HOOD Band transplants go-go from DC

by Jordan Green

If underground means the show is unlisted in the city entertainment guides, takes place on a Wednesday night in a reggae club tucked into an office park off Interstate 40, and gaining admittance means submitting to a pat-down and bag search by a beefy security guard in the presence of an off-duty cop, the HOOD Band’s performance at Zion Bar and Grill definitely qualifies.

Not to imply that audience support is lacking. To the contrary, the modest-sized dance floor outfitted with a pair of multi-colored disco balls, a bar area and poolroom off to two different sides, is packed with college-aged fans – a crowd that sashays and whoops in response to the vocal cues and infectious rhythms of the dozen-odd-member band onstage.

For the uninitiated, go-go is a movement roughly contemporaneous with hip hop that, unlike its Bronx-born counterpart, never really spread beyond its indigenous Washington DC base. One of the few go-go songs that breached the mainstream was the 1988 Top 40 hit “Da Butt” by EU, which gained some of its momentum due to its inclusion of the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s School Daze.

That may be about to change.

The NC A&T University students from the Washington metropolitan area who formed the HOOD Band in November 2004 have been building a following in Greensboro, starting from a loyal base among fellow DC Aggies and expanding with crossover performances at Greensboro’s Get Downtown festival. The HOOD band, which stands for “having only one dream,” has spread the go-go message down the east coast with performances in Virginia, Georgia and Florida, and has been asked to play in Philadelphia, says rapper Kaandra Wilson, an architectural engineering student who goes by the stage name Sunset Doe. The band’s manager, Patrick Lynch, adds that go-go has expanded its geographical reach as a consequence of DC-area students maintaining hometown bonds by forming bands when they go away to historically black colleges and universities such as Winston-Salem State University, NC Central University in Durham, Hampton University in Virginia and Morgan State University in Baltimore.

“It takes a lot of work and a lot of patience to do what we do,” says Will Thompson, AKA Ill Will whose role as “lead mic” requires that he conduct the back-line instrumental section, anchor the front-line vocal section and coordinate the two. “There’s a lot of egos in the band. You’ve got to be open-minded. You’ve got to love your craft to make it work.”

The mystery and wonder of go-go is that its personnel structure harks back to the big-band era of the 1930s and ’40s, but its sound is utterly contemporary, radiating urban grit and style. That might have something to do with go-go being born out of the upheaval caused when DJs began to displace live musicians in the mid-to-late ’70s. With an absurd sense of logic, the pioneers of go-go responded to the reality that DJs were replicating the sounds of entire bands by having their live bands mimic the technological tricks of the DJs.

Tommy Lee, a mechanical engineering student who performs under the moniker Tom the Minister of Music in his role as lead keyboardist for the band, explains the evolution.

“People that used to stand out on street corners played paint cans and people would drop coins in,” he says. “When DJs were taking live bands out of the scene, that’s when go-go picked up. The DJs were able to change from one song to the next right away so they could keep the people entertained. Bands, in between songs they would have to change instruments.”

During the segues, he says, the bands “started dropping it into a pocket beat,” maintaining a constant rhythm that was generally anchored by a drummer and keyboardist with the added percussion of the timbales, an instrument whose texture somewhat suggests the sound of beating on an upturned five-gallon plastic bucket.

During the HOOD Band’s formative stage the instrumental section was formed. Members of the band approached Patrick Lynch, a 26-year-old A&T alum who co-founded Couture Productions, for help.

“They had the love, but we had auditions at my house,” Lynch says. “We gave everybody an opportunity that wanted to be in the band because we wanted the best sound possible.

Once the band takes the stage it’s easy to understand why go-go has largely fallen short of conventional commercial success. Along with the drummer and timbales player the percussion section includes a conga player. A dexterous bass player holds down the rhythm with the drummer. At stage right there are three keyboardists. The vocal section comprises five or six performers, including lead mic Ill Will, rapper Sunset Doe, a female vocalist and two or three men who shout and croon as required.

If the size of the lineup seems unwieldy, the music utterly defies the conventional three-minute song format required for radio airplay. Live, the HOOD Band’s music undulates from one song to the next, subtly shifting textures and rhythms and alternating the leads between both the vocal and instrumental performers with such dazzling rapidity that it becomes difficult to follow who’s doing what.

The performance is a party first and foremost. At any moment the drummer may be pounding his kit, a missing chunk of cymbal attesting to his fury. The timbale player flails against his instrument. The bass player lightly explores abbreviated phrases and the keyboardists take advantage of their freedom to venture into esoteric melodic terrain. The vocalists shout “go go go go” or mimic the percussion system. Once in awhile a delirious “whew!” issues from their lips.

Then they take a break. Sunset Doe takes a seat on the front step of the stage and sips a cocktail from a plastic cup. Momentarily, the music takes shape again with performers gradually returning to the stage until the audience is wrapped in an infectious groove.

Several minutes into the jam Sunset Doe hands off the microphone and the lights go out leaving the revolving disco balls to illuminate the room. The music devolves into a low dissonant chaos. Suddenly the performers are joking around, spouting nonsense phrases like “you crazy,” “she be doo be” and “afternoon delight.” A birthday greeting is made. Someone makes a child-like car impersonation. “Excuse me.” “Ha ha ha.” Even more amazing is the fact that the audience instinctually turns away from the stage, with clusters of people making chit-chat and striking poses as if they’ve been absorbed into a surreal pageant created by the performers.

Almost as suddenly, the music begins again. The keyboardists play resonant, uplifting tones reminiscent of Bob Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock,” and Sunset Doe launches into a sassy rap. The crowd rocks, pulsating like a single organism.

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