Throughout the four-decade push and pull between hip-hop culture and go-go music, DC-area based Rare Essence has always found a way to be at the forefront of the conversation. This is a group that’s been co-signed by the likes of Rick Rubin, Diddy and Jay Z, but similar to legendary performers like Chuck Brown oftentimes end up as outliers instead of leaders of conversations regarding iconic soul sounds in urban music. However, with their latest studio album Turn It Up releasing on May 6, the band’s leader and only remaining founding member Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson feels like the pop/urban climate is just right for go-go’s perpetual classic appeal to finally cross over. In our conversation with him, we touch on just how much of that success will reflect back on the city that birthed the genre, as well as what exactly about go-go music as a pop and live music sound makes it crossover-ready in 2016.
Following in the wake of hits like “Body Moves,” “Lock-It,” “Work The Walls,” “Overnight Scenario” and a jazzy cover of Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me,” is “Turn It Up” the “one?” There’s good reasons as to why this may be the case contained within this interview.
One Love Massive: What specifically went into the the creation of this album that made it unique as compared to other Rare Essence releases throughout the lifetime of the band?
Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson: On this particular one, it’s been a long time since we created a record with the specific intent of trying to get the rest of the country to embrace the project. Usually, we’ve kept our projects pretty regional [in appeal], making a release a PA release or a quick song or two that we know the fanbase would like. What we’re doing now is attempting to actively promote outside of Washington, DC. It’s also been a long time since we did an all-studio record, so this one here is all new, all original and all-studio material. The first person we reached out to when we wanted to do this project was DJ Kool, and without hesitation he said “yes,” and we went in and recorded it.
OLM: What’s different about recording go-go in a studio as compared to a live release? Also, what spurred the decision to not having any live tracks?
AWJ: The best way to experience go-go is live. In the studio, no matter how good the band or the vocalists are that day, there’s nothing like that live [go-go] experience. However, what we do know is that DC’s one of many markets in the country, and that the rest of the country may not know go-go as a live sound. Once we get outside of [DC], people aren’t as friendly to the live go-go record. However, once we get people into the building, we can get people caught up in that live experience, and they’re hooked. But, we have to get them into the building for that to happen. Every DJ and programming director at radio that we talk to outside of DC has asked for a studio record with an acapella, instrumental and a remix. The audiences in non-DC markets want to get familiar with the studio version of our record first, then they’ll like the live version later.
OLM: People may not be aware of the fact that Rare Essence has spent some time signed to and releasing tracks with Uptown Records during the time when icons like Andre Harrell and Diddy were at the helm. What about “Turn It Up” do you feel will exceed the potential for appeal as songs like “Lock-It” and “Work The Walls” did back then?
AWJ: Yes, we’ve made attempts to get outside of DC before, but none of those attempts came close to what we thought was going to happen. I don’t know what the breakdown was, but with a lot of stations, they weren’t as friendly as we would’ve liked them to be [to go-go music]. We’re hoping that on this particular one that they will be. The “Turn It Up” single uses a sample from a previous song that we released 10-12 years ago. We just used the percussion sound from it, because it’s so strong. We built the rest of the song on top of that.
We’re attempting to take go-go and put it into a traditional song format. A lot of the go-go songs are more of a jam band style, where we vamp on the intro for 16 bars, instead of the traditional two-to-four bars and jumping right into the song. When we play a song go-go style, it’s 10 minutes long. [Songs like “Turn It Up”] are three minutes. What we’ve done is to format go-go into standard song format. When we play [a song like “Turn It Up”] live, it’ll be something totally different.
OLM: As well, many people may not understand that the roots for go-go to have success as a mainstream sound exist largely because bands like Earth, Wind and Fire and Parliament-Funkadelic are so key to go-go’s development and also were able to take a live sound and make it work for pop radio. What of that legacy went into how you created songs for Turn It Up?
AWJ: The go-go bands were built from the blueprint of bands like ConFunkShun, Cameo, Parliament-Funkadelic and Earth, Wind and Fire. That’s why bands like Rare Essence play like we play where the songs stretch for 10-15 minutes. In this day and age of the 24-hour news cycle, people want you to get right to the point. People’s patience is not that long, and you have to play exactly what you’re trying to play for them, or else they turn the song off.
OLM: As a city, DC’s evolving in a radical way these days. How do you feel go-go fits into an evolving DC Metropolitan area?
AWJ: Well, go-go’s space [in an evolving DC] is being shortened a lot. Fifteen years ago, there used to be 30 or 40 venues where we could play just in DC. Now, there may only just be ten [venues]. We’re losing performance space, so that stifles the growth of the [go-go] sound. It’s hard to grow go-go if you’re not able to see the bands in as many venues as before. That’s part of the reason why we’re doing this particular project, is to “turn up” the sound of go-go in order to keep the sound from being stifled in the city.
There’s also a lack of radio support from the city in the past decade. 15-20 years ago, it was nothing to hear three or four different go-go songs on the radio in a day. Now, you may get one. That Backyard Band cover of Adele’s “Hello” is doing very well. But you don’t really hear any other go-go songs unless you hear it in a go-go mix. We’re hoping to re-ignite people’s support, the radio’s support and the media’s support of go-go in this area. We also want to broaden the scope as well and take it outside of the area. It’s been a really long time since the nation has heard a true go-go record.
OLM: Data shows that one of the key elements of success in what is also an evolving music industry is the importance of live touring as a revenue stream. Do you think that where the music industry is headed in regards to a touring model helps go-go’s potential?
AWJ: Go-go will be great [as a touring sound]. That’s what we do. We’re a live band. The studio thing is secondary for us. The live gig is first. Putting out a record is just another way for us to get a live gig. Doing live shows and festivals allows us to give audiences the live go-go experience which, once we do that, we’re able to return to those cities and venues because the live go-go experience is that unforgettable.
OLM: As far as considering crossing over and attaining success, thoughts about possibly working with pop rappers like Drake, Future and Young Thug? 20 years ago, for all intents and purposes, given how they perform, they could’ve easily been lead rhymers or singers in go-go bands. Do you see where go-go could be an aid to their careers? And why do you think this is the case?
AWJ: Yeah, guys like Drake and Future, a lot of those guys that are out right now that are mainstream rappers, they would do great on a go-go song because of their talents in both rapping and singing. Once they get into that groove, I’m sure that they would just eat it up. Those guys are creative and if we were lucky enough to perform onstage with them, it would be truly magical. I know that Drake in particular, from what I’ve heard, he’s creative when it comes to live shows. He could go off into something during a live gig which isn’t on the radio record, which is just like what we do. We start the song off one way, but then we end up somewhere else with the song because we sometimes just go with [what we’re feeling].
OLM: Regarding the Turn It Up album, is there a single that you’re looking forward to the response on the most? Is there a track that really nails where Rare Essence is right now as a band?
AWJ: “Turn It Up” is the first single and features DJ Kool. That one there is a well constructed part of what we’re doing [as a band] right now. The song is a hard-driving go-go song, but it’s put into a pop format. But if you play the instrumental, it’s guaranteed to get you moving because you’ve got that go-go feel. The mix we put on the track allows it to work well alongside what’s on the radio right now. That means that it’s a heavy and clean mix, so when it drops in the club, you’re going to feel it, like if you were at a live show. A lot of the music that’s on the radio now is mixed and based on trap music, with the low end really, really heavy. We didn’t go really, really heavy, but it’s heavier than normal go-go. We’re trying to compete with the trap that’s on the radio with that one.
We also have a single that we did with Raheem Devaughn, which is a dance track. Raheem’s known as the “love king,” so you get to hear something different from him on this party song, and it’s great. For the first time in 15 years, we also did a ballad, sung by KC Williams from Black Alley. She did a great job with the song. We’re excited for people to hear these songs as well, in particular.
OLM: Where do the emotional and creative ties to go-go exist that allow for you and Rare Essence to still be vibrant and relevant in the sound today?
AWJ: It’s the audience. For generations people have supported this band. On a nightly basis, I get somebody coming up to me saying, “hey, this is my son, he just turned 21, and he wanted to come see Rare Essence for his birthday.” When that thing happens on a constant basis truly shows why our fans have to be some of the greatest fans on the planet. Go-go fans introduce this music to their kids, and then bring their kids to the shows. Outside of old-school soul, I don’t know any other music where a father and son or mother and daughter go to the same show. In urban music, it’s usually a case of where the older audience and the younger audience wants to hear different sounds. With go-go, it’s a wide demographic. [Rare Essence feels] fortunate that the band has been supported for so long and that they constantly hang in there with us through the changes and tragedies, so we’re blessed for that.