The news of Chuck Brown’s death blew my Twitter feed up today, and wrapped most of my day in a bittersweet nostalgic haze because we’ve lost another innovative figure who had impact greater than his notoriety and never quite got the respect that he was due. Music industry vets Tweeted of their love of Brown and the polyrhythmic funk based music called Go-Go that he was most responsible for creating. Artists wished him a peaceful journey. Fans expressed condolences to his surviving family. And then, someone wanted to know, “Who was Chuck Brown?”
A fair question considering the fact that he never quite broke through on the radio with a string of nationally charting hits. And there was never any heavy rotation on BET for one of his videos. Or that there has never been a Chuck Brown Behind The Music or Unsung episode that detailed his rise from poverty, or his time spent in prison for murder. No 60 Minutes piece that investigated how he and his mother left his native North Carolina for his adopted hometown of DC when he was still a child.
There was no American Masters documentary on PBS that recalled how he played for mayoral inauguration ceremonies and other civic events of importance in the nation’s capitol. And how he played for visiting dignitaries from around the globe. There are few articles to explain how the great Jamaican record man, Chris Blackwell went to DC to sign every Go-Go band that would sit still long enough for him to put a pen in their hands, in his effort to put Go-Go on the map outside of Washington.
He never received any of that recognition or exposure in his lifetime, but his was the sound of Black folks in Washington, and if you knew anything about what was going on in Black America in the 70s, 80s or 90s, you knew that Chuck Brown was a don, and that because of his funky beat, he was connected to a previous and all but forgotten time when the drum was everything to us. A time when the drum was played a certain way, it meant danger, in another, it meant good crops. Played differently, it meant birth. And when Chuck’s crew played it; it meant everybody get on the dance floor and get busy
If you knew how important the drum once was to us, then you understood Brown and the bands that came after him that played his beat; Red Hot, Trouble Funk, EU, Rare Essence, Junkyard. and others. And you may have caught a live Go-Go show with Chuck headlining over some of those other bands. You might also remember how hypnotic the music was and how the room seemed to sway to the sound of those drums.
If you, like me, were in the early Hip Hop industry, you’d remember how both LL Cool J and Run/DMC hit with “Jack The Ripper” and “Run’s House” using the classic break beat from Brown’s Soul Searchers’ “Ashley’s Roachclip”. And if you hung around a little longer, you might remember Pharrell resurrected Chuck’s biggest hit “Bustin’ Loose” to give Nelly the Grammy winning smash “It’s Getting Hot In Here” and how the infectious Go-Go beat gave everyone from Beyonce to Grace Jones to Salt ‘n Peppa a bit of that Chuck Brown flavor, and you’d smile warmly because then, you’d know who he was and you’d be grateful that you did.
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