Veteran D.C. go-go band Rare Essence takes pride in perfecting the groove. The ensemble’s infectious convergence of rhythmic percussion clanks layered over chants, vamps, funk grooves and sophisticated jazz chords morphed into 45 years of never needing any mainstream radio airplay or commercial sales to penetrate the ears, feet and hips of its local, cross-generational fanbase.
“We just focused on the beat in the early days,” Andre “Whiteboy” Johnson, Rare Essence’s guitarist and founding member, said. “We were trying to perfect the pocket, so we spent a lot of time getting the beat right, tight, and making sure you can dance from it alone because that’s the main ingredient of the music.”
The self-contained jam band behind regional staples like “Overnight Scenario,” “Lock It,” “Hey Buddy Buddy” and “Work the Walls” has had as many as 13 members on-stage at once. Inspired initially by 1970s funk bands and their theatrics, Rare Essence’s sound evolved from being a Black radio cover band to adopting go-go from another local musical hero, the late Chuck Brown, and his band, The Soul Searchers.
Rare Essence even earned the nickname “The Baby Soul Searchers.” “The crowd thought we were the closest thing to what Chuck was doing,” Johnson said. “We tried to play songs like we heard them on the radio but decided since we perfected the beat so much, we need to add that to our repertoire. That became the foundation we built our songs off of.”
Crafting a mature sound that rivaled many other D.C.-area bands and musicians, Rare Essence continued to incorporate more jazz, funk and R&B into its sets. Johnson got his nickname, he says, from his love of Top 40 pop radio and album-oriented rock (AOR).
“There wasn’t a place for that element for the audience and kids we were playing for,” he said. “I played that stuff at practice; everyone else was playing the Bar Kays and Cameo, so I had to keep it to a minimum.”
As Rare Essence became more popular, other go-go bands like E.U., Trouble Funk and The Junkyard Band solidified go-go as D.C.’s indigenous music. Bassist Meshell Ndegeocello often sat in on Rare Essence’s rehearsals and filled in at shows from time to time. “She’s a really good friend of ours, always around when we were in the studio, and helping to create,” Johnson said.
Their sound exported, thanks to the D.C. natives that attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). “That helped to transport the music from D.C. to Virginia, the Carolinas, Texas and Atlanta, and expose it to people that never heard it,” Johnson said. “People from here kept a case of go-go cassettes they would just play, play, and play in their dorms and on-campus.”
Rare Essence’s cult following and euphoric stage presence caught the attention of record executives, like the late Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell. The band recorded songs but encountered a difficult time picking material that met record company approval.
Industry politics, Johnson said, never stopped them. “Andre wanted a go-go band,” he said, “but I’m not sure if he really wanted a go-go act. Everybody wanted the experience of go-go, but they didn’t really know how to take it and make it what hip-hop was becoming at that time.”
But hip-hop and R&B acts like Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J, Wale, Erykah Badu and The Roots were paying attention: actively sampling or featuring Rare Essence in their work or shows. Rapper Snoop Dogg appears on Rare Essence’s upcoming single and video, “Hit the Floor,” that’s premiering after the band’s virtual concert on Sept. 19.
The collaboration between Rare Essence and Snoop Dogg happened following an Instagram post of the rapper playing “Hey Buddy Buddy.” The band saw it and made contact with Snoop to collaborate but wouldn’t collaborate with each other until the rapper brought his play, Redemption of a Dogg, to D.C.
“It made us feel good knowing the people we heard on the radio and looked up to were as much of a fan of ours as we were of theirs,” Johnson said. “They’ve had hit records, but they also love go-go.”
The group hasn’t been without its share of challenges, too. Surviving a few deaths and rotating lineups, gentrification in D.C. has disrupted the number of performance venues available to go-go bands. Rare Essence went from “booking gigs five to seven nights a week across 40 venues” to scaling back to two to three nights.
“There are condos and coffee shops where venues once were,” Johnson said. “The clubs didn’t relocate; they just got rid of them.”
The coronavirus pandemic further complicates things because all venues completely shut down. The last time Rare Essence performed was on March 21. The band planned an anniversary concert at the National Harbor to feature over 35 rotating members throughout the band’s span, but the show postponed it until next year.
Johnson said the Sept. 19 virtual show is Rare Essence keeping its word. “We wanted to keep the date and do something special since we’ve been telling people since last year,” he said. “Our core fans still have the CDs with the original dates on them and can name every song. This is the longest we’ve ever been off, so we just try to make the best of a bad situation.”
Commemorating 45 years as the people’s champs has been full of peaks and valleys for Rare Essence, but the band continues to be a sought-after force in its local community. Despite the pandemic and venue erosion permeating the D.C. area, the band is awaiting playing live again in the flesh to be closer to the audience.
That core audience support, Johnson said, is what keeps Rare Essence motivated and passionate about keeping go-go music alive.
“The audience loves this music,” Johnson said. “They’ve been with us through ups and downs for 45 years; there aren’t a lot of people that can say that. Our music is being passed down from generation to generation, and that’s what’s kept them engaged with the music.. It’s allowed us to be around and keep our music alive.”