Chuck Brown dies: King of D.C. go-go music, influential sample source
When the funk music known as "go-go" comes up in casual conversation — and that's not nearly often enough — it's inevitably accompanied by the mention of one man's name: Chuck Brown. The Washington, D.C. funk band leader and composer, whose biggest hit was the 1978 song "Bustin' Loose," died Wednesday at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore at age 75. He was the king of an East Coast subgenre that rose alongside New York funk and hip-hop in the 1970s and '80s.
Featuring remarkable Afro-Cuban polyrhythms via pounding congas and rototoms, punctuated bursts of brass and Brown shouting out call-and-response phrases alongside grooves that extended many songs to over eight minutes long — and, more importantly, almost two or three times that in a live setting — Brown's music was for partying. Though it flirted with mainstream success in the '80s, the music has remained a regional phenomenon, a uniquely American strain of dance music.
But that doesn't mean its influence hasn't spread. The rhythms he built were some of the earliest tracks sampled by electronic dance music producers, especially when rave culture was being born in England. Coldcut's influential 1987 jam "Say Kids What Time Is It?" is built on the back of a Chuck Brown rhythm from "Bustin' Loose" — as is the Farm's breakout rave-pop anthem "All Together Now" from 1990.
In hip-hop, Eric B. & Rakim's classic "Paid in Full" album adapted two Brown songs, and most prominently, Virginia producers the Neptunes used Brown's "We Need Some Money" on Nelly's smash "Hot in Herre."
Fans of Brown spoke volumes about his work in the live setting; I never saw him, so I feel at a great disadvantage when addressing his version of go-go music, because as dance music, it was built to be experienced live, to move a crowd. In her wonderful essay over at the Root, writer Natalie Hopkinson suggests that this allegiance to the live experience is what separated it from the music of hip-hop — and perhaps what doomed it in the pop marketplace.
"It stayed true to time-honored cultural scripts such as live call-and-response, live instrumentation, as well as its locally rooted fashions, slang, dance, distribution and economic systems," she writes. "Simply put: Go-go never sold out. There is a grit and texture to the music — sometimes derided as 'pots and pans' — that gives voice to the communities where it was created and from which profits are taken."
If you've never heard Brown's music, a story relayed in Jeff Chang's history of hip-hop, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," captures the essence of Brown's go-go sounds. He quotes Brown producer Reo Edwards, describing the message of the music: "I was talking to a go-go songwriter one time," Edwards told Chang. "I said, 'Man, you need a verse here.' The guy said, 'The rototom's talking! Hear the rototom?' Swear to God, he said the rototom was telling the story. 'Can't put no verse there, the rototom telling the story.'"
— Randall Roberts Twitter: @liledit
Photo: In this Jan. 18, 2010 file photo, master of ceremonies Chuck Brown speaks during a program to celebrate the legacy of the late Martin Luther King Jr. at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington. Brown died Wednesday. Credit: Nick Wass / AP Photo.