Wale is picking at some french fries in a burger spot on Georgia Ave in Washington DC, right by the Howard University campus, when I ask him about the first time he ever heard go-go music. “I remember the back of the school bus,” he says. “I went to school in Silver Springs, because DC schools were getting blasted at that time for dirty water, this that and the third. We used to use my cousin’s address, they interrogated me and knew we were lying but didn’t really care. There were nine of us—I was the youngest, and all I remember was them going, ‘Keisha got a big ol’ butt!’ and the bus shouting back, ‘Oh yeaaah!’ Now, it’s like the ‘Oh yeaaah!’ kids started growing up, and this is what we got.”
Go-go has been the sound of the District for years: live bands and deep percussion, overextended grooves, repetition, chants and audience participation. Chuck Brown and his Soul Searchers first molded the sound out of R&B yelps and James Brown funk in the late ’70s with tracks like “Bustin Loose.” Early rappers like Kurtis Blow and Salt N Pepa would often incorporate go-go elements into their tracks, and by the end of the ’80s, DC artists were starting to reach the rest of the country on their own, with hits from Trouble Funk (“Pump It Up”), the Junkyard Band (“Sardines,” produced by Rick Rubin), and EU, whose “Da Butt” was immortalized not only on Wale’s bus, but also in Spike Lee’s School Daze. At the same time, the city was just as well known for blights— from skyrocketing murder rates to “Bitch set me up!” surveillance footage of then-mayor Marion Barry smoking crack in a DC hotel room. For the next decade, as national interest would ebb and flow, go-go venues like Club U were consistently plagued by fights and stabbings, yet the music itself remained vibrant as second generation groups like Backyard Band rose up with a harder take on the sound; their frontmen were not MCs in the usual sense, but “talkers” or “callers” who took the traditional call-and-response elements in a more rap-like direction.
Still, just as with Baltimore club, Chicago juke and other regional inner-city subgenres, the relationship between go-go and present day hip-hop has been tenuous at best, running the gamut from occasional homage (Ludacris performing a go-go version of “Pimpin All Over the World” backed by Rare Essence on the VMAs) to straight jacking (Jay-Z taking RE’s “Overnight Scenario” for his “4am at the waffle house…” bit on “Do It Again”), but rarely meeting in a wholehearted embrace. This past spring, however, drivers could tune into DC rap radio almost any time of day and hear the signature go-go drum rolls of Northeast Groovers’ “Off the Muscle” blaring from their speakers. It wasn’t the actual song, but “Dig Dug,” a rap single built off a sizeable NEG sample, performed by a new artist named Wale (pronounced Walé). Over the hypnotic loop, Wale shouts out his hometown’s go-go bands, crack dealers and college hoops teams, appointing himself the “ambassador of rap for the capitol” before listing the sticker price on his SB Dunks. It was soon followed by two other go-go laced singles, “1 Thing” and “Breakdown,” and there was nothing else on the radio in
DC or elsewhere that you could even start to compare it to—until fellow local Tabi Bonney made it on the air a few months later with his own hybrid single, “Doin It,” and the wildly successful “The Pocket.” On first listen, “The Pocket” doesn’t seem musically beholden to the city in any way, but between Bonney’s relaxed, pause-heavy rhymes and homegrown expressions (When somebody syses you, you see a girl that’s tight or summ’n…she put you in the pocket! When you rockin bamas, stylin on ’em and stuff…), you realize it couldn’t have been birthed anywhere else in the world.