Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

50 Years of Half-Smokes

In a city short on homegrown icons -- because everybody, it seems, is from somewhere else -- D.C. quietly clings to the half-smoke as its only indigenous cuisine. And the city's best, or at least most stalwart, proprietor of half-beef-half-pork-half-Polish-half-smokes is Ben's Chili Bowl. It may sound questionable that a divey greasy spoon serving up the messiest, most ungraceful dish imaginable could anchor a neighborhood, but Ben's survived the 1968 riots that decimated "Black Broadway," the U Street corridor, and has been right in the thick of its since the neighborhood's (largely white) renaissance. In the dark days of the '80s, Ben's was about it for the birthplace of Duke Ellington.

As such, their 50th anniversary was not going to pass without notice. Between an outdoor street party last Friday -- 50 years to the day since they opened -- and a free go-go concert at the 9:30 club, not to mention a book launch, the half-smoke got its due.

I was particularly jazzed about the line-up of go-go heavy hitters: Trouble Funk, E.U., and Mambo Sauce. It's a damn shame I couldn't make it down for the afternoon and I haven't found any reviews posted, but getting all that for free, it's hard to complain. Go-go and half-smokes, that's D.C. in a nutshell.

I did my part to celebrate the anniversary, though. After Brazilian Rhythms, around the corner from 12th and U at 14th and T, I stopped by for a half-smoke smothered in chili. At 2 am, nothing else could have tasted so good.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Brazilian Rhythms: Distrito de Columbia

Join me and DJ Neville C, proprietor of Som Records, a crate digger's mecca, for a night of, well, Brazilian rhythms. Expect samba & variations, tropicalia, MPB of all stripes, batucada, hip-hop brasileiro, and of course funk carioca.
Cafe Saint-Ex is at 14th and T Streets, D.C. No cover, so vem todo mundo.
[p.s. Post #100!]

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pictures don't need metaphors and neither does Go-Go

50th Anniversary of The Pick of the Week: A Self Critique
~By Thomas Sayers Ellis

That joaint, especially, the title is kinda 'fusing. I mean confusing.

What you trying to say and why don't you just take pictures and shut the fuck up G.

You worse than Mambo Sauce.

Where's your photo book.

Where's your CD.

You should do like the rappers.

You should do like SharpShot and come by and photograph me and my kids and shut the fuck up.

Pictures ain't News.

Pictures don't need metaphors and neither does Go-Go.

TMOTT was cool as shit till you start dropping visual weekly-reader critiques on the scene.

I'mma steal your camera when I see you.

Still I be lookin' forward to these jammies and want to make a contribution to The Go-Go Pick of the Week fund
so you can start a Photographers Collective to show us how beautiful and how ugly we is all at once.

Where do I send the check? Sike move, fool.

I like this week's Pick. Looks like the kid is floating by on a skateboard.
w h a t the? He is. Damn and he looks like a young Barack too.

I imagine it must take a lot of luck and balls to walk around SE pressing people to take their photo
and bugging peeps for old Go-Go posters that you never get.

My dude don't quit. I seent some of your flicks on a Suttle DVD.

You must have gotten paid for that, cause I, myself purchased four.

Know what? The Pick of the Week is 50 weeks old this week, dayum, a milestone!

Where's the party.

Can I get a few flicks of Model Chick for my dashboard. I know you gots some.

If you had a nickel for every time someone thank you for a Pic, you might have a quarter, might.

That ain't now real job, flashing people while they danicng and shit.

Mr. G ought to kick yo a s s. Get off the stage nucca.

They say you talk to yourself when you shoot.

They say you hear the snare play before it plays.

They say you take pics just to get in free.

That you just using Go-Go to get a job at Jet.

Was that you coming out of the Metro in plaid on plain in Anacostia? You need a break dude.

Happy 50th young...

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Go-Go Photo

If you're looking for go-go, hip-hop, and R&B in the DMV (that's District, Maryland, & Virginia to you), then look no further than Take Me Out To The Go-Go. It's a one-stop shop that's been flooding my inbox lately with multiple daily e-flyers, mixtape announcements, and something that really caught my eye: TSE's pick of the week photo. TSE is Thomas Sayers Ellis, a photographer and poet. He's a co-founder of The Dark Room Collective, which has its roots in my recent stomping grounds up in Cambridge. In fact, I believe their Victorian HQ was around the corner from where I lived this year.

He's now working on a book of photography, The Go-Go Book: People in the Pocket in Washington, D.C. If the TMOTTGG pick of the week is any indication, he's captured a very rich slice of life in our nation's capital. And he writes a mean poem to boot --

The Return of COLORED ONLY

One of these badass,
glorious days,
the signs and negative sounds
that worked against us

will all begin their tenures
of service, their holy and complex repentance.
It has already begun with
"Nigger" and "Bitch"
and for this we have young folks to thank,
their disrespect and fearlessness.

Naturally, this will scare
the civil rights out of some
and, for a mad-moment, empower
a great many wrong-cultured others.

To this "The Return..."
will either code switch or hood ornament,
drama-drumming both––a cult-nats matrimony
of the vernacular re-mix: ain’t studin’ you,
nommo no more nommo,
stop studin’ us.

All yall who tell yall hearts Art,
your Bama Hour is, again, up-struggling
as we (credits and debits alike)
hang and unhang the old slanders ourselves

--not as segregationists
(although that wouldn’t be
that bad, given...) and not as Air Februarians
(.., given…) but as identity repair-people,
faders of trick moves, trope-a-dopes
and okey dokes,

laying our dice down like ( ) we love us.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Olympic Fury

The 29th Olympiad is underway and all I can do is reflect on an article from two years ago: the destruction of hutong. To Chinese authorities, it was a form of slum clearance, an all too likely prospect during the Olympics. But as the author explains, it was a close-knit, functioning community.

Rail about pollution, corporate collusion, human rights, Tibet, authoritarianism. But don't forget the hutong.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Trinidad Nights

I've closely followed coverage over the last couple months of the spate of violence in the D.C. neighborhood of Trinidad, which has ultimately resulted in two separate cases of the police setting up checkpoints and only letting in residents or those with documented business. I think of D.C. as a city in and of itself before adding in the federal government (whereas for most Americans its identity is exclusively the government), so I will set aside the obvious absurdity of checkpoints all of two miles from the Capitol, which was enough to ensure it international coverage. It is nonetheless a tragic breakdown of civic life when such a measure is deemed necessary -- and done without community consultation, I should add. Checkpoints are precisely the mechanism of urban segregation, stigma, and ghettoization. "Several years ago, Richardson said, she removed the steel grate from her center's front doors, and she plans on taking the bars off the windows. The checkpoint, she said, was infuriating because it suggested Trinidad has not changed." I can remember from my own experience in Rocinha the startling sensation of entrapment during a police invasion.

The outcry was widespread, and the legal challenges came quickly to reverse the status of "occupied Trinidad." While a Post editorial asks why there was more protest over the checkpoints than the murders, I can point to some compelling community efforts to the contrary, notably a mock burial for snitching led by the venerable D.C. anti-violence group Peaceoholics.

WAMU, the D.C. NPR affiliate, also ran a story on another anti-violence event (audio for RealPlayer & Windows Media), where go-go beats hover in the background as soon as it opens. It featured Anwan Glover, better known to many outside of D.C. as Slim Charles. In D.C., though, he's better known as Big G of go-go legends Backyard Band, credited with bringing more of a hardcore rap style to the go-go scene.

"Keep It Gangsta," if that gives you any idea.

Holding it down in Southeast D.C., very much the heartland for go-go. Audio is kind of rough, but the home movie feel is definitely charming. Now though, Big G is using his clout, the kind that only a go-go star who used to be a banger can bring to young black D.C., to bring home the message for D.C. neighborhoods that violence has got to go. Music is a way out of violence -- it was for Big G and it is for some of the kids interviewed in the story.

The GoTube commentators have it too. As TnUt00bLvr writes: "I'm with you for real, then niggas wonder why they gots to go all the way to Va.& Wheaton to see them play?STOP beefin in the local spots then y'all can party with Back!!You just taking GoGo farther & farther away from HOME because of bullshit!! Quit reppin hoods you rentin' or live with your folks in man!!" Inner-city violence is definitely another factor in the suburban dissemination of go-go.

The WAMU story is particularly penetrating for me, though, because of the comments by John Roman of the Urban Institute. He delves into the economics of the drug trade and then segues to a geographical analysis of how the neighborhood functions in the wider urban network: "At first, it's hard to see how this tiny neighborhood of brick row houses with wooden porches could be home for such violence. Bordered on one end by Gallaudet University and the other end by the National Arboretum, Trinidad physically lives up to its billing as a garden community. But as Roman observes, the layout of the neighborhood and its location have also made it a major hub for illegal drugs."

Parsing it down to one-way streets and proximity to particular avenues is a brilliant way of thinking about Trinidad's problems -- they don't exist in a vacuum, but rather at the core relate to how the neighborhood fits into the broader grid of D.C. On the flip side, the corner view is important too, and stalwart local columnist Courtland Milloy does what needs to be done: he drives into Trinidad in the hours before "killing time" to talk to residents.

On the blog-a-front, I was excited to discover inked, a blogger who lives in Trinidad. She writes at Frozen Tropics (Trinidad in a D.C. winter?), where the July posts are a frantic recap of hourly updates on shootings, checkpoints, and homicides. Digging through her archives, I found a great post on Trinidad houses that shows how picturesque much of the neighborhood really is. She is also a studious chronicler of the revival of the H Street corridor, still reeling forty years after the '68 riots. Her sense of both neighborhood pride and civic engagement is heartening, to say the least, and has already mitigated much of the hysteria that seeped through the media coverage of events in the neighborhood over the last couple months, which makes it all too easy for someone who has never visited the neighborhood to write it off on news coverage alone.

Enjoy your beautiful rowhouse, inked, and be safe.

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Monday, August 04, 2008


Any astute observer on the highways has probably seen D.C.'s provocative license plate, harkening back to Revolutionary-era complaints. It's true -- residents of the District pay federal income taxes, but their lone congressional representative cannot vote on legislation. It's long been a thorny issue, with the most recent best effort shot down just over a year ago.

The latest effort by the main advocacy group for District voting rights, DC Vote, definitely caught my ears. They enlisted a local gospel/R&B singer, Joe L. Da Vessel, to cut a go-go track on the topic.

Joe L. Da Vessel - Demand the Vote

Go-go is, of course, D.C. music to the core, but on a matter like voting rights, the precise boundaries of the city matter. Da Vessel, for example, gives an address on his website of Fort Washington, Maryland -- just across the line in Prince George's County (frequently touted as the most affluent black-majority county in the country). If that's where he lives, then he's got a voice (assuming he votes).

P.G. County is home to plenty of folks with roots in the District, dating back to a black middle-class exodus in the '60s and '70s. Wale, who I profiled from Rock the Bells, grew up in the District and moved out to Largo, MD as a teenager. Go-go's got a stronghold out there too, as an old online list of go-go clubs or the Take Me Out to the Go-Go message board can attest to. Addresses in NE and SE D.C. may still dominate, but there are plenty of Oxon Hill, Capitol Heights, Fort Washington, and Marlow Heights addresses too. The District's city line is definitely permeable, but I suspect go-go is going to move more in the county direction, as inner-ring suburbs become increasingly popular to residents squeezed out of cities by higher prices (or the dreaded 'G' word). The Anacostia River, a psycho-geographical barrier between affluent, cosmopolitan D.C. and everything else (aka black & poor) is even being crossed with some condo development in the historic Anacostia neighborhood. I glanced at some insipid condo newspaper full of marketing doublespeak on the Metro the other day and a real estate agent projected Anacostia is the next big market. This was unthinkable 5 or 10 years ago and, as it goes with the up-valuing of a low-income neighborhood, not something anyone can rightfully decry if they don't live there, but still something to watch -- change takes many forms, not always the ideal ones.

Back to the county, there is another dividing line in the Capital Beltway. As residents chime in on a City-Data thread about P.G. County, the inner-ring is aptly cordonned off the Beltway, the major highway enforcing its own kind of ghettoization. Meanwhile, go-go fans are getting squeezed on both sides as officials see club closures the solution to violence at go-gos in both P.G. County and the District. In an even further afield case, the suburban sprawl that has pushed black residents out of P.G. and into neighboring Charles County has seen police harassment bordering on racial profiling at a go-go night. Just as far from the District both geographically and culturally, I heard that Saturday night's show at Merriweather, where I saw Rock the Bells last weekend and where go-go pioneer and legend Chuck Brown was the undercard, went without incident.

All urban/suburban music, culture, race, and nightlife politics that are far more complicated than the fairly straightforward call for voting rights (it's a shame that Congress can't see how simple it is). On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that DC Vote shot a music video for the song. I'll scout it on VoteTube when it arrives.

"Now I know this is delicate / But I can go to war and all I can get is a shadow delegate?"

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