R.I.P. Chuck Brown 1936-2012.
If you’re just a regular person not from the Washington, DC area, you might have heard about the death of “Pioneer of ‘Go-Go’ Funk Music” Chuck Brown and thought “who gives a shit?” Maybe that who gives a shit was not even a rhetorical question for you. Maybe you went so far as to YouTube “Bustin’ Loose” and then you got REALLY confused about who gives a shit.
“Bustin’ Loose,” for all its charms, is not the best song, even in the inherently convoluted, repetitious, cocaine-fueled world of 70’s funk music. One could even make a case for “Bustin’” as a late-70’s death bell of the funk/soul era, which was by then all but completely subsumed by disco and later completely ruined in the 80’s due the fact that digital synthesizers (synthesized horns are like puke but a musical instrument) and funk do not get along; plus, you know, Hip Hop. That would be a very boring case made by a very boring person who has never been to a fun party in their life, but it does hold a certain amount of water.
Of course Chuck Brown was too busy trying to make money and move asses to worry about any of that stuff. And after witnessing firsthand the effects of “Bustin’” on DC-area partygoers for years, and finally arranging, under his own management, to record the song in ’78, Chuck Brown had a certifiable hit on his hands. The rest of the Bustin’ Loose album was much more straight ahead funk, but none of it charted. So, like all good regional dance music pioneers, he assumed the reason for its success was the groove, and Go-Go was off and running. Over a decades-long career, he’d scarcely ever play another groove again.
At this point, if you still have any who gives a shit juices flowing in your thin, dry veins, you might check out some additional Go-Go videos if you haven’t already. Trust me, you’ll want to see video of live performances. There is no reason ever to listen to a studio-recorded Go-Go track, except maybe for “Da Butt” if you’ve got a friend named Tanya, Theresa, Irene, Melissa, Sony, Shirley, or Ol’ Tammy who has a big old butt. There’s barely any reason to watch a late 80’s-era live Go-Go video, other than to see documented evidence of the cultural implications of an era when crack was very much the recreational drug of choice for its region.
Those people look like they’re having more fun than is physically possible, and listening to the music that’s going on, it’s hard to understand why. Crack is my nearest uneducated guess, based solely on how Chris Rock acted during his meltdown in the crack-making room during “New Jack City.” Rare Essence Live at the Capital Center in 1987 seems like the party equivalent of “Look at them titties.” Other than reminding you to Google scenes from old movies, there’s simply no way for a nine+ minute Go-Go tune to hold your interest unless you’re there, possibly on crack, lookin’ at some of them titties. And asses. Sorry. If my uninformed white guy crack assumption sounds vaguely racist to you, hey, it was the 80’s, people smoked crack, and also: lighten up and think for a minute about how much fun that would actually be. I would totally smoke crack and dance for three hours to Go-Go while wearing bike shorts and a Gumby fade. No questions asked.
Regional dance music is almost always based on some hyper-specific variety of beat that gets repeated ad nauseum until everybody runs out of money, goes home, and gets laid. It hardly ever works on its own as recorded music for casual listening, does not hold up to any sort of criticism without seeming either unfairly victimized or pointlessly elitist, tends to codify into a rigid set of purist aesthetic guidelines that stifle innovation, comes and goes as a series of fallow and “revival” periods, and the only people who are true gospel-spreading connoisseurs are usually complete dickbag professional nightlife types. There is simply no way to communicate the importance of one region’s local dance music to somebody who’s not from there. You either grow up hearing it everywhere or else you don’t and it’s a massive load of what-the-fuck. As a point of reference, try getting a rave-veteran buddy to explain the intricate differences between Detroit Techno and Chicago House before you split your head open from overyawning.
BUT: if you’re from the region where a particular beat has been arbitrarily decided upon as the official shorthand for “party happening,” you can’t help but love it. At the very least, even if you’re not from the area, it sounds like “oh weird, this must be Pittsburgh’s shitty thing” while you’re rolling through town and somebody on the radio is telling you about some event that you must be 21 to spill, 18 to chill for. Here’s where I restrain myself from pontificating about the homogenization of American culture. You get the idea. Whatever Pittsburgh’s shitty thing is, and I’m not sure it exists but it might, it’s great that Pittsburgh has its own shitty thing.
If you are in any way still puzzled by the attention garnered by Chuck Brown’s passing, think of it this way: Chelsea Clinton has probably been to a Go-Go (it was for some reason a big trend to have Go-Go bands at prep school parties in the late 90’s, kind of a “daddy I want to buy it” thing). Condoleeza Rice has likely accidentally heard Go-Go on WPGC in the middle of changing between smooth jazz stations. There’s a decent chance that at some point John Boehner has told his daughters to turn down that infernal racket. Go-Go is the beat of Chocolate City, the reason why DC bucket drummers, though still annoying, are the best in the world, and the soundtrack to the private inner moments that are the closest our horse’s ass government leaders are ever getting to “funky.”
And that’s all thanks to Chuck Brown being the kind of old-school bandleader in the Duke Ellington-via-Ike Turner tradition who would take one microscopic blip of a hit and ride an entire genre out of its groove through sheer hard work and exuberance. And also he wore shiny clothes and a fake tooth and sounded like Barry White. So that’s why I give a shit and why I think you should give a shit about him. R.I. P. Chuck Brown, American music guy.
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