I'M TRYING not to stare at the two brilliant gold teeth that punctuate Chuck Brown's friendly, wide grin.
He's sitting across from me at a small table inside a Starbucks in Silver Spring. On a day when the sun is unforgiving and hope for a breeze pointless, the go-go king is cool, laid-back in all black: black jeans, black boots, black fitted shirt, black fedora (tilted, of course) and black-and-gold wraparound shades he wears throughout the interview. The 70-year-old musician is a local legend, as funky and as down-home as the sound he created back in the mid-'70s.
His latest release, The Best of Chuck Brown, is long overdue. The nicely remastered, two-disc set features all the classics fans would want, including 1972's "We the People" and Brown's 1979 breakthrough and lone No. 1 hit, "Bustin' Loose." "It took a while to get all the paperwork, the credits and the masters together," says Brown, his voice low, gravelly and roughened by years of smoking. The singer-bandleader plays the African American Heritage Festival on Sunday. "Some of the songs I never had the rights to. So that took a while. We wanted to update the sound, put a little more bottom in it, a little more punch," he says, throwing a sharp jab.
Back in the day, this tall, lean cat with the long, greased hair under the furry fedora introduced one of the richest forms of black sound to emerge in the last century. Go-go, with its frenetic fusion of funk, jazz and Latin rhythms, is the ultimate party music, spiced with fun call-and-response chants. It's a style best experienced live, for the audience is just as much a part of go-go as the busy percussion.
It's primarily the sound of the Mid-Atlantic region, a "D.C. thang" that has thrived in the area for nearly 30 years. Folks over in London and Japan dig the go-go swing, particularly Brown's fierce, celebratory, horns-accented grooves. But the genre never really became a worldwide phenomenon like hip-hop, which superseded go-go. The style peaked in '79 when Brown and his group, the Soul Searchers, hit No. 1 on the R&B; charts with "Bustin' Loose." The punchy, swingin' horns, the playful organ lines, the rubbery bass line -- the cut is as exciting today as it was a quarter of a century ago. I dare you to sit still when "Bustin' Loose" comes on.
But that's what go-go is all about: You're supposed to get up and, well, bust loose on the floor.
"We had been doing 'Bustin' Loose' for about two years live before we recorded it," Brown says. "Disco was happening then, you know, but it was too fast, over a hundred beats a minute. We took that disco beat and chopped it in half and got that old church beat," he says, clapping out a syncopated idea. "With go-go, you got to have that beat, see. We got the people dancing, man. All night."
Long before Brown became the godfather of go-go, he was just another dude with a guitar, hustling to make a dime. Born in Charlotte, N.C., the singer-musician, whose family moved to Washington in 1942, is mostly self-taught. Like many musicians of his generation, Brown nurtured his musical talent in church, where he learned to play piano. While still a boy, he worked odd jobs -- shining shoes, selling newspapers and watermelons -- to help support his mother, a strict, religious woman who worked as a domestic. Brown's papa, a rolling stone, wasn't around much.
"He was a playa, a laya, an overnight staya," the performer says, chuckling.
As the musician entered adolescence, he started wilding out: skipping school to shoot craps and play pool for money. He later turned to robbing jewelry stores and pawnshops. During one robbery, he shot a man who later died in a hospital. For that, Brown was convicted on a manslaughter charge and spent four years in Lorton Penitentiary in Lorton, Va. -- a stint he prefers not to discuss this afternoon in Starbucks.
"Tired of telling that story," he says, shooing away the topic with his hand.
While in prison, Brown earned his high school diploma and learned to play the guitar. Upon release, he joined various bands around Washington. He often played house parties for food. It was in 1965 while playing in a band called Los Latinos that the idea for go-go germinated. Enthralled by the layered rhythms, Brown incorporated those elements into the sound of his own band, which he formed toward the end of the decade.
He says, "I just wanted to get folks out their seats."
And that he did. During the '70s, Brown's sound was picked up by other groups, most notably Trouble Funk, Experience Unlimited and Rare Essence. The influence of go-go certainly hasn't been lost today. Within just the last two years, producer Rich Harrison, the man behind Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" and Amerie's "1 Thing," has suffused his hip-hopped arrangements with the hard-hitting beats of go-go, scoring Top 10 smashes in the process.
I ask Brown, a father of four and grandfather of two, if he feels slighted by the industry. After all, he created a sound that has been praised around the world yet he's seldom (if ever) mentioned in the same breath with the heralded masters of black music: Ray Charles, James Brown, Sly Stone.
"Well, I look at it like this," he says abruptly as he pulls a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. "If [go-go] didn't go no farther than the Washington, D.C., area, I'd still be grateful. I did what I set out to do. I'm so grateful for where go-go is. Thank God I'm still able to play."
He flashes that generous grin; his gold teeth seem to gleam. "Now, I'm gonna go outside and smoke this cigarette."
See Chuck Brown at the African American Heritage Festival at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Sunday at 5 p.m. Admission is a $1 donation.
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