Searching for Sugar Bear

by Ryan Snyder

Every few years, there’s an occasion that injects go-go music back into the mainstream consciousness. Most recently, it was last year’s passing of Chuck Brown, the man credited as the godfather of the oftenmisunderstood Washington, DC-based funk offshoot. A few years before that, it was rapper Wale’s brief annexation of go-go’s greatest active live unit, the Backyard Band, as his touring group. Nearly two decades before that was its fleeting high water mark, the release of Experience Unlimited’s “Da Butt,” a song that would barely crack the Top 40 in 1988 and most would relegate to the tumbrel of one-hit wonders, but also one that EU holds up as the crown of their damn fun live sets.

It wasn’t long into EU’s Easter night performance at Ziggy’s that frontman and bassist Gregory “Sugar Bear” Elliot found the occasion to remind the healthy crowd that go-go music might be a DC joint, but with North Carolina being the birthplace for both he and its de facto buddha Brown, in theory so too was go-go. Not that either location has a monopoly on the music; when Brown passed last may, the outpouring in social media was widespread and cross-cultural, if rather spurious in that regard. There weren’t a lot of white, suburban kids ready to rush home after soccer practice in the ’80s to throw on their Effectron or Tilt records, white go-go bands might as well be unicorns and the cultural divide was obvious on Sunday (without me in attendance, it would have been an all African-American affair).

Whether that’s a shame or a blessing is debatable, because, as it stands, go-go remains essentially the lone black American music tially the lone black American music genre to have staved off the gentrifying hand of white influence. It is itself its own language, speaking to an audience unconcerned with cohesion or even explanation. Rarely did EU present their music within the restrictions of “song”; the only constant in EU’s 75-minute party is the indelible polyrhythm driven by the imposing figures behind the drum kit and congas, supplemented whenever their threeman horn section put down the brass and picked up the hand percussion. The horns themselves were sonic punctuation on Sugar Bear’s stream of callouts, never counted on to carry the melody — that was duty of the synth player Ivan Goff and guitar shredder Tony Cothran.

There were notable references in their set, however. “Shake It Like A White Girl” made several capricious appearances, sandwiching the hook from the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” into their own “Shake Your Thang,” and all components laid out over the same snarling groove. Pay very close attention, however, and some of their more obscure work might stand out. When Sugar Bear called out “EU Freeze,” drummer JuJu popped off a snappy quarter-note ride over Cothran’s slurred slide notes, otherwise known as the sampled passage from “Knock ‘Em Out Sugar Ray” that prompted Beck to declare “That was a good drum breeeaaaak” in “Where It’s At.”

“Da Butt” was not so ambiguous; the entire show was essentially a build-up toward EU recreating their cameo in School Daze. Sugar Bear peppered their jams with “e-yeah-e-yeah-e,” and the horns and synth providing the context-less exclamation. The release when it finally came was something straight out of Spike Lee’s original video — a butt-shaking free-for-fall, but also in a sense, a closely held secret.