The beat goes on: Go-go legends Rare Essence and fans reunite
By Chris Richards
Mere minutes into Rare Essence's reunion set and the dance floor is already at full churn -- not on a trip through time, but in a rapturous celebration of been-here-all-along.
It's late Saturday night, and the Washington teenagers who once swarmed the legendary go-go band's '80s and '90s gigs at the now-shuttered Maverick Room, Washington Coliseum and Black Hole are now middle-aged, but still ready to perspire through Polos and Kangols, halter tops and heels. Over 2,000 strong, they've crammed into the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City to celebrate three decades of go-go, Washington's own indestructible funk dialect.
In many ways, the story of Rare Essence is the story of go-go: marathon performances, zealous fans, flirtations with national fame, flares of violence at concerts and the media mischaracterizations that followed.
And while the band lost some of its members along the way -- some to violence, some to time -- Rare Essence never went away. Instead, this reunion gathers 28 surviving members from every era, every lineup, including founding bassist Michael "Funky Ned" Neal, trombonist John "Big Horn" Jones and guitarist and mainstay Andre "Whiteboy" Johnson.
They sound like they've never been apart. When percussionist Milton "Go-Go Mickey" Freeman erupts in conga spasm, the crowd exults. Johnson estimates that this band has performed more than 5,000 times. Like so many Rare Essence concerts, it's easy to believe you're seeing the best one.
Three hours earlier, the band has just finished its sound check with "R.E. Express," a vintage cut that transforms the frosty German engineering of Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" into a go-go magma. Johnson and vocalist-saxophonist Donnell Floyd are in an adjacent hallway, sitting on a plush sofa and a secret. After defecting in 2001, Floyd isn't just back in the band for the night -- he's back in the band for good.
"One of the things I realized while I was out there, was that I needed 'em," Floyd says of his decade away. He'll be joining the band at Tradewinds in Temple Hills this Friday.
The musicians aren't the only ones reuniting. Outside the Hyatt, fans are lining up and catching up, trading hugs and trading phone numbers. Down two escalators and through a security check, they gather in the atrium, some sporting red and white -- the colors R.E. used to ask fans to wear to its shows in the '80s. Tony Sanders, who's been following the band since 1982, dons a red T-shirt and a white towel draped over his shoulder.
"This is inner-city music," he says. "We grew up here and we stayed here. Go-go is never gonna die."
Others wear sharp blazers, including Calvin Matthews, who sneaked into his first Rare Essence show in 1981. "Essence stayed true to hardcore go-go," Matthews says. "That's why you're gonna see so many people here tonight, from young to old."
Crystal Johnson is on the younger side. At 28, she hasn't seen the band in two years, but used to tote a fake ID to get into shows. She came to Saturday night's reunion for one reason: "The crowd."
* * *
Before they had a crowd, R.E.'s founding fathers were teenagers at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Southeast Washington, scrambling to finish their homework so they could get to band practice. After teething on the funk of Parliament-Funkadelic and Cameo, they eventually adopted Chuck Brown's freshly minted, rhythm-centric go-go sound.
By 1981, the band had graduated from high school and hit the club circuit, going head to head with go-go greats Trouble Funk and E.U. "Every holiday [weekend] we'd all be at the Washington Coliseum," says Johnson, who remembers performing alongside both acts for thousands of teens at a time. Many wore red and white: "It was at least half, every time," Johnson says. "We were always blessed."
As the go-go scene grew, so did the band's ambition. They put out major-label singles with Fantasy Records (1981) and Polygram (1985), but never released an album with either. So they hunkered down in Washington and became a powerhouse on local radio. Under the leadership of Johnson and Floyd, the group crafted some of its most powerful tunes in the 1990s, including "Lock It," "Body Snatchers" and "Overnight Scenario."
The last song was grabby enough to catch the ears of rap superstar Jay-Z, who altered some of its lyrics and put them to use in his 1998 single "Do It Again (Put Your Hands Up)." Johnson says the band members were angry, but suing would have been prohibitively expensive.
Other rappers were friendlier. It was old-school rap hero Doug E. Fresh who christened Rare Essence with its enduring nickname, "The Wickedest Band Alive." In 2001, Ludacris crossed paths with Rare Essence at the D.C. Tunnel and later invited the group to back him on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards.
The band never broke nationally, but that didn't matter to them or the fans: "They are fanatical about this music," Johnson says. "To them, we're the big national stars."
* * *
The 2 o'clock hour is slipping into 3, and Rare Essence is deep into its second set at the Hyatt. Snapshots of Quentin "Footz" Davidson are projected onto two large screens flanking the stage, while the band eulogizes its former drummer, who was slain in 1994. ("Put ya' hands up for Footz, y'all!")
The crowd summons a similar roar at the mention of Anthony "Little Benny" Harley, the veteran trumpet player who died in his sleep in May.
But it still feels like a party. Women clutch their stilettos and tiptoe barefoot around the shrapnel of broken champagne flutes. Men pump their fists to the earth-quaking rumble of "Lock It." The beat somehow gets louder. The air somehow gets thicker.
Suddenly, all 28 musicians are squeezing onstage to take a bow. The lights go up. The fire marshal is upstairs and it's time to go home.
Another sweaty Saturday night in a lifetime of sweaty Saturday nights has come to a close.
September 13, 2010; 10:53 AM ET
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