Rare Essence Go-Goes On

Rare Essence Logo (Used with Permission of DC Library's Washingtoniana Collection)
Rare Essence’s logo which the band uses on their records and merchandise. (Source: DC Library's Go-Go Archive.) 

Saturday, June 20, 1992 was a warm night and the old Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland was packed. Some of the top hip hop acts in the country – including Cypress Hill, Das Efx, Black Sheep, and Naughty by Nature – were in town for a sellout. The crowd bumped and grooved for nearly five hours as each group performed…

And, when they were done, the party really got started. D.C.’s homegrown go-go band, Rare Essence took the stage and brought the house down. As Washington Post columnist Richard Harrington remarked in his recap of the show:

 “As if the point needed to be made again, Rare Essence proved at Capital Centre Saturday night that a live go-go band will always stomp even the best known rap acts.”

Harrington went on to call the band’s new single, “Work the Walls,” “a roiling polyrhythmic workout that had the joint literally jumping.”[1]

To those in the know, Rare Essence’s rousing performance was to be expected. After all, the group had earned the moniker “the most wickedest band alive” for their penchant to play music all night, seven days a week.[2]

Drawing Commemorating the Life of Chuck Brown (Used with Permission of DC Library's Washingtoniana Collection)
An artist’s rendition of Chuck Brown celebrating the life of the go-go legend. Chuck Brown died in 2012 at the age of 75. (Source: DC Library's Go-Go Archive.) 

The group dated back to the early days of Go-Go in the mid-1970s, when the style of music was first popularized in Washington by Chuck Brown. Brown’s sound, which was later adopted and built upon by Rare Essence and other groups, had elements of Sub-Saharan folk music, and was derivative of funk, rock and roll, disco, and hip-hop. It featured a complex drumming arrangement, with multiple different beats and a moderate rhythm, and a call- and- response action between the band and audience. Marathon sets which could continue for hours on end with drums never pausing between tunes, giving go-go music its name.[3] 

Chuck Brown defines go-go music for himself in this video:

While Go-Go never attained a great following nationally, it was – and remains – immensely popular in the Washington area, particularly in urban black communities. And, as cultural historians Kip Lornell and Charles Stephenson Jr., have noted, the music’s impact goes beyond the dance hall:

"For many young black Washingtonians and citizens of Prince George’s County, go-go bands are the most visible and public manifestation of black (youth) culture. Go-go bands empower them to shout out and express themselves in a public forum, it is an emotional release.”[4]

Rare Essence personified this sense of empowerment. The band was founded in 1976 by Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, whose nickname originated out of his love for guitar-based rock, Quinten “Footz” Davidson, James “Funk” Thomas, and other ninth graders from St. Thomas Moore High School in Southeast Washington. The group originally called itself the Young Dynamos, but within a few months adopted the Rare Essence moniker.[5]

“Footz’s” mother, Ms. Annie Mack, managed the young group, and was critical to the group’s commercial success which spanned several decades.[6] For years, Ms. Mack was the only woman intimately involved with go-go. She had a clear vision for the band which she described for the Washington Post:

“When I started working with [Rare Essence] I wanted them to be a certain way; I wanted them to always get respect. And I carried myself with the respect that demanded respect. And I wanted them to carry themselves so that they would not be questioned.” A particular point of emphasis was ensuring that the band functioned properly as a business. As she told the Post, “We learned later that we should be paying taxes. Then we had to start paying taxes. And we were the only group paying taxes. And we were paying taxes and the whole nine yards.”[7]

RE band member, James Thomas, said that Ms. Mack “was like a mother figure,” “She would congratulate people coming in if they told her something positive, and scold them if they came in with something negative. She would get on the girls who came in without enough clothing on, and get on people that she knew were abusing drugs or drinking too much.”[8]

Largely because of Ms. Mack’s business-like approach, RE quickly differentiated themselves from other Go-go acts. They sold merchandise and were much more organized than other groups. In 1981, Rare Essence implemented Ms. Mack’s vision with the purchase of an old police precinct. The police precinct would soon serve as Rare Essence’s “practice studio and a home base.”[9] Ms. Mack’s decisions led, in part, to RE’s tremendous local success during the early to mid-1980s.

As the sun set on the 1980s, however, the band’s good fortunes wilted into despair.  RE’s member turnover was high and the band was caught in the chaos of the crack epidemic. Shows were frequently marred with violence in an era when Washington, D.C. had the reputation of being America’s murder capital. This violence made the band a target of the local and national press, which often blamed RE and the go-go community for widespread drug abuse and murders afflicting the city.[10] The city cracked down as well, moving to curtail violence by placing restrictions on traditional go-go venues, including Chapter III, a favorite RE venue, which saw its license expire after a series of negative media reports.[11]

Much of the negative media attention was lobbed from the Washington Post and other local media outlets. One Post article dubbed the murder of a D.C. teen at a go-go show, the “Go-go slaying.”[12]

Hollywood also brought negative attention in the 1986 movie “Good to Go,” which starred Art Garfunkel as a journalist covering a murder investigation in Washington. Based on what turned out to be a falsified police report, Garfunkel’s character publishes a story, blaming Go-Go music and drugs for the murder of a nurse on her way home from work. With its focus on violence, the film drew the ire of Chuck Brown and others within the Go-go community. Go-go promoter Vern Goff called the film a “missed opportunity,” because, in his estimation, it did not represent the go-go scene accurately. Speaking to the Post after the movie came out, Goff described the go-go as “a scene that absorbs the energy of many of the youngsters in the city and directs it in a positive way. It’s one of the few scenes that allows black youngsters, any youngsters, to exert their energy through a dance and gives it form.” Goff argued, instead, that the filmmakers portrayed “something else. It’s not even about go-go.”[13]

Andre Johnson, Rare Essence’s manager in the late 1980s, told the Washington Post that he hoped fans wouldn’t link the shootings and violence with the band, explaining, “it’s really hard on us in one of the places that we play and something like this happens. It really gets to us more than anyone can see.’”[14]

In light of such statements, some fans undoubtedly scratched their heads when the band refused to sign onto an anti-drug campaign led by the Soul Searchers and Experience Unlimited (two other prominent D.C. go-go bands) in 1986 because RE’s members were not “convinced that the band’s image connected it with drugs and violence.”[15] The decision was heavily scrutinized, and venues began to shun RE. The financial blow and negative media attention, eventually led the group to reluctantly sign on to the go-go community’s second anti-drug campaign in 1987 which was a collaborative music project titled “D.C. Don’t Stand for Dodge City,” aimed at resurrecting go-go’s image. RE also urged their fans to “conduct themselves in a respectable fashion, because not to do so would threaten the future of go-go.”[16]

Ticket Stub from go-go concert held at the Capital Centre which featured acts like Chuck Brown and Rare Essence (Used with permission of DC Library's Washingtoniana Collection)
A ticket stub from one of the famous go-go Capital Centre Shows. These shows hosted the largest gathering of go-go fans in the country. (Source: DC Library's Go-Go Archive) 

The controversy over the anti-drug campaign would pale in comparison to what happened on September 17, 1994. Just hours before a show, which was to take place that night, drummer Quinten “Footz” Davidson went missing. Later that night, ‘Footz’s’ body was found on the side of Route 50 in Landover Maryland.  He had been robbed and shot. Recalling the incident sixteen years later, Johnson said the murder ‘had to be the most difficult thing I had to go through.”[17]

Despite the setbacks and tragedies, the band continued to go-go on. In the early nineties, RE adapted their musical style to one more grounded in hip-hop in an effort to compete with new acts like the Junkyard Band and Pure Elegance who were popular among younger audiences. The new approach brought some success when the band’s hit, “Lock It” received radio play up and down the east coast. Additionally, RE’s music video “Work the Walls” was featured on MTV and BET.[18]

However, as the twentieth century came to a close, Rare Essence returned to the funk, big-band style which had earned it such a devout following two decades earlier.[19] In 1998, Rare Essence released their seventh studio album titled “We Go On and On” which reflected on the band’s history, with its various twists and turns. The album featured live performances from some of RE’s earlier days, as well as some of the more hip-hop oriented sets which became the hallmark of the Rare Essence sound in the nineties. Between songs, the listener is treated to the members of RE reflecting on their memories of the band, the good, the bad, and the funny.[20] Johnson discussed one of those funny moments with the Washington Post:

“We did a show at the Capital Centre – I don’t even know how long ago it was, must have been in the early '80s. We had these outfits on that were sorta like tights and the shirt was silver and shiny. I didn’t want to wear the tights or the shirt. I couldn’t pull the tights off on stage, but I could pull the shirt off. I didn’t really want to wear that shirt, and it was kind of getting in the way of me playing.”[21]

Today, Rare Essence continues to perform, including for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series, and still plays a major role in the D.C. go-go community. The latest Rare Essence lineup features some founders like Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson and James “Funk” Thomas alongside new members like Charles "Shorty Corleone" Garris and Kenneth "Quick" Gross.

While the band has faced a multitude challenges – including the April 20, 2018 murder of founding member Roy “DC” Felton -- which would likely derail most musical acts, Rare Essence continues to be the flagbearers of D.C.’s go-go sound, living out the call that fans are so accustomed to hearing at RE shows: “There ain’t no party like an R.E. party, cause an R.E. party don’t stop.”[22]

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ Richard Harrington, “Essence’s Live Power,” The Washington Post, June 23, 1992, ProQuest Historical Libraries; The Washington Post.  
  2. ^ Kip Lornell, Charles Stephenson Jr., The Beat!: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2009), 85.
  3. ^ Kip Lornell, Charles Stephenson Jr., The Beat!: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2009), 27-36. 
  4. ^ Kip Lornell, Charles Stephenson Jr., The Beat!: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2009), 28.  
  5. ^ Timothy Wilson, “Rare Essence Leader still Go-Going Strong After Three Decades,” The Washington Post, October30, 2010,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/30/AR201010... Edward Sargent, “Rare Essence Purchases Old SE Police Station: Rare Essence Funk Band Buys Old Police Station in Southeast,” The Washington Post, December 15, 1981, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post.
  6. ^ Timothy Wilson, “Rare Essence Leader still Go-Going Strong After Three Decades,” The Washington Post, October30, 2010,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/30/AR201010... Edward Sargent, “Rare Essence Purchases Old SE Police Station: Rare Essence Funk Band Buys Old Police Station in Southeast,” The Washington Post, December 15, 1981, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post.
  7. ^ Kip Lornell, Charles Stephenson Jr., The Beat!: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2009), 80.
  8. ^ Alona Wartofsky, “Mattie Lee Mack, Godmother of Local Go-Go Scene, Dies at 81,” The Washington Post July 31, 1998, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post. 
  9. ^ Edward Sargent, “Rare Essence Purchases Old SE Police Station: Rare Essence Funk Band Buys Old Police Station in Southeast,” The Washington Post, December 15, 1981, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  10. ^ Kip Lornell, Charles Stephenson Jr., The Beat!: Go Go Music from Washington, D.C. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2009), 92. 
  11. ^ Richard Harrington, “City Shuts SE Club Near Site of Shootings: Expired License is Cited after Slaying Agency Closes SE Nightclub,” The Washington Post, November 3, 1988, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post.  
  12. ^ Lornell and Stephenson., 92-93.
  13. ^ Richard Harrington, “Bad Vibes & ‘Good to Go’: Controversy Clouds Washington-Based Film Go-Go Controversy,” The Washington Post, August 1, 1986, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post.
  14. ^ Richard Harrington, “City Shuts SE Club Near Site of Shootings: Expired License is Cited after Slaying Agency Closes SE Nightclub,” The Washington Post, November 3, 1988, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post. 
  15. ^ Kip Lornell, Charles Stephenson Jr., The Beat!: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2009), 93.
  16. ^ Kip Lornell, Charles Stephenson Jr., The Beat!: Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2009), 91-92.
  17. ^ Timothy Wilson, “Rare Essence Leader still Go-Going Strong After Three Decades,” The Washington Post, October 30, 2010,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/30/AR201010... Jon Jeter, “A Rare Essence Lost in Go-Go Music: Slain Drummer ‘Footz’ Davidson beat out a lasting Legacy on the D.C. Scene, The Washington Post, September 24, 1994, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post.
  18. ^ Roxanne Roberts, “Rare Essence, on the Go Go: The Local Group’s Music Venture,” The Washington Post, January 6, 1992, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post. 
  19. ^ Desson Howe, “Where it Go-Goes Fans Follow: Nearly 2,000 Pack Mall Lot to Hear Rare Essence do its thing,” The Washington Post, May 27,1998, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  20. ^ Alone Wartofsky, “They Go-Go ‘On and On,’” The Washington Post, July 10, 1998, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
  21. ^ Ibid. 
  22. ^ Timothy Wilson, “Rare Essence Leader Still Go-Going Strong after Three Decades,” The Washington Post, October 30, 2010,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/30/AR201010...