Few musicians have ever
been more universally beloved by a city as Chuck Brown was by Washington, D.C. Baltimore certainly doesn't have such a consensus figure; hell, Chuck Brown may be more beloved in Baltimore than any Baltimore musician. When the godfather of go-go died of sepsis at the age of 75 on May 16, at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore's 92Q joined every black station in Washington in playing Brown's music in tribute. (Even a rock station, DC-101, got in on the act, such was the man's reach beyond demographics in his hometown.)
At a time when creating new genres is something indie bands and dance music producers claim to do on a daily basis as an easy marketing hook, Chuck Brown birthed an actual distinct style of music that endured for decades as a regional phenomenon, if only an intermittently national one. Of course, Brown had a canny sense of marketing as well. If he'd always simply branded himself as a soul or funk artist, as he had early in his career in the '60s and early '70s, he might be merely known as the author of "Bustin' Loose," a Top 40 hit that topped the R&B chart for four weeks in 1979. Instead, that song is merely the mainstream outlier in a proudly local musical legacy.
Chuck Brown may have coined the term go-go and willed his personal brand of slow, swinging funk into existence as its own distinct style of music, both with his hit singles and his tireless six-nights-a-week performing regimen. But it was the fact that he created a template for other Washington, D.C. musicians that cemented his stature in the city. The loping rhythms and call-and-response hooks that were signatures of Brown's band the Soul Searchers were adopted and personalized by dozens of other local bands, who created a cottage industry of go-go venues and live recordings which usually outsold studio efforts. Washington never became a hitmaking soul mecca like Detroit or Philly, but Brown helped make it a town that celebrates live music, even well into the hip-hop era.
In his final years, Brown slowed down his pace but never stopped performing or trying to spread the go-go gospel. Sometimes he'd even get help: multiplatinum Nelly referenced "Bustin' Loose" in his 2002 chart-topper "Hot In Herre," and more recently Wale has become Washington's first breakout national rap star to openly acknowledge the influence of go-go. One of Brown's last albums, 2007's
We Are About the Business
, married his gravelly, inimitable voice to more contemporary production, and in a nod to the symbiotic relationship between Washington and Baltimore, the minor radio hit "Chuck Baby" was given an official Baltimore Club remix by DJ Scottie B. When the late James Brown came to the 9:30 Club in his own final years of performing, the godfather of soul co-headlined with the godfather of go-go, implicitly recognizing what would be sacrilege anywhere else: In D.C., James Brown and Chuck Brown were equals.