To The Bridge, Y'all, To The Bridge
In one of the last magazine interviews of his life, Chuck Brown talked to The Suite about music, life and his dreams. "Chuck Brown can still wind you up" was first published in the Spring 2011 edition of Prince George's Suite Magazine.
Keep what you got, until you get what you need y'all
Just after 10, on a recent Sunday morning, not too far from go-go legend Chuck Brown’s southern Maryland home, the praise and worship inside City of Zion Church in Laurel shifted into full gear. Members of the close-knit congregation lifted their palms to the heavens, as several women feverishly waved gold, blue and white flags while a four-piece band fueled the setting with up-tempo rhythms. The song lyrics professed love for the Lord and prompted a prolonged loop of the chorus, “That’s why my heart is filled with praise.” This isn’t spectator worship, where folks sit politely in pews while the choir sings: a gentleman on the front row waved his hands with delight as the band cranked on. The syncopated rhythms that paradoxically grounded and lifted the service were delivered by a beast of a man and musician, who is steeped in the drum patterns of the secular and the sacred. Larry “Stomp Dogg” Atwater uses many of the same licks playing for groups like local go-go band the Northeast Groovers. “It’s the same beat,” he says. “Sometimes the church has a different sway, but it’s the same beat and the same kind of influence.” Gregory O. Strong, pastor of the seven-year-old non-denominational church, would eventually launch into an exposition on the necessity of faith — the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen — often calling out to his flock, which moved them to respond (View photos from the interview here.)
In mid-January, another messenger led a different group of followers much earlier on a Sunday morning. Brown took the stage at the DC Star nightclub in Northeast well pasttwo a.m.He was met with cries of “Wind me up, Chuck.” He hit them back with, “I can’t hear you.” The banter continued for several bars before Brown eased into “It don’t mean a thing without that go-go swing,” a play off of Duke Ellington’s famous tune that Brown has recast as his own. Unlike the members at City ofZion, who mostly know each other, only small pockets of the club crowd, spanning twenty-somethings to AARP members, had affiliations. But, much like the church, they are soon brought to one accord through the same rhythmic path. While Brown would never suggest his utterances are a call to worship, he is deeply attuned to music’s mystical connection. His initial inspiration for go-go was Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mr. Magic” with its bassline. “That was a spiritual vibe to me,” he says. “I recognized that beat from the church, and I took it, and went with it, and syncopated it in different ways.”
Brown is the principal architect of the musical form known for generations as go-go. Its West African-influenced drum patterns have become ubiquitous in the region, especially in the District, where bucket drummers enliven street corners for impromptu jam sessions. There are certainly other pioneers of the genre: Experience Unlimited, Trouble Funk, Rare Essence, but the music’s roots all run through Brown, famously known as the godfather of go-go. A moniker he never sought. “They gave me the name godfather,” Brown says. “I didn’t give that name myself … the fans and the radio stations started calling me the godfather, and I appreciate it. It’s real.”
Go-go is a blend of the black music genome: distinctive African beats, church music, jazz-like improvisation, funk-powered bass lines, spoken word (Brown is always chatting with the audience), and strong vocals, especially on remakes of R&B ballads. Without Brown bringing these elements together, there’s no go-go. GeorgeWashingtonUniversitymusic professor Kip Lornell (with Charles C. Stephenson Jr.) chronicles the evolution of the genre’s artists and music in “The Beat! Go-Go Music from Washington, DC.” (University Press of Mississippi; $19) He writes that by 1976, Brown had cemented the music’s key elements and other bands quickly conformed to his blueprint. “Every go-go musician owes something to Chuck Brown,” Lornell tells Prince George’s Suite. “I don’t care if it’s the latest bounce beat band from Southeast that just formed to Trouble Funk that has been around as long as Chuck, you can’t escape the impact of Chuck Brown.”
Gimme the bridge now
With his career nearing its fifth decade, Brown’s prominence over the last five years has enjoyed an upward trajectory attracting the markers of fame that come much sooner for artists with comparatively weaker accomplishments. Last year, his seminal 1979 hit “Bustin’ Loose” appeared in TV commercials for the Black & Decker Floorbuster and Chips Ahoy cookies. He’s also appeared in a spot for the DC Lottery’s “Rolling Cash 5” game. The ad features scenes of Brown in front of Ben’s Chili Bowl onU Street, while go-go beats fill the soundtrack. Brown attributes his newfound exposure to better management. Tom Goldfogle, president of Full Circle Entertainment inSilver Spring, has been involved with Brown’s career since the early 1990s, and has shifted to a more hands-on role over the last decade. “I have had seven or eight managers during my career,” says Brown, resting after a rehearsal. “This manager here is the only one who did anything for me,” he continues between drags on a half-smoked cigarette. “I don’t mean to talk anyone down, but, all the rest of them did is make money off me. I thank God for him every day, I really do.” Goldfogle’s plan for Brown was to launch a campaign that would give him artist recognition on a national level. In that effort, he’s found an ally in Lornell, who nominated Brown in 2002 for a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. The honor is given to American master folk and traditional artists. In making his case, Lornell said Brown “remains among the few 20th-century American vernacular musicians who clearly developed and shaped a musical genre from its infancy to a more mature state.” Brown got the honor in 2005 along with $20,000 and invites to posh gatherings in the District.
But the highlight of Brown’s career came unexpectedly last December while at home playing with his grandchildren. “I said ‘Oh, my God,’ I could not believe it. I didn’t scream, I hollered,” he recalls after learning of his first Grammy nomination. The nod of approval from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences earned him an appearance on “The Mo'Nique Show.” Just before belting out a rendition of “Bustin Loose,” the slimmed-down host asked him, at 74, why he hasn’t retired? Brown, never at a loss, fired back: “I still got the desire, I still got a little fire, I’m still getting hired, that’s why I haven’t retired.”
In the run-up to the Grammys, Brown’s small screen moments continued with a feature on “Last Call with Carson Daly,” where he mused over the odds of scoring a gramophone. “I’m excited. I’m nervous. I’ve always been nervous every time I hit the stage for the last 49 years.” Brown was nominated for Best R&B performance by a duo or group with vocals for “Love,” his collaboration with singer Jill Scott and bassist Marcus Miller. “The nomination is enough for me,” he said, smiling for the camera. “I’ll be just as happy. Probably be more happy if I win, of course,” he said, laughing. Brown lost to Sade’s “Soldier of Love.”
I said, sha la, get it…Y'all said (put your money down)… I said, sha la, get it…
When January winds dropped the mercury to a chilly 33 degrees it didn’t deter a street drummer from practicing his craft. Just past the Metro entrance, the intersection of G and 13th streets transformed into a bandstand, where go-go rhythms poured from five white painter’s buckets affixed to road cones. A shopping cart made for a cymbal, and a 20-gallon trash can provided ample bass. Pounding away with wooden sticks, the young man could be heard blocks away. A few stopped to watch; others did a two-step while waiting for the light to change. But this scene is largely confined to the streets of Washington and Baltimore. Unlike hip-hop out ofNew York Cityor reggae fromJamaica, go-go’s popularity hasn’t traveled well beyond the region.
Part of go-go’s stunted acceptance elsewhere is that it’s become a cultural fixture passed down through generations. Lornell suggests that the length of the compositions is a turnoff to the casual music lover; much like wandering jazz solos that can outlast the listener’s patience. “It’s like John Coltrane and free jazz in the 1960s; it could be a Coltrane solo that’s four minutes or it could be 23 minutes,” he says. “It just depends on what’s going on, that is very much the way go-go is.”
Miller, the famed bassist who has produced and accompanied the likes of Miles Davis, Luther Vandross and saxophonist David Sanborn, believes go-go is more than music; it’s a whole body experience that has to happen in a live setting to be understood. “The primary appeal of go-go is its rhythm,” he says. “And rhythmic music doesn’t always translate well on records because you can’t play the record loud enough for the rhythm to get into your body the way it does when you are at the show.”
Miller was tapped by Spike Lee in the late 1980s to produce the well-received Experience Unlimited tune, “Da Butt.” The song was featured in the film “School Daze,” and put go-go in the national spotlight. To compensate for the absence of a live band, Miller says he created a strong melody to lock people in. “A couple of the go-go hits that we have heard nationwide have had melodies that people could hold on to, even when the rhythm wasn’t loud enough for them to feel it.” Miller played bass on the Grammy-nominated “Love,” and has enjoyed a 20-year relationship with Brown, often sitting in with his band. But the collaboration for “Love,” mixed at a studio in Indian Head,Md., didn’t allow for artists to perform in the same place. Despite Miller’s sense that real go-go is live, he says it didn’t hamper the track. “What I try to do … I have six or seven people in the control room when I played the bass on that thing,” he says from his studio inLos Angeles. “And I had the music blasting, so it was a party. I wasn’t sitting there with headphones looking like a scientist. I got into it. I didn’t practice, I didn’t rehearse. So, as far as I was concerned, I was hearing Chuck and Jill for the first time. Although they weren’t reacting to me, I was certainly reacting to them.”
I feel like busting loose, busting loose
Brown was born inGaston,N.C., in 1936, but his formative years were spent in the churches and clubs of D.C. inhaling the musical sensibilities of both venues. He was especially fond of watching the steady flow of talent that passed through town. He says he even shined Louis Armstrong’s shoes by theHowardTheater. But before the music, there was trouble. Brown spent some of his early 20s in Lorton Penitentiary inFairfax County,Va., for assault. It was there that a fellow inmate crafted Brown’s first guitar for five cartons of cigarettes. He says he learned to play so well that inmates stopped attending meals so they could hear him. For Brown, prison was the perfect timeout, where he engaged his instrument and decided to end dabbling in street life and fully explored his musical gifts. “Chow time was five o’clock and you didn’t see anybody in the mess hall if I was on the show. I knew then that something good was going to happen.” While in jail, Brown had the chance to see Count Basie, Joe Williams, Duke Ellington, Nancy Wilson and others. It inspired him and he wanted to do the same when and if he made it. Before it closed, he would return to Lorton to play so other men confined to cages could be uplifted as he was. “Yes, yes indeed,” he says, his raspy voice rising. “That is very important to me. I know what it’s like. I know how it felt when those entertainers came down and played for us.”
As much as Brown obviously loves music, he may love people more. Those who have known him and worked with him say he never waves off a fan for an autograph or cuts a conversation short. “I made up my mind that I wouldn’t ever just sign my name when somebody asked me for an autograph. I’m going to write half a letter, something special. It takes more time, but I got to do it.” A few months before the Grammys, Lornell was with Brown at a fundraiser inVirginiaand recalls how Brown complained that concert promoters often required him to have at least two security guards to guide him through crowds. “I really hate that,” Brown told Lornell. “I just want to stop and talk to people. If it takes me a half hour to get to the stage, if I’m playing at 10, then I’ll start making my way at 9:15.”
More than insatiable beats and lyrical hooks, perhaps the real strength of Brown’s enduring appeal is his connection to his multi-generational fan base. His manger, Goldfogle, notes that Brown has had the luxury of playing in his home market for 40 years and continues to draw considerable crowds. “He still gets nervous before every show, but I guess that’s the humbleness, to never feel that he’s made it,” says Chucky Thompson, who produced “Love.” He started his career with Brown at age 17. Now 42, Thompson’s morphed into a major force in the recording industry, generating hits for Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment. Thompson declares what’s obvious to anyone who’s seen a Brown performance: that even at his age he still clings tight to childhood energy. “I get to play around with his youth and my youth,” he says. “Chuck is just a hipster. You would want your grandfather to be him, and up on everything, that’s what I feel from Chuck.”
Saxophonist Bryan Mills, now age 38, has been listening to Brown since elementary school. He’s been playing in Brown’s band for the last 12 years, soaking in tips along the way to help his own project, Secret Society, a soul and R&B cover band that frequents the Half Note Lounge inBowie. Mills has long admired Brown’s infusion of jazz riffs over the Afro-Latin poly-rhythms in his songs. “The way he treats us is really good too,” Mills says. “I try to incorporate that with my unit. If you treat your band members well, they will treat you the same way.”
There is any number of people on the streets of D.C. or musicians nationwide, who would race to pay Brown homage, but he is largely unfazed by their sense of his greatness. He doesn’t share that view. “No, I feel everybody is greater than me,” he says. “I’m my greatest critic, I’m never satisfied with what I do, and I always feel I could have done better. It is a good way to be, I think. I’ve been out here all these years feeling the same way. I admire everybody else’s playing more than I do so myself. So, it makes me try to do better and better. As I get old, I don’t want to get lazy.”
Photo: Raoul Dennis/RADENN MEDIA GROUP. View photos from the interview here.