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 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.”