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Rare Essence with special guest DJ Kool

go-go Washington, D.C.
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photo courtesy of artistDubbed “the wickedest band alive,” by old-school rap hero Doug E. Fresh, the legendary go-go band Rare Essence has honed its sound to near perfection. Together since the late 1970s, the group has performed thousands of times. According to Christopher Richards of the Washington Post, no matter which show you experience, “it’s easy to believe you’re seeing the best one.”

Go-go is a highly syncopated, percussive, regional offshoot of funk pioneered in the early ’70s by Washington, D.C. guitarist Chuck Brown. The music is a blend of Latin beats, call-and-response chants, rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz layered over a signature percussion pattern. Creating crowd interaction and a continuous party groove are key—the beat never stops, and like a live mix tape one song often blends into another to keep people dancing. While go-go never quite broke through on the national stage, it continues to thrive in the DMV (as locals refer to the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia region), thanks to performances, bootleg recordings, social media videos, and the loyalty of its fans.

Rare Essence (R. E. to its fans), founded by a group of teenagers who met at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, began by playing the late ’70s funk of Parliament Funkadelic and Cameo before developing their own go-go sound. By 1981 they were playing to thousands in the DMV. Several major label singles in the ’90s—including regional mega-hits “Overnight Scenario” and “Body Snatchers”—failed to yield national stardom, and multiple R.E. members have faced early deaths or personal battles, but that hasn’t stopped R.E. from remaining a top area draw. “We get kids who grew up listening to their parents’ go-go cassettes,” explains founding guitarist Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson.

Today, original members Johnson and lead talker Jas Funk and longtime front man Shorty Corleone are joined by newer members including rapper Killer Cal and singer Tabria Dixon. “Some of our newer members grew up with our music, and now they’re part of the band.… They bring the energy that comes along with their youth,” says Johnson—as well as new material from the worlds of hip hop and R&B that R.E. can go-go-ize.

In Salisbury, R.E. will be joined by honorary member DJ Kool, the DC-bred DJ and MC who grew up on go-go and whose earlier releases reflect that influence. His 1996 single “Let Me Clear My Throat” remains a party anthem.

While go-go is now celebrated as one of D.C.’s key indigenous art forms, it also faces the challenge of seeing venues close in the wake of gentrification. Still, R.E. performs at least twice a week, and sometimes twice a night. “I know our originality has a lot to do with it,” says Johnson, “and just keeping your ear to the ground to understand what the audience really wants.”

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