounce beat thrives on the combination of drumset and rototoms. The melodic and harmonic content of bounce beat is provided primarily by electric keyboards, rather than a horn section or even guitar.
Instrumentation is at the heart of the go-go sound, and is part of what makes it such a recognizable genre across generations. Despite differences in instrumentation, many bands play multiple styles of go-go music, and can vary from performance to performance. Furthermore, when it counts, the bands come together to advocate for the community as a whole. Go-go music, like many genres of live music around the country, is currently vulnerable to the rising rents and decreasing venues that accompany processes of gentrification. In 2019, the recorded go-go music that has been playing at the corner of 7th Street and Florida Avenue was shut down due to complaints, but quickly turned back on after organizing and protests. Key advocacy groups like “Don’t Mute DC” and “Love Live Go-Go" are leading these key fights against cultural erasure as the city continues to change. The good news is, these groups are winning the fights. The DC Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser recently signed legislation designating go-go the official music of the city.
 Lornell, Kip, and Charles C. Stephenson. The Beat!: Go-Go Music from Washington, D. C. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2009.
Allie Martin is a PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. Her work explores the relationships between race, sound, and gentrification in Washington, DC. Utilizing a combination of ethnographic fieldwork and digital humanities methodologies, Allie considers how African-American people in the city experience gentrification as a sonic, racialized process. Her work has been funded by the Ford Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities at Indiana University. In the Fall of 2020, Allie will join the Music Department and cluster for Digital Humanities and Social Engagement at Dartmouth College as a Postdoctoral Fellow.