I first saw Chuck Brown in the summer of 1987 at an all-ages show at the Celebrity Hall not far from Howard University. During the day I was working as an apprentice labor organizer alongside a Chicano from West Berkeley and a Japanese American from Santa Cruz, and they had joined me that evening out of boredom. Looking back, the three of us must have presented a spectacle — three non-blacks from California five years above the median age.
Earlier that week we had driven across the Anacostia River to knock on doors and leaflet residents in the weed-strewn projects of Southeast. When we came back across the bridge we saw flag-wearing picketers outside the Capitol building carrying signs that bore the image of Oliver North and read, “He told the truth.” Washington, D.C. still mirrors America’s grand divide.
The Celebrity Hall felt like somewhere else entirely — perhaps the vibrant Chocolate City that George Clinton had named. We were now in C.C., not D.C. The kids were pointing and laughing and ribbing us. They asked if we were lost, where our cameras were, did we even know how to dance? We were amused. Then the music started. Suddenly we were all in it together.
And here was Chuck Brown, a nearly 50-year-old man with gold fronts, sporting wraparound glasses and a black hat, leading several hundred teenagers cranking — HARD! — to a genius medley of “Go-Go Swing” (a rewrite of D.C. native Duke Ellington’s classic), Lionel Hampton’s “Midnight Sun,” Eddie Jefferson’s “Moody’s Mood for Love,” and the Woody Woodpecker theme.
Between songs, the percussion section went off, the dancing got really serious, and Chuck shouted out the kids in the audience by name as if he was Mister Señor Love Daddy.
The kids started chanting, “Chuck baby don’t give a fuck!”
On cue, he’d reply, “That ain’t true.”
“Chuck baby don’t give a fuck!”
“I love all of you!”
The band did not stop for hours. The heat was withering. But you never wanted to leave this kind of joy.
Chuck Brown was Chocolate City to me. And in C.C., as the real Black Clinton had pointed out, many ironclad laws of pop gravity did not apply.
For a time go-go and hip-hop grew up together, close cousins in a time when “breaks” were not a chance for people to catch a quick cigarette outside, but the moment they were working hardest inside. Yet in C.C., unlike in the Bronx, flesh-and-blood musicians still ruled. Dancers moved to two-hour song suites yoked together with steaming fatback breaks of drums, percussion, and bass pulls. DJs played only when the band rested. As they cued up their records, they cursed the day they had refused to take trumpet lessons.
Chuck Brown was the reason. He had figured out what bandleaders in other cities would not until it was too late. Instead of the songs, he realized the transitions between the songs — the percussive solos, hyped-up shout-outs, and church-style call-and-response — were the draw. What DJ Kool Herc was doing for the Bronx, Chuck Brown was doing for C.C. But Brown was a general leading dance bands to victory.
After reinventing the dance band format, Chuck personally nurtured every notable go-go band of the next three decades. His manager, Tom Goldfogle, once said Chuck had single-handedly created hundreds of jobs. In most cultural movements, there are many authors. In go-go, however, everyone agrees that there was only one Chuck.
Chuck Brown was born on August 22, 1936 in Gaston, North Carolina, and grew up singing and playing piano in the Mount Zion Holiness Church. In her excellent new book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, former Washington Post reporter Natalie Hopkinson describes the poverty in which Brown grew up: “His calloused hands tell of the cotton he picked traveling from farm to farm in North Carolina and Virginia, living in sharecropper shanty houses. His down-home presence manifests the humility of someone who lived in servants’ quarters when his mother worked as a domestic.”
Brown moved with his family to the District at age 8 and began working odd jobs. “I was a bricklayer, tractor-trailer driver, sparring partner, ex-boxer, you know? A lot of good things: ex-pool player, ex-hustler you might say. Back in those days, the word hustler meant you were a good gambler — pool, cards, craps, and women,” he told me. “I hadn’t made up my mind what I wanted to do.”
While in his mid-20s, he shot a man — in self-defense, he said — and when the man died, Brown served eight years in Lorton Correctional Complex. The stint focused him. He had a guitar made for him for five packs of cigarettes. When Brown stepped out into freedom, he returned to a D.C. that had become majority black, but was still as segregated as when Leadbelly had sung about it in “The Bourgeois Blues.”
“Black people didn’t really have access to the popular clubs,” says Charles C. Stephenson Jr., the co-author with George Washington University professor Kip Lornell of the essential book The Beat: Go-Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip-Hop. “People started using the term ‘go-go’ to describe where they were going, which really was the physical location. Instead of saying I’m going to a dance, they say, ‘I’m going to a go-go.'” Go-gos were held in high school gyms, Knights of Columbus halls, and church centers, and this is where Brown began playing professionally.
Brown backed Jerry Butler and Lloyd Price, but the one gig that influenced him the most was Tommy Smith’s Los Latinos, a band working at the confluence of black jazz boogaloo and Afro-Latino bugalú. In 1966, he brought the idea of the expanded percussion section into his first band, the Soul Searchers, anticipating the funk fusions of soul, mambo, jazz, and other Afro-diasporic rhythms that would fire the breakbeat revolution.
In many interviews, Brown has discussed hearing Grover Washington Jr.’s minor 1974 soul jazz hit, “Mr. Magic” (written by the calypso-influenced Trinidadian American jazz percussionist Ralph McDonald), as the key to the birth of go-go. The beat took him back to the rhythm of the sanctified church of his childhood — “Duhnt duhnt-duhnt da-duhnt duhnt-duhnt-dunht.” It clocked in at an easy 99 beats per minute, much slower than the disco tempos of the day that were reaching 140. By slowing the tempo, Chuck could make for syncopation, call-and-response, and a continuous mix with breakdowns.
In 1976, he debuted a new groove for his audiences, discarding dozens of lyrics and two drummers to get it right. Three years later, distilled into a seven-minute single called “Bustin’ Loose,” the sound of go-go went to no. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart, and Chuck Brown became the biggest black artist since Marvin Gaye left the District.
One of C.C.’s unwritten laws is that the more successful you are outside of the District, the more hardship you will likely face within it, either from a collective feeling of “they forgot about us” betrayal or a horrible run of bad luck and fuckery. (Call it the C.C. Curse, and blame it for Why Go-Go Never Conquered the World.) For Brown, the latter happened. Former manager Reo Edwards estimates the record made $13 million for the indie label Source Records and that Brown received only $13,000. Source Records went belly-up and the Soul Searchers broke up. While more aggressive young bands like Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, and Experience Unlimited — all of whom Chuck had mentored — began to rise, he fell back into the shadows.
But as if to affirm C.C.’s alterna-logic, the older Brown got, the better and more relevant he became. When Brown got the band back together, he slowed the beat down to the proper tempo, took long, tasty, George Benson vocalese-y solos, and highlighted the percussion section. In 1985, at 49, an age when most former pop stars are on a cruise ship, in a free clinic, or opening for Manny Pacquiao, Chuck made a stunning return with “We Need Some Money,” a timely bird-flip to Reaganomics built on a groove that he had lifted and extended, DJ Premier–style, from two bars of saxophonist LeRoy Fleming’s solo in the fading seconds of “Bustin’ Loose.”
Then Chris Blackwell came to town, hoping that with a movie and some albums he could make go-go the next reggae. But Blackwell’s plan crashed and burned, leaving bands like Trouble Funk and E.U. with small national hits and scorched careers back home in C.C. Go-go indeed went global, as the beat was incorporated first into rap and then into jazz and new jack swing. But in C.C. the scene turned ugly. At a Chuck Brown gig in Adams Morgan in 1992, a man was shot and killed. City officials closed up clubs and tried to ban the music.
Brown continued to play. He mentored a new generation of harder, gangsta-oriented bands led by Anwan “Big G” Glover and the Backyard Band. He recorded the best-selling jazz and blues album The Other Side with the late Eva Cassidy. By 2001, he was at the height of his popularity, playing three to six times a week to jam-packed venues in the DMV — the name D.C., Maryland, and Virginia residents call the Beltway and its no-longer-vanilla suburbs.
That year he cut perhaps the defining set of his career, captured on Put Your Hands Up! The Tribute Concert to Chuck Brown in celebration of his 65th birthday. It began with “Mister Magic,” climaxed with performances by Big G and Lil Benny, and concluded with the “Go-Go Swing” medley. He told me, “See, I haven’t retired, because I’m still inspired, and I’m still getting hired. And I thank God for that. Haha ha ha ha!” (He even laughed that contagious laugh in rhythm — in this case, clavé.)
I got to follow Chuck around for a story for Vibe during a massive (but unsuccessful) grassroots petition effort to have him nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The campaign was about more than a plaque. By now it was clear to everyone that Chuck Brown was the beating heart of Chocolate City, the man in whom everyone saw himself and one whose boundless generosity encompassed them all. I quickly learned that covering Chuck was as much about covering his fans as him. That’s how he liked it.
There was Kevin “Kato” Hammond, the founder of the pioneering TMOTTGOGO.com website, who said, “Talking about Chuck is like talking about Stevie Wonder, talking about Duke Ellington.”
There was Barbara McCrea, a grandmother who had frequented Soul Searchers’ gigs beginning in 1968, and who shed a tear remembering how her deceased husband would dance all night.
There was the 41-year-old Linda Poulson, her shy daughter standing beside her, gawking, who told Chuck, “I tell you what. I got 27 years of dancing to you. I done aged, and you haven’t!”
There was the super-fly Monica, an advanced-degree speech therapist in camouflage and denim who was singing along as Chuck led the crowd through “Moody’s Mood for Love”: “Oh, when we are one, I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid!”
Four generations of Chocolate City grew up with the music of Chuck Brown. Now demographers debate over whether D.C. is reaching another tipping point, whether it will soon again be majority white. Beneath the grief over Chuck’s passing, below the joy of the spontaneous block parties that broke out last week in his honor, is an anxiety that a whole way of life may be passing as well.
One night I ended up at a club on a lonely Maryland country road. Its weather-beaten wooden marquee read, “THE CLASSICS, FRI — CHUCK BROWN.”
It was after midnight and all the way live: sisters in white zebra caps and stylishly ripped and airbrushed tees, bandanna-ed brothers back from college, local hardrocks in shorts and sockless leather shoes downing Moet straight out of the bottle, and a braided girl in the corner over there freaking like an ice skater, left hand on the iron pole, right leg back over her man’s shoulder.
The band played Barry White, Sunshine Anderson, and Missy Elliott covers, originals like “Back It On Up (Sho Ya Right),” even Rare Essence classics like “One on One.” (Rare Essence’s James Funk and the brilliant late trombonist Lil Benny were featuring that night.) Down in the pit, the dancers surged with the music.
“Tell me what you feel like doing!”
And the crowd gave it up: “Wind me up, Chuck!”
At the end of the show, the crew packed up the equipment. Some passed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame petitions among the club stragglers. Chuck went around to each of the 10 band members and all of the roadies, broke them off with the night’s cut and joked with them. They all called him “Pops.”
Back in his white Town Car, it was now four in the morning, and he said, “My band, the people that work for me, yes indeed, they’re all like my children. They kept the old man going all these years. Some of these kids coming out now — their parents met at my shows 20, 30 years ago. Fell in love, got married, had them, now they coming to my show. And they probably used to sneak out of the house, get whuppings coming to my show. I wish I could take some of them beatings for some of them. Hey, I feel for ya, but I can’t reach ya! Haha ha ha ha ha!”
Then he said quietly, “That was my dream — to create a sound for this town.”
I asked him about a saying he often used to end his show, what it meant. He produced a cassette and popped it in. It was an instrumental of a jazz trio playing a ballad — a languid piano and bass, a softly brushed snare and a high hat — and suddenly Chuck was singing those mysterious words in a passionate, spine-tingling vibrato: “No complaints and no regrets, I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets.”
“So here’s to life and every joy it brings,” he sang low with the tape. “Here’s to life, to dreamers and their dreams.”
Jeff Chang is the author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and the forthcoming Who We Be: The Colorization of America.