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"Friday night's concert at Capital Centre was heralded as "A Tribute to Go Go," and marked the first time that a bill made up exclusively of local bands played that arena. It was an evening of home‑grown funk done in grand style. When Experience Unlimited's Sugar Bear chanted, "Who funks the best, y'all?" the answer was obvious. The show included DC Scorpio, Hot Cold Sweat, the Junkyard Band, Little Benny & the Masters, Experience Unlimited, Rare Essence, and Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, all in fine form. Rare Essence, which has been pioneering a new go‑go beat of late‑‑‑a kind of rhythmic Morse code gone crazy‑‑‑provided the evening's highlight. Much of the band's set incorporated that beat, perhaps most effective when alternated with vocalist James Funk's melodic chants. And they offered some humor as well: A grandfather clock was brought on stage to help answer the ubiquitous funk question "Do you know what time it is?"
-The Washington Post
"As long as go‑go depends on live musicians, it will outshine even the best of rap acts, which depend on prerecorded tracks. The difference is the difference between a real orgasm and a faked one. Home‑bred and ‑brewed, go‑go is all boisterous percussion and ecstatic polyrhythm, dance music as insistently communal as it is energizing. Witness Capital Centre performances Saturday by Junk Yard Band and Rare Essence. The latter group took the stage at nearly 1 a.m. after often desultory sets by a number of nationally renowned rap acts; suddenly it was New Year's Eve as the crowd of 10,000 released pent‑up emotions and fell headlong into the group's relentless go‑go swing. Melody was an option, slogans substituted for lyrics, and keyboards were for coloring: This was drums, congas, cowbells and popping bass lines swirling, scintillating and, best of all, live, real‑time rhythm with the human edge, most evident in the one and only solo of the five‑hour show, by percussionist Go Go Mickey, who rose to the occasion (literally, as a riser elevated him in the midst of his solo)."
-The Washington Post
"Rare Essence, "Get Your Freak On" (Sounds of the Capital). The Bar‑ Kays' "Holy Ghost" was one of the greatest funk hits of the '70s; nonetheless, longtime go‑go heavyweights Rare Essence have managed to improve on it. With soul‑shaking percussion and majestic horns, "Ghost" is the best of the seven cuts here, though the rest is by no means filler. Recorded live last November at the Landover nightclub Rhythms, the album includes several Essence originals, which serve mostly as a framework for the band's relentless percussion, party chants and the audience greeting "roll call"."
-The Washington Post
"Rare Essence: Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (Sounds of the Capital). Greatest indeed. Only its competitors would take issue with the assertion that Rare Essence is the greatest go‑go band Washington has produced. But this album is proof positive. Almost all of RE's material has been released on the band's own Sounds of the Capital label, and much of this collection has until now been unavailable on CD. The early tracks featured, "Body Moves" and "Back Up Against the Wall," serve as a bridge between '70s funk grooves and the powerhouse percussive go‑go of "Shoo Be Do Wop" and beyond; like Grandmaster Flash's much‑heralded "The Message," 1983's "Back Up Against the Wall" captures ghetto desperation: "I can't get no money/ Gotta pay the bills/ Gotta get the dollar before I lose the will . . . Seems like there's just no hope at all/ Now how you gonna do it with your back up against the wall?" -The Washington Post
"The chant starts with one or two folks, just as it always has. "Wind me up, Funk!" Almost immediately, more people join in ‑‑ "Wind me up, Funk!" ‑‑ and in less than a minute, it sounds like every person crammed into the Reeves Center's Club U is urging James Funk to turn up the party. Hundreds of arms are outstretched; their waving hands seem to be swatting the go‑go beats. "Wind me up, Funk!" As the Rare Essence band turns out a fusillade of percussion, James Funk bobs in front of the mike and surveys the crowd. "A lot of old‑school [expletives] here tonight," he says. Then he launches into another singsong chant: "If you feelin' old‑school, get your hands up! Get your hands up!"..." -The Washington Post
"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." -The Washington Post
Rare Essence, Washington’s premier Go‑ Go band for more than three decades has built a devoted fan base that spans multiple generations, drawn to the indigenous funk sired in the mid ‘70s by the late Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown. Using a beat adapted from Grover Washington Jr.'s 1974 hit,"Mr. Magic", Brown and his band the Soul Searchers played continuously, linking songs together over percussion breakdowns—a raw, non-stop party groove fueled by congas, cowbells and timbales, with call and response interactions that obliterated divisions between a band that wouldn’t stop playing and audience that couldn’t stop dancing.
“The Beat,” an irresistible, jubilant meld of Funk and Go-Go, was soon incorporated into the songs as well and Go-Go became the signature D.C. sound, the pulsing soundtrack for the city’s African-American community. No single type of music has been more identified with the Nation’s Capital.
Rare Essence would be one of Brown’s earliest, and have remained his most enduring, progeny, with a consistently combustible live show honed through countless performances in the Washington region. Go-Go thrives live and that’s where reputations, and legacies, are cemented. As the Washington Post noted in a 2010 review, “....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.”
Little wonder they were dubbed “The Wickedest Band Alive” by rap pioneer Doug E. Fresh, who has collaborated with Rare Essence, one of many artists to incorporate Go‑ Go's percolating percussion, and some of its key players, into their own recordings.
In 2000, Rare Essence and the cultural and musical traditions they embody received official recognition by being included as part of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival; their show with Chuck Brown drew the biggest crowd ever for a Festival concert on the National Mall.
2013 found Rare Essence still working the local and regional concert circuit full-throttle, with several special events highlighting their historical importance. In February, they headlined the legendary Lincoln Theater after a screening of “Straight Up Go-Go,” a 1992 documentary tracing the music’s development from the 1970s through its national and international explosion in the ‘80s.
Changing its name to Rare Essence, the band expanded its lineup and as teens started playing on a thriving Metro go-go circuit that included Maryland and Virginia. They built a huge following, and a reputation as one of the city’s top go-go band, through spirited battles with the likes of Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, Junk Yard and EU (Experience Unlimited), putting on marathon shows that might run until 5 a.m., stacked sets seamless and unending.
Meanwhile, Rare Essence’s fabulously fluorescent Day-Glo concert posters, crafted by Baltimore’s renowned Globe Poster Printing Corp and tacked to telephone poles and trees along every major city thoroughfare—the so-called “Talking Drum” network— were featured in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s "Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s," a major show commemorating the city’s graffiti, Go‑ Go and hardcore punk scenes.
And on May 17, Rare Essence honored Chuck Brown on the first anniversary of his passing with a free concert outside Washington’s WTOP television studios, drawing hundreds to a celebration of the Godfather of Go-Go and the sound of city that they helped define.
Rare Essence first came together in 1976 when a group of elementary students at St. Thomas Moore Catholic School in Southeast Washington gathered after school and started playing the then‑ new, as yet unnamed, music (Go-Go’s breakthrough chart topper, Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose,” was still three years away). Drummer Quentin “Footz” Davidson along with guitarist/vocalist Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, bassist Michael “Funky Ned” Neal and trombonist John “Big Horn” Jones and, calling themselves the Young Dynamos, they jammed on Top 40 hits by that era’s funk and soul masters, earning their initial show stripes on the city’s recreation center circuit.
There would be Rare Essence singles on several major labels in the early ‘80s, but no albums, yet the band still became a radio staple through its local releases. The mid’-80s looked to be a watershed period for go-go bustin’ loose nationally and internationally, with Island looking to replicate its reggae breakthrough via records and a music-rich action film in the manner of “The Harder They Come.” Go-go’s dance with national recognition was stymied during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, partly by the growing popularity of hip-hop, partly by an epidemic of drugs and deadly street violence that became unfairly associated with go-go. Rare Essence itself survived a devastating blow in the fall of 1994, when Quentin Davidson’s body was found along a highway in Landover.
Over the years, many great musicians have been part of Rare Essence, with several going on to form their own bands, including Little Benny and the Masters and 911. A 30th anniversary concert featured close to 30 musicians associated with the band. Andre Johnson, is currently Rare Essence's only original member.Unfortunately, Island and other major labels never did figure out how to condense go‑ go's expansive energy and extended numbers into viable commercial constructs. Conversely, go-go musicians showed little interest in compromising “The Beat” or polishing their raw sound to appeal to national radio programmers who, with the exceptions of Brown’s "We Need Some Money" in 1984 and E.U.'s "Da Butt" in 1988, never embraced the Washington sound. And given the fierce loyalty, and sheer size, of the go-go audience, playing at home was always a more lucrative option than going on the road.
So go-go went another route entirely. Early on, 12‑ inch singles had been the music’s primary vehicle but P.A. tapes, high quality recordings taken directly from a soundboard or recreated in the studio with a live audience, proved even better, offering a half hour of uninterrupted music per side, effectively capturing the energy of a live show. They’d first surfaced in the late '70s when fans started recording Rare Essence and other top bands on boom boxes and hand‑ held cassette players. Entrepreneurs quickly recognized a lucrative business opportunity and at one point, P.A. tapes (and later CDs) were so pervasive that retail outlets sprang up around that specialized market, though most were sold by street vendors and mom‑ and‑ pop stores. A popular Rare Essence P.A. tape could sell 30,000 copies and their sales were often greater than those of top‑ selling albums on the Billboard charts.
These days, the Rare Essence catalog on their own Sounds of the Rare One Records label, includes dozens of titles, many of them live recordings (their P.A. tapes and CDs easily top 100), and their shows continue to feature such fan-favorite radio staples as “Lock It,” “Body Snatchers," "Back up Against the Wall" and "Overnight Scenario." Like any long-lived style of music, go-go has undergone changes over the decades but Rare Essence maintains and sustains its original sound and spirit. One of their album titles puts it best: “We Go On and On.”