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Get Schooled on Old-School Go-Go

Get Schooled on Old-School Go-Go

INTERVIEW WITH BIG TONY & WHITEBOY OF TROUBLE FUNK AND RARE ESSENCE

Andre "Whiteboy" Johnson and Rare Essence, 2012. Photo by Rosina Teri Memolo.

“Big Tony” and Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson will be speaking on the DIY DC panel tonight (Thursday, March 28th @ 7pm) at the Corcoran. Co-presented by Washington City Paper. Pre-registration recommended: Details here.
 

ExcerptS, from the pump me up catalogue: an interview by Joseph Pattisall and Iley Brown

Tony “Big Tony” Fisher is a singer and lead bassist for Trouble Funk, one of the most popular D.C. Go-Go bands. The original band, Trouble Band, played Top Forty hits until opening up for Chuck Brown, at which time they began recording their own original Go-Go songs. In 1981 their releases Pump Up The Volume and Drop the Bomb hit big and they are still sampled by hip hop DJ’s around the world. Trouble Funk is one of the only Go-Go bands to play crossover shows with bands like Minor Threat and The Beastie Boys, who actually opened up for them.

Trouble Funk on the cover of NME, 1986. From the collection of Roger Gastman.

Trouble Funk on the cover of NME, 1986. From the collection of Roger Gastman.

Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson is the lead guitarist for Rare Essence, another pioneering D.C. Go-Go band.  The band’s hits Body Moves and Work the Walls and the album Live at Breeze’s Metro Club, along with their exciting live performances, cemented their popularity. Rare Essence still plays shows several nights a week and their iconic winged RE logo is a well-known symbol on the east coast and the primary influence of legendary D.C. graffiti writer RE Randy’s name.

Rare Essence, c. 1984. Photo from the collection of James Anthony.

Rare Essence, c. 1984. Photo from the collection of James Anthony.

Both Trouble Funk and Rare Essence started out playing shows at Savoy Elementary School for twenty-five cents and a canned good.

INTERVIEW:

Could each of you describe how your band got its name?

Big Tony:  Okay, well, actually, when Rio started off, he had a band by the name of the Day-Tones, or something like that, and he was just having a lot of problems with the band. He was like, “This ain’t nothing but a whole bunch of trouble, and I think that’s what I’m calling the band—Trouble.” And that’s how we changed from Day-Tones to Trouble, Trouble Band the Show. … Then we had a Hammond B-3 organ, and my cousin and I, we took and modified it.  We took a big old board and we painted it white. We put some graffiti and that glitter stuff on it and we wrote “TROUBLE” in big letters, “will,” in small letters, “FUNK” in big letters, and “you” in little letters. So when you looked at it, it looked like “Trouble Funk,” but it’s like, “TROUBLE will FUNK you,” that was what it said. People started calling us Trouble Funk and we just adopted the name.

Andre: At first we named the band the Young Dynamos and then it was called Thesis and then … Foots came and said, “Look, we need to have a different kind of name, because this name is going to stand out.” He said, “I saw this commercial on TV that has this perfume that’s called Essence Rare.” I was like, “A name after a perfume?” He said, “No. We flip the name. We make it Rare Essence.” When he said that, it was like, “Oh, yeah, okay.”

 

What is the story behind the big RE logo?

Andre:  We were looking for a signature. We hadn’t thought about putting a picture out there on the posters or anything. We were thinking we needed a logo like the bands of the seventies, which were the Parliament Funkadelic, Cameo, the Barclays. All of those, when you saw their name, it wasn’t just regular type, they had a graphic with it. What we figured we would do was have the Rare Essence … at first it was just a simple R and an E, but then Funk was like, “No. We need to add something to this, because that’s too plain.” He drew the wings off of the back and then drew the wings off of the front. From that point on, it turned into a whole bunch of other different types of wings, whether it was leaning forward, then it was leaning back, and all of that there. It just evolved into what it is today.

Big Tony and Trouble Funk live, c. 1893. Photo Courtesy of Maxx Kidd.

Big Tony and Trouble Funk live, c. 1893. Photo Courtesy of Maxx Kidd.

Why did Go-Go not hit the mainstream?

Andre:  You know what? I think that Go-Go has hit the mainstream. The problem with Go-Go today is we don’t have the hits on national radio that everybody else does. There are a lot of groups that are taking from Go-Go right now. Taking the beats, taking the sounds, taking a lot of what we do between the call-and-response and all of that [and] other things. They’re taking from it and using it in their own ways. Trouble Funk has done I don’t know how many national and world tours. Sugar Bear, E.U., had done a bunch of tours in the late eighties, early nineties that would not have sold had it not been for E.U., and they had major artists on those shows. They had Heavy D, they had Keith Sweat, they had Salt ‘n’ Pepa, all of those groups there. The concert tickets were selling pretty good. As soon as they put E.U. on that show, sold out … people really like and they’re into Go-Go. We think that all we need is the hits.

Big Tony:  That’s the only thing that hip hop really has over Go-Go … consistent hits.

Andre:  Right, and it was in New York, which is where the game is. All of the major labels are in New York or in L.A. If you want to be in the entertainment business, that’s what you do. You either go to New York or you go to L.A., and D.C. didn’t have anything like that. Had we had a major label based out of here, we would’ve been … we would have tons and tons of hits.… There’s not enough interest and not enough major label or big business interest, which is the reason that Trouble Funk has their own label, we have our own label, and everybody else has their own label.… Instead of us waiting on them to sign us, we figured, well, now we can sell twenty, thirty thousand records right there ourselves.

 

How would you describe the sound of Go-Go to people not from D.C.?

Big Tony:  Man, I would describe Go-Go.… It’s a lot of syncopated percussion involved, just a consistent funky drive with a lot of call-and-response between the band and the audience. It’s a very intimate type of situation, and it’s not just local, because Trouble Funk, we perform all over the world and got the same response.

Andre:  Right, and a lot of times, once we get the people there live, oh, we got them after that. The thing is to get them in the building. After we get them in that club, when they leave that club that night, they’re fans, because they get caught up in the excitement of everybody else in the club. I had a bunch of people that tell me, “When I walked in here, I didn’t understand this. I didn’t like it, but now, I love it.”

Big Tony:  We have toured with groups like WAR, Herbie Hancock, Chevy Hills, Cameo, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone. As a matter of fact, we all started out together. I mean, we were headlining these cats—Fishbone and Red Hot Chili Peppers and Beastie Boys. We were headlining all these cats, and we were shutting them down everywhere we go. As a matter of fact, we did a gig with Herbie Hancock, and we was at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and Herbie came in and said, “Man, what’s all this. It looks like some kind of jungle up in here, all these drums.” That night was an experience for him.

What are PA tapes?

Big Tony:  PA tapes are bootlegs.

Andre:  In the early days, that was the biggest way that the groups were promoted.… We would play here on the Showmobile Stage and there would be a whole sea of boomboxes on people’s shoulders with the record button pressed, because they were going to take that tape home and listen to it for the rest of the month, year, or whatever.

Big Tony:  And if you can get a good one, then you can make some money.… The soundman had started recording direct, and the tapes would get out there and people get them. They want to buy them and whatever, and PA tapes, they started becoming very popular. And the thing about the PA tape is if the bootlegs don’t want it, then that means they really ain’t that good. They’ve got to want your stuff. If they want it, then you know you’ve got something good. Actually, that kind of worked out to an advantage to have bootleggers around.

Header photo: Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson and Rare Essence, 2012. Rosina Teri Memolo.
Learn more about D.C.’s Go-Go scene tonight with Kip Lornell (Adjunct Professor of American Music and Ethnomusicology at George Washington University) as he chronicles the development and ongoing popularity of the only musical form indigenous to Washington, D.C. Lecture begins at 7 p.m.: register now.