Chocolate City is nigh on meltdown this week from the sad news that North Carolina-born, D.C.-based funk icon Chuck Brown has gone to Glory. Although his 1978 eternal mutha "Bustin' Loose (Parts 1 & 2)" (this critic's favorite song) long remained the sole national hit of the genre he spawned (until the late '80s ascendancy of E.U.'s "Da Butt"), the Godfather of Go-Go's legacy is sho'nuff assured. Even now, up 95 apiece, former D.C. mayor Marion Barry, the city council and assorted power brokers are debating what public space has sufficient capacity to host the perpetually civic-minded Brown's memorial and, as far north as N.Y.C., the DJ organizers of the Times Square Don Cornelius tribute flashmob are planning a repeat Soul Train line in Brown's honor for the upcoming weekend. One can only hope that – to leaven the tragedy for Brown's widow, rhymin' daughter KK, and extended circle of kinpeople – the outside world finally catches up with the many-splendored dancefloor-and-backyard beast that is the Nation's Capital's 40-plus-year-old, homegrown, uncut funk.
After logging time at Lorton prison with fellow adolescent miscreant-turned-D.C. sonic legend Petey Greene (the nation's first shock jock) and with Iceman Jerry Butler, Chuck Brown formed the legendary Soul Searchers in 1966. He was following in the footsteps of another self-made icon from the Southeast who overcame parental abandonment, extreme poverty, a youthful rapsheet and Jim Crow racism to become greater than great as a Man of the People: James Brown. Whereas Mr. Brown retained ambivalence about Black Power – even as "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" became an African Diaspora rallying cry – and showed his deep investment in the American Dream by glad-handing with then-president Nixon at the White House, Chuck Brown, at least as early as '72's "We the People," reckoned with the weight black Washington had of toiling (often in the nation's worst slums) disenfranchised in the shadow of said White House (not yet "painted black" by the Obamas). He also progressively made his community and sound's ties to Africa more overt by essential burn-baby-burn deployment of Afro-Latin percussion. Additionally, as a gifted jazz guitarist with a languid scat, Chuck Brown, quoting Southern preachers and Sir Duke equally (see "Take the Go-Go Train"), swung post-bop/rap fusion well before Miles Davis, A Tribe Called Quest or Gangstarr (and even onetime D.C. resident Gil Scott-Heron matured his thang), and later produced indelible duets with departed local songbird Eva Cassidy.
Early Soul Searchers deep cuts, such as "Ashley's Roachclip" from '74's Salt of the Earth LP, hew more to the black rock (AKA psych-soul) of Brown's peers the Bar-Kays, yet the massed polyrhythms, horny horns, and call-and-response derived from his enslaved forebears via ringshout and later the organized black church were carried over into the 1980s and expanded by heirs including Trouble Funk and Rare Essence (for whom Brown produced the wonderful "Body Moves"). The persistence of his funk dialect is richly evident on 2007's summer jam "The Party Roll" (AKA "The D.C. Lotto" song), which features not just Brown's nimble chicken scratch but cameos from fellow southern icons: Barry, "George Bush," N.C. homeboy funkateer George Clinton. With Chuck Brown's death coming amidst a time of great upheaval for Washington – transformed from an epic Chocolate City into Latte City by gentrifiers who complain about chicken bones proliferating from off-U Street black-owned businesses in long-blighted areas their elders fled circa 1968 – as well as for go-go itself – per the recent WaPo survey of the controversial bounce beat, post-2003, heavily hip-hop-informed go-go pioneered by TCB, Northeast Groovers et al – it's curious whether everyfolk in the street and even Obama (whose Ben's Chili Bowl star time may not exceed Wind-Me-Up Chuck's) will carry on in his down-home, gold tooth-capped image.
Chuck Brown's loss cannot be measured – especially by Chocolate City natives-in-exile like myself. Born inside the Beltway between the predawn of go-go and the unleashed thunder of "Bustin' Loose," I was extremely fortunate to have experienced the miracle of D.C. in the '70s as soundtracked by Brown, a radical city with black Mayor Barry's vision and charisma forged by Itta Bena, Mississippi and the early leadership of the SNCC. The resultant sense of black (and yes, distinctly suhthuhn-n-ornery) pride engendered in my generation of black bohos/rockers raised or shaped therein – including Tom Terrell, Me'Shell NdegeOcello (who apprenticed with Little Benny [RIP] & the Masters, Rare Essence, and Prophecy), Paul Miller/DJ Spooky, Daryl Jenifer & the SE rasta-bloods of Bad Brains – has often been baffling and illegible to outsiders who vaguely recall the primacy of "Bustin' Loose" and scarcely recognize the hit-making infusion of go-go on Nelly's "Hot In Herre" or Beyoncé's "Crazy In Love." Yet nurtured by this electric, eclectic atmosphere, it appeared seamless to go from being in thrall to Brown's fellow Appalachian soul-folk who emerged to greatness in the '60s – JB, D.C. native son Marvin Gaye, Asheville-rooted Roberta Flack, Les McCann, Virginia chuuuch boy Carl Anderson, Slab Fork's Bill Withers, honorary light Donny Hathaway – towards later having prime Muses in Chris Robinson (deepsouth) and Royal Trux' Jennifer Herrema (upSouth). Robinson early conjured JB as surely as SE D.C.'s Herrema fanned the funk downlow throughout her 1990s releases – only to now have (finally) released the year's best go-go album with her Black Bananas' Rad Times Xpress IV (Drag City), featuring joyous paeans to Chuck Baby et al. Pump pump pump pump it up!
Apparently, there's more than 200 active go-go bands around the Potomac and, while these players may not catch Herrema's meta wave, some shall certainly keep articulating the emotional and cultural fallout of his and James Brown's mid-20th century generation that overcame through the Great Migration from plantations to upSouth urban centers. Chuck Brown smiled warmly golden, from operating as a migrant sharecropper-turned-shoeshine boy to Lorton, where he got his first guitar, to the Cap' Centre and beyond, never giving into despair; indeed, after being cheated of perhaps $13 million following the success of "Bustin' Loose," he flipped his depression and writer's block into later local smash "We Need Some Money," latterly laughing that, "I was deeply inspired with empty pockets." Still, for us left behind, feelings of oppression loom – with the horrendous economy, the ideological turbulence of the 2012 election trail, and this seemingly incessant loss of southern musical mavericks. So it seems all one can say is (quoting him): "Keep whatcha got till ya get whatcha need, y'all."